TMO Editorâ€™s Note: This is the first-place essay, by Aqeela Naqvi.
The date is December 5, 2000, my birthday. I walk through the hallways to my third grade classroom, trying not to notice the butterflies in my stomach. People turn to say â€œHiâ€ and do a double-take. I walk into my classroom; even my teacher gives me a funny look. â€œAqeela?â€ I look up at her and try to control the nervousness in my voice as I say â€œGood morning.â€ Throughout the day, some of my classmates shoot indiscreet glances in my direction, while others stare shamelessly. Today is the first day I began wearing the Hijab, a head-covering that is required to be worn in my religion for all girls at the age of nine. Today, I walked into school with palms sweating, ears burning, and a heartbeat so loud it could be heard a mile away.
It has been nearly nine years since that day – nine years in which I have received stares for looking different, been called â€œtowel-headâ€ and â€œterrorist,â€ been judged based on first impressions, and was once, after September 11th, a ten-year old scared to walk out her front door simply because of a cloth on her head. Throughout my life, I had always assumed that prejudice against people of other backgrounds was something that existed in the past: something that had been buried long ago by the dreams of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in a day where all people would be judged solely on the content of their character. It was not until I began to wear a hijab, however, and began to experience blatant discrimination, that I realized that the works of past human rights activists had not completely healed the defects in society–they had simply covered its wounds with bandages that were slowly beginning to peel away.
From the day I wrapped a scarf around my head, â€œdiverseâ€ became my middle name. The more I was told that I couldnâ€™t participate in certain activities, the more involved in them I became. I strove to prove that no matter how different I looked, I was still the same as everyone else. I could still participate in athletic activities; I could still be involved in public speaking; I could still perform community service activities; I could still be me. I began to understand that Society was a machine that attempted to create perfect porcelain dolls: the chipped, the flawed, the ones that were the wrong shade or the wrong size, the ones that were different, were all regarded as useless and thrown aside. I understood that I was seen as one of those throwaway dolls, but I refused to let societyâ€™s definition of me as such rule my life.
When I first began wearing a hijab, that cold December day in third grade, I did not fully understand its symbolism. I took it simply as something I had to do for my religion. As the years passed, I slowly became involved in my local community, donating my time and energy to volunteer at places such as my local soup kitchen, and getting involved in interfaith dialogue and charitable opportunities, and I began to realize that the hijab I wore on my head was not just a cloth; it was a mark of my strength.
It forced the people I encountered to get to know and understand me on a mental level before they judged me on a physical level. To me, everything that the hijab entails, the long sleeves and pants, the piece of cloth I wrap around my head, the aura of modesty – is all a sign of inner beauty. I have come to believe that all of us, regardless of our race or religion, have our own â€œhijabsâ€ that set us apart from the crowd. All of us come from different backgrounds and have different experiences that cause the canvas of our lives to hold colors unique from everyone else. We all have a hijab that allows each and every one of us, down to the most fragile and faded porcelain doll, to have something that makes us absolutely and irreplaceably beautiful.