Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The perks of being the token-hijabi friend

I’m the only Muslim, and often only minority, in my friend groups – and that’s okay
Joey Lorant / Daily Collegian

It was a Saturday night, I was having a conversation with someone I had just met, and I thought we were hitting it off. Suddenly, his attention suddenly shifted elsewhere.

“What is that on your head? You weren’t wearing it a minute ago.”

He was referring to my hijab, or my religious head covering, and I was in fact wearing it a minute ago. It was the type of sentence that comes with a rush of embarrassment, and a sobering realization that the person across from you may not be seeing past your appearance.

I find myself in these situations often because most of my friends are non-Muslim. Joining my friend’s family at the dinner table for a night of awkward questions about my faith and what I wear to the pool. Wondering whether a boy is staring at you out of interest or judgement but knowing not to get your hopes up in case it’s the latter.  These are common experiences for me because I’m usually the only hijabi in my workplace and every meeting, party and social gathering, at the gym and almost anywhere else.

The expectation people have of me when they first meet me, an expectation I’ve become aware of through subtle expressions and less subtle remarks, is to be quiet, judgmental, and close minded. I’m either seen as incapable of romance or fetishized. Many are shocked by my outgoing personality. These can be tough barriers to cross when you often surround yourself with non-Muslims.

My hijab makes me visibly different, in a way that isn’t always seen as endearing, but in a way that breaks me down and erases all other parts of my identity. Wearing the hijab means that you are constantly announcing to the world that you are Muslim. I can’t hide, and I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Freedom from expectation is something I rarely enjoy, and I become the spokesperson for millions.

Self-segregation is a common phenomenon explored in books like “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in The Cafeteria” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Being around people who are like you feels safe, secure and affirming. Many people from minority communities may rightfully avoid crowds in which they are the sole representative of their group to avoid being tokenized, ostracized, and misunderstood  so social groups are often homogeneous.

However, cross-cultural contact is necessary, especially for Muslim minorities. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim, yet those who do personally know someone who is Muslim are more likely to have a positive view towards Muslims. When in-person contact is limited, people’s sole source for information on the faith comes from the media.

Stereotypes against Muslims, particularly for Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, have been heightened in the past 20 years and further enforced with false media representation. Being Muslim comes with a set of roles that you must play by. You are painted with a singular stroke as either the Muslim man on the brink of radicalization, or the subservient Muslim woman waiting from someone to free them from their “oppression.” War perpetuated against people in the Middle East has become so common that it has become the standard for Brown Muslims and Arabs to be the victims of war. The hijab is banned in schools and workplaces across France and India; women are losing their agency in their dress and Muslims are being pushed out of spaces in modern society.

When you are not radicalized, oppressed or victimized, then what are you in the eyes of society?

We can’t wait around for accurate representation. It is ultimately up to us to occupy spaces where we might not traditionally belong in and show people that we are not a monolith; that we have a vast array of interests and characteristics, just like anyone else. And that although we sometimes may struggle with religious obligations, we willingly and happily practice our religion.

Although the weight of representation is far too heavy for any single person to carry, I’ve come to embrace my position as the ‘token-hijabi friend.’ So, I say be the only minority in your friend group and be the person that changes someone’s mind about your community.

It is also up to non-minorities to work on their bias, and our institutions to foster diverse environments, but as a religious and cultural minority, there is value in sacrificing your initial discomfort to create cross-cultural friendships. The occasional discomfort they may cause is worth it for the opportunity to educate they create.

Two of the first people I became friends with in college have told me that I was the first Muslim that they had ever met. I am grateful that despite their lack of exposure, they approached me with an open mind and kind heart. Now those same friends remind me if the candy I’m eating has pork in it, cover my head if my hijab slips off at a concert, and stay up to prepare for Ramadan with me, even if it’s with McDonald’s at 3 am.

I no longer dread being the only hijabi or Muslim in the room. I look forward to being around people that remind me of the beauty in friendship despite variation. I am grateful that I have a community of Muslims that I can share my grievances with, but that I also have friends who are clueless yet curious and willing to learn about my identity. I am grateful to have friends that see my complexity, see the moments when I am just about to give up, but see my dedication to what I believe, nevertheless. The hijab is a daily challenge for me, but it keeps me honest and responsible, and that is why I choose to put it on every morning despite the loneliness that comes with it.

I know that next time I open the door or smile at someone, they will see the headscarf that I wear, symbolic of my faith, and my religion will be associated with something positive. When someone see me enjoying a moment with my friends, maybe they will realize that my faith is not miserable, and my hijab is not constricting. Every act of kindness and every moment of joy in my life serves a greater purpose because it is a resistance to the negative and false stereotypes that the media is constantly perpetuating about my community.

To wear the hijab every day is to struggle against the countless expectations that seem to be threaded through the headscarf. It is to be strong not only for yourself, but for the millions of girls who are standing and watching, alone in the room but not alone in the world.

Saliha Bayrak can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @salihabayrak_.

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