A University of Maryland student on what it’s like to have to explain your religion, your culture, and your hijab—constantly.
by Aysha Khan
illustration by Grace Molteni
The girl sitting to my right introduces herself to the class. “My name is Tara. I’m from Ohio, and I’m studying sociology and communications.”
“And one crazy, fun fact about you?” prompts our entrepreneurship professor, a smiling middle-aged woman who’s asked us to call her Barb.
Tara spins back and forth in her chair. “Um, well, I love-love-love Chipotle. I would eat it every day if I could. I’d be like a million pounds, but it would be so worth it.”
It’s not funny, but the class laughs obligingly. It’s my turn. I run over my biography in my head. My name is Aysha. I study journalism. I’m from Baltimore.
“Hi, my name’s Aysha,” I start, giving a polite smile when Barb turns to me.
“Aysha?” Barb repeats. She rhymes “ay” with “neigh,” and I correct her so it rhymes with “eye.” That’s still not technically correct, of course, but I’d never inflict an Arabic guttural upon an unsuspecting person.
“Gotcha,” she says, making a note. “Aysha, Aysha. Make sure you correct me next time, okay? Names are important.”
“Alright, well. I’m a sophomore studying journalism. And I live in the Baltimore area. And…” Are we in kindergarten? “I’m scared of dogs and swimming,” I finish, satisfied.
“And will you tell us about your…?” Barb waves her hands vaguely over her head. Why bother? We all know exactly what she’s talking about. She tries again. “Where are you from?”
“It’s a hijab. And my parents are from Pakistan,” I say plainly. I didn’t want to think about my culture and religion today—I wanted to decide how this class would fit into my course load at the University of Maryland. But everyone is still looking at me expectantly, and I feel a little uncomfortable. Like I should have said something more profound.
She was just curious, and she was careful to correct her pronunciation of my name. So I adjust my tone, adding jokingly, “But I was actually born in Canada.” Everyone laughs, like I knew they would. I’ve given versions of this speech so often that I’m tired of it. I’ve presented a professional version to my boss when he asked. (“Yes, my parents are from Pakistan, but I was raised here. This has given me an insight into the political and cultural issues surrounding the South Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora, which I’d love to explore in my reporting…”) I also have a more casual spin for whenever a new friend asks. (“Yeah, my parents are from Pakistan, but they came here about 20 years ago, and I was born in Canada when we were hopping around North America. Nah, never stepped foot outside the continent.”)
It’s the consequence of living in brown skin.
I go back to my dorm after class, where my suitemates—one Indian, another half-Kurdish, half-Iraqi, and the last Pakistani—groan and roll their eyes at the story. The semester has barely begun, so we have a few spare hours to drink through our communal supply of Shezan, a popular brand of mango juice.
“White people,” Nageen, the fellow Pakistani, gripes. She tosses her empty juice box in the trash can across the room. “Can’t let a girl breathe for a minute.”
Last week a couple of frat guys walking in front of me were arguing over whether Qatar is a country or a city. One took out his phone to check but couldn’t get WiFi. Of course I knew what would happen next: he saw me from the corner of his eye and turned to ask. “It’s a country,” I confirmed, waiting for them to let me pass so I could hurry to statistics class.
He pumped his fist in the air. “See!” he crowed.
His friend shrugged. “Okay, maybe I was thinking of Kuwait or something.”
Yes, it’s the era of Google. And you don’t need me to be your walking, talking encyclopedia on the Muslim and brown diaspora. But I’m also hoping to be a news editor one day—I can hardly turn around and condemn anyone for their curiosity. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, right?
I grew up as ‘the Muslim friend’ in my fairly white suburban neighborhood. In elementary school I handed out aqua scarves to all my friends and taught them how to tie them around their heads during a bathroom break. “Look at you, starting trends,” my principal winked, walking past a line of six beaming 10-year-old faces wrapped in pink-trimmed scarves. In sixth grade, my social studies teacher once came to me to confirm that the Islamic prayer rug adorning her classroom wall wasn’t hung upside down. I was the go-to person for answers in our world cultures class – the only time we ever discussed Pakistan in school.
“Hey, Aysha,” a friend of a friend of a friend would say while I pulled textbooks from my locker. “Do Muslims believe in Jesus?”
“Yeah, he was a prophet,” I’d say.
And we’d be on our way.
In a way, I appreciate that people come to me for clarification before unleashing their ignorance upon the world, or at least upon the Internet. It’s gratifying that people trust me to help shape their worldview, whether they ask about ISIS or France’s niqab ban.
But I don’t know what the solution to global terrorism is. I don’t know exactly how I feel about the CIA wiretapping mosques and keeping files on Muslims-American leaders. I don’t know, yet they need me to tell them. So I do.
But surely it’s okay if, every once in a while, I don’t feel up to answering? Please, say it’s okay. Because I’m too tired right now.
I go home for the weekend. Off campus, back to my family’s house. It’s 15 minutes from Baltimore, just far enough that we’re only one of two families of color in the neighborhood. Well – three, I guess. My sister’s friend two streets away is Chinese.
On the drive home, my dad asks me about my friends. “We’re all okay,” I say. “Noor is a little upset right now. Her parents are angry she joined the Muslim student group board. They’re convinced it’s a campus branch of Al-Qaeda or something.”
My dad shakes his head. He and my mother always encouraged me to become involved in the local mosque, and it’s jarring to hear of Muslim parents forbidding their children from wearing the hijab and engaging with their community. “Sometime I think these people are so scared of America that they’re turning into Americans themselves,” he muses.
We speak about inconsequential things until we reach our house: my three professors’ and my boss’s renditions of my two-syllable name, my little brother joining the new middle school cricket team (coached by an Australian who rhapsodized to my dad about Waqar Younus’s stellar yorker—like a pitch in baseball—and Majid Khan’s batting track) and my little sister working on a presentation for a TEDx event some girls at her high school were planning.
“Aysha!” my sister, Tirzah, leaps on me when I knock on the door. “I need your help! What should my presentation be about? Amma says it should be about Islam, but that’s boring.”
“Hmm. Well, yeah. That is boring. No one wants a lecture,” I agree, looking sheepishly at my mother. I shuck off my boots and socks. “What are your other ideas?”
My sister runs through the list over dinner: why Harry Potter is so great, why Sherlock is so great, why tea is so great, why The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys are so great, why soccer is so great. It’s Tirzah in a nutshell – or nearly all of her.
“Do it about your hijab,” I suggest, tearing off a piece of naan.
She wilts in her seat. “Aysha. No. Everyone’s already expecting me to talk about it. Ugh. Why is it always about that? Ugh. Ugh, ugh.”
Why is it always about that? I don’t know. I’m stuck between a pigeon hole and a hard place. A hole I keep shoving myself, and my sister, into. My hijab, my religion, my language, my color, the baggage of my background. It is. It just is. We have to grow up and get used to it, already. Maybe then it will stop following me everywhere, forcing me to talk when I don’t want to and hushing me when I do.
Amma shovels more biryani rice and salad onto my plate, and I eat. “Do it about the World Cup or something. Maybe why everyone should try watching a soccer game,” I say. “You could add some video clips in your PowerPoint.”
Because who wants to speak to a crowd with closed ears? Yes, I’ll explain Ramadan to you again. Yes, I’ll send you Bollywood songs for your cultural night. Yes, I’ll sit tight and smile gratefully when you defend me to your friends: “Not all Muslims are terrorists or oppressed,” you say so earnestly. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Yes, I’ll answer when you ask.
Three weeks later, Tirzah is on cloud nine after giving her presentation. She titled it, “Yes, I Do Wear It In the Shower,” and gave her classmates definitive answers to the most common questions she’s asked about her hijab.
And Barb the smiling professor is still pronouncing my name wrong.
“Shut the door, Aysha, would you?” she says when a loud group of visiting high schoolers walks by for a campus tour.
“It’s Aysha,” I correct, getting up to shut the door.
“What was that, hun?” she asks, still smiling, eyebrows raised. Her dry erase marker is still writing on the board, and all 26 students are looking up at me, faces blank, hands paused over their notebooks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Keep going.”
The names of two individuals, Barb and Tara, have been changed to maintain their anonymity and my job prospects.
Aysha Khan studies multi-platform journalism and Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Maryland. She writes about diversity, diaspora issues and the media industry. Find her on Twitter @ayshabkhan.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her personal website.