Bridgeview, IL — I observe hijab. It's one of the ways I submit to my Creator. Something I’ve learned as a result: while traditionally worn to express modesty, the covering draws visibility and discrimination. Whenever I go places where Muslims are not a majority, I’m subjected to additional searches, whether through flagrant stares or physical pat-downs. Muslim women like me are vulnerable to Islamophobic attacks because we wear the headscarf.
Which is partly why it was so powerful for me to meet Mihrigul Tursun last year. Tursun survived the Uighur concentration camp in China's Xinjiang region, where there is evidence that hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been detained against their will. Last year, Tursun testified in Congress to Secretary Mike Pompeo about experiencing brutal human rights violations related to her Muslim identity. Her struggles as someone who also observes the hijab hit home for me.
Tursun recounted to me her decision at one point to remove her headscarf to comply with officers’ demands. It was traumatic — so much so that later, the experience haunted her.
“I saw my son in a dream looking for me desperately,” she told me. “But when trying to greet him with open arms, he looked at me confused.”
“My mom wears hijab,” her son said in the dream. “You don’t.”
After that, she said she decided to put the hijab back on, to visibly retain and express her identity as a Muslim woman.
Hearing Tursun’s story about her son gave me goosebumps. My friend Nawsheen Khan, who’s a medical student in North Carolina, at one point felt so pressured to assimilate, she tried no longer observing hijab but felt naked and wrong. Another young Muslim woman, Alaa Massri, says she was forced to remove her hijab to take booking photos when she was arrested during a protest in Miami. She was robbed of her right to uphold her identity. And while she represents one of the latest stories of Muslim women encountering an unwelcoming system, she surely will not be the last.
Talking with Tursun made me consider the role of hijab and the sanctity it can give to women regardless of location, as well as the risks we face around the globe. The Chinese government’s attempts to silence Tursun are directly related to the death threats that Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar is facing as a result of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States, and to the everyday struggles Muslim women face. These oppressive behaviors are not isolated incidents but continued phenomena across history and nations.
We’re a long way from being a world that rewards women for adorning themselves in what makes them feel safe and whole. However, as more stories join the chorus of those continuing to fight for that right, I’ll continue to hold on to what is dear to me: hijab.