Backstory: A teen hijabi comes of age
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So far, wearing the hijab hasn't subjected her to overt harassment. In this regard, she may well be the beneficiary of Muslim women before her. Sarah's friend, Fatima Shahzad, a 19-year-old who started covering her head in seventh grade, says the practice has gotten easier as it's become more commonplace. Standing in line for a movie, Fatima was once told, "You know, honey, you're an American. You can take that thing off now."Skip to next paragraph
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Sarah says she often does feel conspicuous: "People are always waiting to see what you'll do and hear what you'll say." In a convenience store recently, she recalls, the server "started speaking very slowly. She pointed out the cups, 'Small. Medium. Large.' When I finally talked, she seemed shocked that I knew English." Then there was the couple at Uno's who stared openly at Sarah and her hijabi friends throughout their meal.
Sarah has non-Muslim friends, she says, but it's on a more casual level. "You always reach that boundary you know you won't cross. There's no guys, no drinking, no partying. Sometimes I feel it when I'm at school walking through the halls. Most kids my age just try to fit in. I guess you have to have a kind of strength to wake up every day and go to school with the acceptance that you're different."
If all this seems a lot to shoulder, sometimes it is. A few months after Sarah started wearing a hijab, she was out shopping when a certain outfit caught her eye. "Jeans and a tank top," she recalls. "It was really cute. I started thinking how good it would look with a necklace and earrings, and if I could do my hair like everyone else."
This strain may be why Sarah answers, "Home with my family," when asked where she feels most comfortable. She's close to her six siblings and her parents, who are divorced. Her relationship with her mother seems especially tight: "I've always been a kid who had a lot of dreams. My mom cares about every single one of them."
The following week, Sarah hears from Boston University. A friend calls to say the decisions are available by e-mail, and Sarah rushes to log on. She hasn't been accepted. She cancels a workout with a friend and stays home with her mom.
Two days later at school she has regained her equilibrium, extolling the virtues of UMass Boston, where she was already accepted: its array of courses and proximity to the ocean. "Plus," she adds, "I'll save a lot of money." She's thinking of majoring in education, in spite of her father's hopes: "All my life he wanted me to be a doctor ... or a lawyer. It's true I love to argue. I used to argue with him until I won."
The bell signals the start of her electronic music class. Sarah pulls headphones from her backpack and puts them on over her hijab. Intently, she plunks at her keyboard, inserting a blues melody into a song she's composing on her computer. She's one of three girls in a class of 16. In her long white skirt, pink shirt, and gauzy, rose-colored hijab, she does indeed stand out.
Her long-term goal, Sarah says later over a drink at Starbucks, is to finish college, find a career, and marry young. She wants seven children, like her mother and both of her grandmothers. "My [older] sister is the exact opposite. She's not anxious to get married. It's not part of her plan. For me, it is definitely part of the plan."
In all her faithfulness, Sarah is a committed Muslim. She is also, in her autonomy and ambition, and in the premium she places on her freedom of expression, a thoroughly American teenager, intent on becoming herself.