Backstory: A teen hijabi comes of age

The dinner rush is on at the Silver City Galleria food court. Behind the counter of Brigham's Grille, 16-year-old Sarah Ismail takes rapid-fire orders. "Fries with that? For here or to go?"

Customers pay, reach for napkins and straws. Invariably their eyes settle on the head scarf Sarah wears beneath her Brigham's cap. If she notices the glances, she doesn't let on. Older couples, moms with toddlers, boys in baggy pants: She handles them all with the same easy competence. No one else in the neon-lit food court is wearing a hijab, the covering that conceals a Muslim woman's hair, ears, and neck.

It's a sharp contrast from the scene the night before at the mosque the Ismail family attends. There, it was hard to distinguish Sarah from a huddle of other teenage "hijabi," the term she and her friends use for themselves. The girls knelt to pray, and later sold brownies to raise money for the mosque. They also chatted and laughed and checked their cellphones for messages.

As a senior at Sharon High School, just south of Boston, Sarah is both different from her non-Muslim classmates and very much the same. To be sure, the hijab sets her apart, and she intends it to: "It's not just a piece of clothing. It's a lifestyle and a statement about who I am." Accordingly, she doesn't drink alcohol or smoke. She doesn't date, although boys don't go unnoticed (no names, no details). And five times a day she stops whatever she is doing to pray.

She's one of a growing number of Muslim American teens who wear hijabs - a choice that says much in the post-9/11 era of lingering suspicion toward Islam. Yet, many of Sarah's concerns are those of any teenager. Her senior year is full of familiar markers: SATs and college applications and a certain giddiness as the acceptances accumulate. She's still waiting to hear from her top choice, Boston University.

In the meantime, it's life as usual - maintaining a B+ average, volunteering in a third-grade class, working at Brigham's, going to the gym. Friday nights are spent at the mosque, and on weekends she hangs out with her hijabi friends. They might drive into Boston for dinner (her favorite: Italian) or to wander Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Described by her mother, Doha Onsi, as "caring and deep," Sarah is also principled and - by her own admission - stubborn. She's an approachable yet steadfast representative of her religion, capable of weathering the looks and questions - and, more intangibly, the assumptions - about what it means to be a Muslim woman.

The decision to wear a hijab was Sarah's alone. Neither of her sisters does. And her mother, an Egyptian who moved here with Sarah's father in 1981, asked her daughter to consider the choice carefully when Sarah raised the topic last spring.

Sarah spent the summer reading the Koran and Hadith, and by August she was ready. The fact that she was transferring from a private Islamic high school to a public one for her senior year did not deter her. It seemed like an opportunity to make a statement about who she really is.

Islam requires modesty of behavior and dress in all followers. Observant women cover their heads, arms, and legs in public or around men. Wearing a hijab is a constant reminder of her commitment to respect herself and others, Sarah says, and it encourages her to adhere to Muslim principles of charity and obedience. "You always have to have God in your mind, no matter what you're doing," she says. "Every action should please him."

This by no means implies her behavior is completely circumscribed. "You want to set a modest, respectful example, but you have to be yourself," she says. That means coordinating her outfits with stylish hijabs and occasionally falling asleep in math class. "You're still a teenager. You like sports and music, just like everyone else."

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."

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.

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