This is a First Person column by Nabeeha Naqvi who lives in the Greater Toronto Area. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When I first held my newborn daughter in my arms, I felt a seismic shift in my priorities.
Although I was a practicing Muslim who prayed daily, fasted for Ramadan and ate only halal, I didn’t wear the hijab and I hadn’t seriously considered it until then. With my daughter, I realized that as a Canadian citizen, she might not be as exposed to her culture or heritage if she didn’t see it in practice. So I decided to lead by example and started wearing the hijab — the head covering worn by many Muslim women.
I made the decision because of how motherhood made me feel about my faith. But I hadn’t realized how pivotal that decision would be for my daughter or myself — and also how it would impact the way the world saw me now.
Most Muslim women, if they choose to wear the hijab, put it on after puberty. However, I was a 30-year-old mother who committed to becoming a hijabi (someone who wears the hijab). My mother and aunts do not wear the hijab so there weren’t any older women in my family to share their experience of what it is actually like to wear a hijab with me.
But I was not worried about my decision because I had not experienced any blatant discrimination while growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, living in the Prairies or working in a small town until that point. I was academically successful, financially well off and didn’t speak with an obvious accent. Perhaps that is why I was completely caught off guard when I was targeted after donning the hijab.
I was walking in downtown Toronto on my way to work when a man crossing over from the other side of the intersection muttered, “The Qur’an is only a minor book in the universe.”
There was no one else besides me at this intersection. Why would this person feel the urge to say something out loud that would be clearly offensive to a Muslim? My hijabi friends were not even surprised when I shared this with them.
It wasn’t like I was unaware of the discrimination the Muslim community can face, but whenever I would come across such stories, I would chalk it up to the location (The U.S. has always been more politically polarized) or the time (Muslims faced increased backlash after 9/11) or dismiss it as isolated incidents. Until it happened again to me. And then again. This time I was driving out of a grocery store parking lot and had my car window down when a man yelled from his car, “Coke is not haram!”
Such incidents are jarring because it’s made me aware that I enjoyed a certain privilege since I could blend in before I wore the hijab.
Now, even though I’m the same person who loves Netflix shows and potato chips, the world sees me differently. I am first and foremost a Muslim to them, even to others in my community.
One time, I came across a hijabi student who wasn’t feeling well and was trying to nap on a small bench in one of the quieter areas of the hospital where I worked. She visibly relaxed when she saw me and even asked me to check if she was running a temperature. Another time, a Muslim man asked me in the elevator line up if there was a prayer room in the hospital. I know those encounters would likely not have happened if I was not wearing the hijab and I appreciate this acknowledgement and trust shown in me.
I also feel the responsibility of representing a “good” Muslim image. For example, I am careful not to use crude language in public, even with friends and family. And I am more aware of my surroundings to avoid unnecessary attention.
I am glad to know all of this because now I can parent my daughter differently. I want her to wear the hijab, and I hope that by seeing me choose to wear it, she will want to do the same.
If she complains that it’s hard being a hijabi because people assume she’s oppressed or an extremist, I can actually relate to her — and let her know why she should still choose to wear it.
Like other parents bringing up daughters in the era of social media likes, I want my daughter to know that regardless of her hair, skin colour, size or how bad her teenage acne is, it’s her intelligence, kindness and generosity that truly matters. Being pretty may win the popularity contest, but life-long friendships are based on mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s inner qualities and not outward markers of faith like the hijab.
I worry about the message some hijabi social media influencers send when they take off their hijab perhaps because of the pressure they might feel to assimilate. I want my daughter to have hijabi role models, and representation matters. For us, it starts at home.
I hope when she sees that her mother has a fulfilling career, loving marriage, and supportive friends, she will know that the happy, thriving Muslim woman is not a myth.
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