Growing up in New Jersey post 9/11, I was terrified of people knowing I was a Muslim. I felt so alienated by everything on the news that I hid my religion at school. Then, when I was 13 I travelled to the Middle East for the first time. I started learning about Islam from Muslims themselves, and that was absolutely transformative for me. For the first time, I felt proud of my culture, and I decided to start wearing the headscarf as a way of reclaiming my identity. When I got back to America I wanted the first thing people to know about me to be that I was a Muslim. It was my way of defying Islamophobia. For me, the headscarf is a socio-political symbol.
We’re told that the headscarf is oppressive to women, but I find wearing it liberating. This is my rejection of the male gaze. It’s me saying, ‘No. I have control over my body, I get to decide how much of it I want to show people’. What people don’t realise is that Islam is founded on the principles of gender equality. Women started wearing the headscarf to elevate themselves in a society where they were so objectified they were essentially treated like furniture. By wearing it, they insisted on being valued for their minds rather than for their bodies.
The irony is that in New York, where I live now, the abuse I get for wearing it is usually misogynistic. There’s this weird sexual fascination with the headscarf and finding out what’s underneath. I was on the train home one night and this guy came up to me and put his hands on my scarf and said, “Are you going to let me take this off for you later?” That kind of thing happens all the time. Because you’re a woman of another race, men look at you as something they want to possess; at the same time, they see you as inferior to them and want to reject you because of that.
With everything that’s going on in the United States right now, it’s quite literally life and death for us. After Trump made a public statement about shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, three young, black men – two of whom were Muslim – were shot execution style in Indiana. But I’m trying to stay optimistic because there is a reaction. A lot of Muslim women of my generation are rising up and claiming our religion. We are taking it upon ourselves to be proud of who we are, and to interpret things in our own way.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, the leading online magazine for Muslim women in the US.
Interview by Kitty Drake and photography by Athena Rayburn
Read the full feature in the Mind Issue, now available for pre-order.