I was five years old when I first learned how to conceal my identity as an Afghan Muslim girl. It was a week before kindergarten started and I couldn’t sleep—not out of fear, but out of joy. I had always been a creative child, escaping to my fantasy world created through my daydreams. And in this fantasy world, I imagined all the new and exciting things that school would have to offer. However, just as my excitement began to spiral out of control, my mother was quick to humble me and remind me of a reality I didn’t know was so harsh.
She told me, “Sweetheart, when you start school Inshallah—God willing—don’t tell anyone where you are from and that you are Muslim.”
It was strange hearing this from my mother, the same woman who oiled my hair every night, taught me how to properly eat rice with my hands, and yelled at my siblings and me anytime we spoke English in the house. My creativity, as a consequence, also came with curiosity, which is how I found myself asking her why I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where my family was from, where I was from. All she had to say in response was that,
“Some people in this world are mean, and they want to blame something on us that wasn’t our fault, and I want you to be safe.”
That last line was enough to shake me to my core, and thus I vowed that I would never let anyone know that I was Afghan and that I was Muslim. But the chances of a five-year-old honoring their vows are slim to none, which is why the first time I mustered up the bravery to finally tell my peers where I was from, it didn’t take long for me to instantly regret it.
The first time I heard my country get mentioned in school was in music class at the beginning of first grade. The minute I heard the name “Afghanistan,” I was excited because it meant that it was a real place, and my people were real, my culture was real, and I was real. But again, that joy was short-lived because the first time I heard my country’s name, in school, was to be told that Afghan people were bad people who were responsible for 9/11.
I was mortified and went home to my mother asking her if this were true and if our people were actually bad. She was quick to calm me down and explain the history behind the horrifying event, and it suddenly clicked in my six-year-old head why I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where I was from, thus, I once again vowed to never tell anyone where I was from. But again, there are little to no differences between a five-year-old and a six-year-old when it comes to keeping a promise.
Since then, I have struggled with my identity, no longer smelling like sesame oil, burgers were my go-to meals and refusing to speak my mother tongue in hopes that it would lessen the freak image I had labeled to myself.
I had become so desperate in wanting to conceal my identity that I would give fake, American-sounding names to people in public so that I could retain a hint of normalcy. I cried for my family to call me “Echo,” the meaning behind my Persian name, Nadah because anything was better than having any sort of attachment to being Afghan or Muslim.
When it came to Ramadan, I would pray that it would fall during the summertime, that way I didn’t have to explain to my friends or my classmates why I wasn’t eating. When people asked me where I was from, and when they didn’t automatically assume I was Hispanic because of my dark hair and tan skin, I would tell them that I was Persian and refuse to elaborate on that. They didn’t need to know that Persia no longer existed and it was now split into Afghanistan and Iran—when they heard Persian, they assumed Iranian and I was okay with that because the further I was from Afghanistan, the better.
When I was in middle school, it had finally been unveiled that I was Muslim because “Hadiya” was nowhere near an American-sounding name. Fellow Muslim peers were the ones who outed me and I had to make peace with it. But even my so-called pacifistic self had a limit to that peace. When I was in seventh grade, the class clown in my social studies class, which is clearly the time to be comedic, told me to go back to my own country and followed his, already racist, comment with a few terrorist bomber jokes. My own country? I was born in Las Vegas, I had every right to be here just as he did. I couldn’t explain why that had bothered me at the time, especially when I had spent so much of my life hiding away from myself. But that anger wasn’t enough to get me to admit the truth, that being an Afghan-Muslim was something I should take pride in.
After spending years in the shadow, the moment to acknowledge the truth came sneaking up on me. It was sophomore year and we were required to complete a ten-month project on anything of our interest, but at this point I had become so lost that I no longer knew what my interests were, I didn’t know who I was.
We were given two weeks to submit the forms that included what we decided our ten-month project was going to be based on—I still hadn’t completed it.
It was my ninth-grade English teacher who suggested I cover Islam. She told me that she knew it was something I was interested in and should use this opportunity to explore it more. I thought she was ridiculous but agreed solely because time was running out and I needed to submit my form.
I procrastinated for six months. I went out with friends, stayed up all night reading fanfictions, and basically did anything that kept my focus away from the project that was looming over me like a dark cast. It wasn’t until Month Six when we were required to show actual research that I realized I had nothing. And so, naturally, like every other procrastinating perfectionist, I panicked and pulled an all-nighter to come up with something.
Trump had just gotten elected and Muslim hate crimes were at an all-time high. Maybe it was the bullet-riddled Quran or the number of Muslim-American deaths that only seemed to be rising—maybe it was the clear hatred expressed through their eyes or the ignorance spewing from their lips. Whatever it was, for the first time in my life, I had enough anger to drive me to do something.
I covered the misidentification and misrepresentation of Islam, as seen through media, and local and national news outlets. I conducted surveys at my school, sorted through many articles—both pro-and anti-Muslim—and began studying the Quran, myself.
Word had gotten to the school's journalism team and before I knew it, I had been approached and asked if I wanted to be featured on the cover of the school’s newspaper where my project would inspire the headlines.
I had been so blinded by my rage that I didn’t realize that I found myself stuck in a position with no way out. I was forced to make a decision: Do I put the hijab on and expose myself to my entire school that I was an Afghan-Muslim or do I turn my back against everything that I had been fighting for? If there was any time to be brave, to be daring, it was now. And so I agreed to have my face plastered all over the school’s newspaper.
The feedback was definitely one that I had not expected. There was appreciation, acceptance, and pride coming from all around. I went home and cried because it finally dawned on me that I didn’t need to hide anymore.
I could speak my mother tongue and not have to fear getting scorned; I could fast during Ramadan and not have to explain myself. I could say I was an Afghan Muslim and have that actually been a good thing.
Through the course of this project, I regained my love for my religion and my love for my culture. It took a while for me to accept that my ignorance came as a product of my environment. I was conditioned into hating my religion, my culture, and my identity, be it through fear for my safety or imposed hatred towards my people. However, when faced with making a decision, I feel confident enough to say that I made the right one.
It could have happened in another way, I would like to believe, but if I had never taken that chance to dare myself into stepping out in public as an Afghan Muslim, then I would’ve never had the opportunity to accept that being Afghan and being Muslim is a part of me. It is not all that I am, but it is a part of who I am. And it is this part of me that I am reclaiming and taking back.
The battle against ignorance is a hard-fought one, one that has been fought for over centuries now. The biggest step one can make to have a fighting chance is to dare to fight for a cause greater than themselves. We have to reject the ignorance imposed upon us and educate ourselves and learn that—as cliché as this following statement is—it is a beautiful thing to be you. Do not allow ignorance—conditioned, imposed, or otherwise—to hold you back from loving and accepting yourself. Make the choice to be daring and to fight back. No battle is a small one and even if the one you are fighting against is your ignorance, then you should consider it a hard-fought victory.
About the Author:
Hadiya is a student at UNLV, who is pursuing a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Born and raised in rowdy Las Vegas, Nevada, she finds solace in her local bookstores and libraries. When she is not nose-deep stuck in a book she has already read three times, you can find her swooning over the romantic male lead in old Bollywood flicks, re-watching Attack on Titan, or aggressively writing down her emotional thoughts of the day in her journal. Her dream is to someday share the stories of the Afghan women around the world, through fiction and non-fiction.