(Note: Saint Mary’s Press Research spoke with Sara, a young Muslim woman, about her experience growing up and today as a Muslim woman in the United States. Her experiences and insights offer valuable context to appreciate the religious longings and belongings of young people in this country. Following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.)
I’m a first-generation Pakistani American Muslim. My father emigrated to the United States in the late 80s. I was raised in an insular bubble, in many ways. I was born in Chicago, then my family moved to Laramie, Wyoming, when I was very young.
For the first seven years of my life in Wyoming, I was the only Muslim in my class. I didn’t necessarily think about faith. When we moved back to Chicago, I went from being the only Muslim to being one of many Muslims. My family enrolled me in a Muslim-only school. I had Muslim teachers, Muslim friends, even Muslim doctors. Yet I didn’t think about how my faith interacted with the world. Going to Ramadan, breaking Iftar [the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan] together with family and friends felt like normal traditions.
I started fasting early on. I looked forward to observing Ramadan with the community, to the prayers I said with my mom every night. These were beautiful traditions within Islam that shaped my world: my views of social justice, the importance of community service, of being kind.
A turning point in my life and for many Muslim Americans was Sept. 11. I was in fourth grade. The world went from knowing nothing about Islam to knowing the wrong things about Islam.
In sixth grade, I transitioned to public school. That was a big change. I continued going to our mosque and having Muslim friends. As I got older, I recognized the importance of seeking out community in faith. My older sister, who wore hijab, was named our high school’s Homecoming Queen. She was the first to do this. She was always an example of a strong, positive Muslim woman engaging with the larger community. And this shaped the idea of hijab for me.
I remember clearly, it was February and I was 16 years old. Upon waking up, I thought to myself, I feel ready to start wearing hijab. My mom didn’t wear hijab; she said I should think about this, that wearing a headscarf was commitment. And a lot of responsibility comes with that. But, it felt right to start hijab.
I went to a diverse, multicultural high school, where I was asked to give an “Islam 101” class. I shared awareness of my faith and became a positive advocate for Islam when the media and all the news around you say otherwise. My faith and my headscarf shaped my views and were also a form of political advocacy.
I went to Saint Louis University, where I discovered interfaith work. I helped launch [President] Obama’s interfaith initiative on campus. Before these experiences, I was engaged with the Muslim community but often felt a sense of complacency. I saw Jewish, Christian, Buddhist communities working within silos and I wanted to move beyond that. To me, interfaith was an active way to engage with faiths other than your own.
I do interfaith because I’m Muslim, rather than in spite of it. I feel like doing interfaith work also made me a stronger Muslim. It forced me to be introspective about my faith, to think about what Islam means to me. Many Muslims are scared that this is a watering down of faith, or blending of traditions. For me, interfaith work is the opposite.
I saw Jewish, Christian, Buddhist communities working within silos and I wanted to move beyond that. To me, interfaith was an active way to engage with faiths other than your own. I do interfaith because I’m Muslim, rather than in spite of it.
In college, I began to question religious institutions more. I met people from diverse backgrounds, including LGBTQ Muslims, living in the intersections of their identities. I was 22 years old and still wearing hijab. I started to think about what hijab meant for me. Being visibly Muslim had been such a big part of my identity and interfaith advocacy. I felt privileged and blessed. I was able to do a lot at an early age—I addressed the United Nations, met Pope Francis for interfaith dialogue. My identity was largely linked to my public activism.
On the flip side, there were many days that I felt like the token hijabi in the room. Sometimes I felt a bit trapped and disconnected.
The headscarf meant different things to me every day—a political statement, a fashion statement, a commitment I had made since age 16. But the more it became a public statement, the less it connected me to faith.
I started thinking about removing hijab because I was burnt out and wanted the privilege of invisibility. I wanted to be able to walk into a room and not have my faith be the first thing people know about me.
So, in December 2016, I stopped wearing hijab. Some people assumed that I had been the victim of a hate crime, that something terrible had happened, but I just wanted to put a pause on my relationship with hijab. After literally wearing my faith on my sleeve for a decade, I felt disconnected. I still love hijab, and will always defend a woman’s right to cover or not cover. It is ultimately her choice.
I still engage in the Muslim community, have Muslim friends, still go to mosque and practice my faith, but I’ve become a lot more private about it.
For me, Islam has monumentally shaped the way that I see the world and interact with those around me. I often find myself returning to the roots of Islam, its call for social justice. At its origin, Islam brought rights to the poor, to orphans, women, those enslaved. Whenever I struggle with modern-day interpretations who commit harm in the name of faith, I return to its roots to remember its origin.
I’m 27, about to graduate from graduate school. And I’m still figuring things out. Faith is important to me. Maybe I don’t attend mosque every Friday and engage in interfaith activism as much as I did before, but it is still a way of life for me and the way I interact with others. There is a positive impact religion had on me and still has.
I still think we have work to do within organized religion and religious institutions, and I will continue to push for inclusion. I am allowed to love and adhere to my faith and still be critical of how it is practiced, so we can be our best.