Slma Shelbayah: I wear a headscarf to support diversity; since presidential election, I don't feel safe to do so
She says it's the obligation of the incoming President Trump to push back at hate and embrace the diversity of America
Editor’s Note: Slma Shelbayah is an assignment editor and producer for the CNN Wire. She is also an adjunct professor in the College of Business and Mass Communication at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia. Shelbayah frequently speaks on topics such as international communication, Islam, culture and leadership. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Over the presidential campaign and in the heated days after the election, I’ve seen report after report of racist incidents and hate crimes. It seems as though the fear-mongering rhetoric used throughout the campaign may have given a free ticket to those ready to act with hate.
Some of the stories have touched me on an even more personal level, like seeing stories of Muslim women being insulted or attacked for wearing headscarves. That some women must fear for their safety in America because of a personal choice they make when getting dressed absolutely baffles me. They are being forced to conform.
How can some people be so hateful to attack others with such confidence and not consider the consequences?
This issue rocks me to my core for two reasons:
The first? Nearly a year ago I wrote a commentary in these pages about removing my hijab to find myself. I decided to wear it only part time, and then, after experimenting with it, chose to keep it on full time. What is hijab? A scarf – a simple piece of material in many sizes, shapes and colors wrapped over a Muslim woman’s head. While for most people the reason to cover may be religious, mine is primarily social.
I choose to wear a hijab as a symbolic expression of diversity in society. I exercise my freedom without fear or influence.
Really: what’s the big deal? It’s literally just another piece of clothing. But for various reasons, some people try to define it in black or white terms. The reality is that it stands for many things related to fashion, religion, politics and society. It’s personal and intimate. It is a woman’s choice: what to wear or not wear, an exercise of her preference. In America, I am free to wear it as I please.
But the freedom feels threatened in a Trump America. Keeping a hijab on may potentially cost me my safety and endanger my young daughters. I find myself worried about every trip I take outdoors with them. Thoughts of being attacked or putting my girls in harm’s way fill my head. I wonder: Is it just safer to take it off again so I don’t “look” Muslim? My faith whispers to keep it on in defiance of fear — and in my conviction that diversity is a right and a strength in this country.
And the second reason for my alarm?
My older daughter voluntarily shares with just about anyone that she is of Turkish, Egyptian, Pakistani and Indian descent, adding that her ultimate pride is in being American and Muslim. Since her toddler years, she has seen her cultural background as one of the most exciting aspects of her life.
I teach both my girls to embrace diversity and cherish it in others. They have traveled to many countries and are aware of the complex world around them. I have raised them to honor everyone for their unique differences.
Now, it seems everything I’ve taught my daughters about diversity as empowerment has been challenged.
I am having to explain the intolerance and hate that surfaced in our nation during the presidential campaign, and seems to be erupting anew since the election. My girls have questions about the spiteful rhetoric they overhear, despite my efforts to protect them from it. They even asked me if news of a Muslim ban was true and if our family will have a place to live.
Suddenly, I find myself needing to prepare them for another life lesson: Honoring diversity in others does not guarantee the same in return.
But there is more: Openly threatening a woman if she does not remove an article of clothing and further taking action by touching that woman is a violation — an assault. And as Americans who stand for the rights and freedoms of all, we cannot condone assault, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we may lean.
No one should contemplate hiding their way into safety by changing the way they look or dress. And it is not only Muslims in headscarves: Other minorities find themselves looking for ways to fit in while maintaining their identities and staying safe. At least I can remove a scarf from my head; others cannot change their skin color or features to hide their way into safety.
America, we are bigger and better than the few among us who choose to act out of fear rather than love. The America I know is not limited to certain beliefs, it is inclusive of our uniqueness. It has space for all of us.
We cannot allow hateful speech or differences to divide us. We cannot allow divisiveness to drive us into a fall. We must stand up for ourselves and for our fellow Americans. We must remain united.
This is not a matter of religious choice, it’s the duty of each of us to ensure and protect the same rights for others that we want granted to ourselves.
And this brings me to our President-elect, Donald Trump, for whom I have a message:
Views on Election 2016
The people have elected you to become the next President of the greatest nation in the world.
We have heard you speak numerous times throughout the campaign about your plans to protect our citizens from the dangers in the world. Thank you for having the passionate desire to keep us safe. But consider this: Security begins at home. Allowing division over differences can lead to hateful crimes, racial slurs and intolerance, and makes Americans less safe.
Shortly after you won the election, you stated you would be president to all Americans. In an interview on TV the other night, you even looked into the camera and told your supporters to stop harassing minorities. “Stop it,” you said.
I am counting on you to mean it. We need to hear, expressed as loudly as during the campaign, that you believe this country is for ALL Americans. Reassure us that our nation will no longer be motivated by fear and that it will come together as one full of a diversity that is respected and embraced.
We want you to use your rhetoric. Use your resources. Tweet us messages of tolerance and unity.
I, along with my daughters and all other Americans who value the freedoms and justice afforded to us, anticipate you will start with making America great at home first. The America that we know stands for liberty and justice for all, so that none of us have to ever contemplate the way I am right now, trading our free choice for safety.
Editor’s note: This commentary has been revised from an earlier version that was published prematurely.