by Amira Bennabi Kunbargi
I stole a glance in the mirror—we were already late for school—and came rushing back down the stairs, out the front door, and into the car where my family was waiting.
Did I realize I would never walk out that door with my curls hanging loose against my back? No.
Did I grasp that I would never walk the streets without stares, without judgement, and without being forever othered? No.
Did I know that I would carry the weight of an entire faith, an entire people, and the social and political stigmas of the most tumultuous regions in the world? No.
I only knew the pact.
I put it on Halloween day, 1997. It was a Friday.
There begins the story of my Hijab. My faith-fortifying, identity-defining, confidence-boosting, voice-amplifying, beauty-enhancing Hijab.
Not their pity-stare-inviting, terror-instigating, rebel-breeding, news-provoking, oppressive, repressive, misogynistic, fetishized, rag-on-her-head, piece-of-cloth Hijab.
Not your Hijab. And certainly not his Hijab. Not even the Hijab.
I was ten. Implications aside, I wore it because Sarah wore it, and she was my best friend.
Looking back, I can think of at least 364 better days to have put it on, but it all started the summer before sixth grade when Sarah and I were invited to an epic Hijab party—a party the moms would throw when one of us decided to begin wearing Hijab.
The girl who wore it was 13. She was starting high school and she was cool. There was dancing, there was cake, there were presents—lots of presents—there were sparkly dresses, and high heeled shoes. It was magic.
At least at ten that’s what it felt like.
At this magical party, Sarah and I made a pact to wear Hijab together, at the same time, when we turned 13. We began planning our party—three years, we felt, would be enough time to plan a proper party.
Fast-forward three months. The fresh smell of newly sharpened pencils and uncracked notebooks began to settle as Halloween day crept closer on our school calendar.
Normally, Halloween meant I dressed like myself. I got used to that.
My parents provided a sufficiently satisfying Halloween alternative filled with late night movie binging fueled with an all you can eat candy buffet. We’d turn the house lights off, of course, lest we get a pesky trick-or-treater (we really didn’t care to share our candy stash). Nevertheless, there would be the occasional doorbell ring, and my brothers and I would rush to the upstairs bedroom window as only one of us could fit through the opening to adequately aim a water gun—the egg throwing was never my idea [Disclaimer: we never actually hit anyone, only a nice scare].
All in all, our version of Halloween was rather fantastic.
That year, our principal, Mr. Morland, decided to complicate things. He promised an ice-cream party to each class that had every student dressed in costume. The every student part was the complicated part. I was pretty sure dressing like me wouldn’t qualify for a costume and considering the high stakes (ice-cream), I didn’t want to be the one to ruin it for my class.
I came home the evening of this problematic announcement and shared my predicament with my Mother. Now my Mother, well she was (and still is) remarkably awesome. But that’s just the start. She was my courage, my confidence, and, of course, my guilty conscience. She would also never solve my problems—though I knew, her ever discreet side glance was there making sure I never fell too hard.
Naturally, I thought this would be another problem she’d have me figure out on my own. I was already preparing the spiel I’d give in class, the retorts I’d snap at any sideways comments, and the reasons in my head that would justify my ruining it for my class: I don’t celebrate Halloween. Period. So (not) simple.
That evening was different. My Mother suggested I dress up for class. That was it. So simple.
Ecstatically stupefied, my options seemed endless! Of course, only endless after you took out the cheerleader, Barbie-doll, fairy-princess, or any other mini-skirt, spaghetti-strap, make-up wearing costume varieties.
Whatever I wore, it had to be cool (I would later learn that ‘cool’ is a very relative term).
I loved poetry. I loved to write. And I absolutely loved everything and anything from the ‘olden-days’—think Jane Austen meets Rumi. My bedroom consisted of a wooden rocking chair, a turn of the century writing desk, and a mythical bed canopy (made sometimes of tufted cream silk or ruby red satin depending on my mood), all neatly arranged atop a burgundy Persian rug.
This room carried a thousand tales written with the pens of illusive thought. And the scripts of my imagination would have certainly appeased the tastes of Professor Higgins in both elocution and eloquence—or so my ten-year-old self would have me believe.
It made perfect sense that I would choose to dress up as Charles Dickens. And so, I did.
I wore an outdated black dress suit with a pair of laced brown leather shoes my older brother had outgrown, a button-down white collared shirt with large ruffled cuffs that was my own (it was the 90’s), and my younger brother’s black leather belt with a faded silver buckle. I rummaged for one of my Father’s briefcases and filled it with paper so it wouldn’t feel light. To finish the look, I parted my hair down the middle and buckled it back in a low ponytail. My curls reached down to my lower back, but I figured men in those days had long hair so it would do.
I looked in the mirror. Exceedingly pleased, I was ready to go to school as Charles Dickens.
I grabbed my backpack and ran to the car. As we (my four brothers and I) were getting into the car my Mother turns to tell me, ever so casually, that we would be going to Sarah’s Hijab party after school and she’d bring me a dress to change into.
I couldn’t believe it!
I felt it in the pit of my stomach and the boiling of my blood. As the betrayal washed over me, I tried to collect my thoughts. Why? When? How? Why!? I must have been muttering this out loud as my Mother was getting ready to explain.
I didn’t care. I didn’t want an explanation. I could think of only one thing: the pact.
Instantly, I came up with the solution: I would wear it too. I would honor our pact. I would wear it on this day, this Halloween Friday, and so I did.
I quickly marched upstairs into my Mother’s bedroom and opened her drawer full of colorful scarves. I grabbed a white one. It would match my collared shirt with the ruffled cuffs, I thought.
I took down my ponytail, brushed my hands through my hair, and pulled it back tight into a bun fastening it with the same buckle. I folded the square white polyester blend cloth into a triangle half. Placing the folded half at the tip of my hairline, I brought the two ends down around the sides of my face, pinned the sides together under my chin, and tucked the extra fabric into my collared shirt.
My white covered head neatly popped out of the white collared shirt.
As I came into the car and announced I was ‘officially’ donning my Hijab my mother didn’t exactly jump for joy. Her ten-year-old was too young, too rambunctious, and perhaps all too naive to wear Hijab.
Looking back, I realize my mother was in a dilemma. Should she discourage me, who was to say I would want to put it on later? Should she encourage me, how would she know I was ready to carry all that Hijab signifies, and what if I would grow to resent it? And how on earth was her daughter going to make it through the rest of the sixth grade going to school dressed as what looked like the worst wardrobe malfunction on the planet?
I walked out the front door knowing I didn’t need her permission. It was my choice. I knew it, and she knew I knew it.
She looked at me with a serious but soft expression and calmly asked what I would tell my friends at school. What else? I am Muslim.
She asked if I was sure. I was.
She asked if I was ready. Ready for what? I thought. I wasn’t climbing Mt. Everest, launching into space, or running the Olympics—I was just putting on some clothes. I told her not to worry.
Recognizing my resolve and aware of my resilience—after all I am her daughter—she gave me some words of courage reminding me that strength is a choice.
I gave her a kiss goodbye and walked off into the rest of my life as an American Muslim girl.
My school was of the sterile suburban type: pristine playgrounds, cold classrooms, and eerie motion sensored lights. Irvine, California was a place of mediocre diversity in the 90’s and my class was full of Jessica’s, Crystal’s, Rachel’s, and Brian’s.
My green eyes and fair skin didn’t set me apart, but my name did. Every day the teacher called roll mispronouncing my name, and every day my entire class was reminded that I wasn’t a Jessica, Crystal, or Rachel.
I was Amira Bennabi Kunbargi and I was different.
This subtle yet marked distinction was perhaps what helped set the stage for what was to come. I walked into class that Halloween Day and sat in my usual assigned seat.
I looked up and saw a myriad of superheroes and princesses (and if I recall correctly all five Spice Girls). The girls looked pretty and the boys looked cool.
I looked down and saw strangeness personified.
Thankfully there wasn’t time to make comments or ask questions before the start bell rang, but I could see it in their eyes. I could see my strangeness—a peculiar anomaly. I chose not to use their eyes as mirrors and turned to my friend Jennifer who was smiling across class as she discreetly pointed her finger at my head with an inquisitive expression. I shrugged and gave her a halfway smile.
An hour into language arts, the student council president came into class, clipboard in-hand, to count the students dressed in costume. We all stood up to announce who or what we were dressed as.
As my turn came closer I could feel my heartbeat against my button-down white-collared ruffle-cuffed shirt. I was Charles Dickens. Right?
It dawned on me then, I was not dressed only as Charles Dickens. I was a Muslim, and for the first time I didn’t carry my faith in my heart alone, I wore my faith.
Perhaps it was the rush from my nerves or the complete realization of what I had done, but at that moment I felt a perfect conviction, I felt brave, I felt strong, and I felt whole. I wasn’t wearing this for Sarah or for some party, I wasn’t wearing it for my family, and I wasn’t wearing it for any culture. I wore Hijab for me.
My faith was mine.
And so, when they asked who I was supposed to be, I told them: “a Muslim Charles Dickens.”
My class thoroughly enjoyed the ice-cream. While I never asked her why she didn’t wait until we were 13, Sarah’s party was as magical as we had imagined it (as was mine, a month later).
Monday morning the kids at school asked why I was still wearing half my Halloween costume. I told them this is my Hijab, get used to it—and so, they did.
Strength is a choice, a choice I still make everyday. §
Amira Bennabi Kunbargi is a teacher, writer, and mother of three, based in San Francisco, CA. She is currently working on a children’s book that serves as a toolbox for parents by creating a world of carefully crafted catchphrases to mold positive paradigms for children through poetry and other creative writing. Her motto in life, “wage beauty.”