Mahvish Syed was opening the door at the gym when a stranger’s words stopped her in her tracks.
“You guys have to do that in the gym?” the woman asked, her voice dripping with condescension. The “that” she was referring to: wearing a hijab.
“It’s just a piece of clothing,” Syed replied calmly, though she felt uncomfortable, to say the least.
Such encounters are not uncommon for the Cal Poly student, who covers her head in public—including at the gym.
“Post 911, wearing a hijab in the United States is always accompanied by worry,” said the 36-year-old Cal Poly student. “The hijab is not something you can just throw on without care; there is always worry in the back of the mind.”
Because she chooses to wear a hijab in the United States, Syed feels that she must constantly carry the weight of people’s negative misconceptions surrounding Islam.
Specifically, she said, a lack of understanding has caused people to confuse culture with faith.
In turn, these misconceptions have cultivated a stigma that falsely stereotypes Muslims.
For the first quarter of 2017, The Council on American-Islamic Relations received 1,597 reports of potential bias, in which 851 of these were verified.
Additionally, 76 percent of Americans say that discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. is increasing, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016.
Because the hijab serves as a visual symbol of Islam, veiled Muslim women experience heightened discrimination.
In fact, 69 percent of women who wear a hijab reported at least one incident of discrimination, compared to 29 percent of women who do not wear a hijab.
Despite the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and various federal civil rights laws, veiled women still face prejudice in all aspects of their lives.
Instances of discrimination against women who practice the hijab occur at work, school, government offices, in the criminal justice system, and in public places.
Apart from the difficulties, some Muslim women embrace the responsibility.
“I am more aware of my behavior and how I carry myself because I know my actions will be attributed to Islam,” said Rubia Siddiqi, President of Muslim Student Association at Cal Poly.
Additionally, Mahvish Syed feels the hijab is an empowering mechanism for tackling stigmas and misconceptions of Islam.
By externally expressing her faith, Syed welcomes conversation in hopes of catalyzing change.
If the question is not out of hate, then I am the best person to ask about Islam. I will answer the best, worst, and most controversial questions in order to spread understanding and acceptance, — Mahvish Syed
By way of example, Syed’s life and perspective contradicts various stigmas of her faith.
“I am a Muslim women, I go to Cal Poly, I am acquiring a biomedical engineering degree, I have a 3.98 GPA, my professors love me, my children love me, and I love them. I feel like there is nothing in my life that is oppressed or suppressed,” said Syed.
Photo by Gerry Lauzon (Flickr, Creative Commons)