Being American — and Muslim

Shireen Khan rides a bus in New York City
Shireen Khan rides a bus in New York City.
Nicholas Hegel McClelland for

It was evening rush hour in New York City. 42nd St. was packed, and I was hoping I would make the bus. His voice came out of
the crowd.

“Take that rag off!”


In my four months of working in New York, that was a first. Actually,
that was a first in the seven years since I started wearing a
hijab. A lot of people turned to look at me as he shouted those
words. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling — some mixture of
anger and embarrassment — but I knew I wanted to stop and explain to
this man the significance of what he dismissed as a “rag.” He didn’t
understand the one thing I cherished most, the thing that I took so much
care in making sure I did right — my religion.

It’s second nature to me now, but in the beginning, learning how to
put on my hijab was a challenge. I taught myself how to tuck my
hair in neatly, where to fasten the safety pin, and what material would
best stay put. It is now the thing that people notice first when they
see me. As a 23-year-old Muslim woman, I can’t imagine walking out of my
house without it.

The explanations for wearing the hijab often start with
modesty. But modesty, like religiosity, is relative. Who am I to say
that I am more modest than someone else just because I cover my hair? I cover because God commanded it in the Qur’an. Wearing
the hijab is first and foremost an act of worship and obedience;
after that, it serves to check my modesty.

Other values such as charity, tolerance and respect, are some of the
same ones that Muslims, American or not, are taught to uphold in their
daily lives. As an American-born Muslim, it’s easy for me to follow
these values — just as easy as it is for my husband and his friends
to gather together to watch the Super Bowl: just sketch in some beards,
insert a prayer break and delete the alcohol. (The legal drinking age is
one American law that Muslims disregard completely — Islam prohibits
alcohol consumption, at any age.) Such strict rules, to some, are a sign
of extremism, and so are the beards — to some, our five daily prayers
are another.

When I was nine years old, my father took a job in Saudi Arabia and
moved our family from Virginia to Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia, there was
easy access to mosques — almost every street or neighborhood had one.
While out shopping, I didn’t have to plan around prayer times: shops
closed at each prayer, and we would simply walk over to the closest
mosque, pray, then resume our shopping. It’s different in America. When
I shop with a friend at a mall in New Jersey, we often find ourselves
looking for a place to pray. We prefer quiet, secluded areas, but
sometimes we have to resort to the fitting rooms. We carry outfits into
separate stalls and pretend to try them on. When I finish praying, I ask
my friend “Are you done?” Yes, she answers, but now she wants to try on
the clothes, and more often than not, we actually end up leaving the
store with a new pair of something.

Prayer is one of the five basic pillars of Islam. “Everyone prays,”
my husband says. People innately want to call out to God. We all do it,
in different ways. By missing my prayers, I would be shrugging off one
of the most important, yet basic, obligations of my faith — being
observant of it doesn’t make me less “American.”

So as I continued my walk to the Port Authority bus terminal that
day, it might have seemed like I didn’t hear that man yell what he did.
But I did. I just chose to ignore it. I figured it wasn’t the right time
to have a discussion, so I just let it pass. I have rarely been bothered
by anybody about my hijab. If anything, I often get complimented
on it. I may cover my hair for the sake of God, but I love getting it
cut and styled. I have a husband who can’t understand how I spend so
much time at the mall; I have big dreams for work; I play sports; I love
to run. I cringe at the word extremist. And I thank God that I am both
Muslim and American at the same time.

Shireen Khan is a producer for

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