Being the only hijabi at happy hour can get tiring. I would know, I’ve been doing it professionally for over five years. Since I can remember I’ve always been the only hijabi at work. From one of my first jobs in high school as a bank teller, to my internship and at my first job out of college, I was the black sheep. Or maybe the hijabi sheep – whatever you want to call it.
During my first week at my full-time job there was a happy hour scheduled. I was so nervous to go as it went against everything I was taught and everything I believed in. I spent years in college politely declining outings at bars with my peers because I couldn’t fathom walking into a place that only served alcohol. It would be disrespectful to my hijab – I’d say to myself. Sure, I went to Cheesecake Factory for dinner. And yes, they serve alcohol but I had never been out with an entire group of people whose sole purpose was to be drinking. How many diet cokes and Shirley Temples could I possibly nurse for three hours? I ended up going to that happy hour – and dozens since. Yes, it can look a little weird for a hijabi to be hanging out with a bunch of people who are drinking. But they’re all in slacks, Polo’s and have work badges on. I wasn’t there to get ratchet. I was simply networking but I was also indirectly teaching my peers about hijab.
I remember during my first week of training as a consultant, someone walked up to me and told me he had never seen a single hijabi in the company and that he was proud there was a fellow Muslim amongst our training group. He had been consulting for this company for 7 years and never came across someone like me. Needless to say, I was shocked. I immediately felt I had so much to prove. It meant that none of our current clients had worked with a hijabi, either.
I was simply networking but I was also indirectly teaching my peers about hijab.
Because I stood out I made it a point to be well versed in what hijab actually means. I found myself constantly emphasizing that Islam was perfect but that my hijab was not. My hair sometimes slips from underneath the veil, my arms aren’t always covered to my wrists, my pants are a little too tight and the worst offense of all, I sometimes will wear nail polish the entire month. But the point was more than clothing, I’d explain, it’s also about manners and a way for me to let those around me know that I was a Muslim woman.
I would walk into a conference room and feel like I had to prove myself that much more. Not only was I a female in th male dominated technology field, I wear a hijab so half the people I interacted with probably assume I am soft-spoken or “oppressed” – thanks mainstream media. It took a while for me to realize I earned my place at the table with the big boys and that it was OK to speak up and voice my opinions. I would surprise myself every time an idea I expressed was widely accepted.
I had been wearing hijab for ten years before I realized what it really meant for me, especially in the work place. One day as I stood in a room surrounded by a dozen IT professionals, during a meet and greet with one of our senior executives visiting from Brazil something happened.
I watched as he made his rounds through the room, gracefully kissing my female colleagues on the cheek. My hands were sweating. I had forgotten how hands-on foreign greetings could be. I was going to have to embarrass him in front of the entire room. Should I just let this guy give me a kiss in front of the entire room? I can pretend he’s like my uncle and maybe I won’t feel guilty. I had just spent months at happy hours drinking Shirley Temples and explaining Islam and hijab to my colleagues. I loved having the opportunity to share what a beautiful religion Islam was and why Hijab was important to me. If he kissed me in front of this entire room everything I’ve told them about hijab would have been for no reason.
As my turn approached he chuckled and said, “I will only shake your hand, I know I can’t kiss a Muslim woman.” And just like that, he shook my hand and moved along.
Either he was a mind reader or something else was going on. And then it hit me. My hijab was more than just a piece of chiffon loosely draped around my hair. It was more than long sleeves and trousers. My hijab was a barrier. My hijab was a level of respect always demanded. I have never felt more proud to be wearing hijab than I did in that moment. Without saying anything, my religion and my personal space was being respected simply because I choose to wear it.
I eventually found empowerment in being the only hijabi at work. It was my opportunity to help break stereotypes, an opportunity to show individuals who may potentially never be exposed to a Muslim-American woman and what Islam is really about. The only thing I really had to prove was that I was more than capable of being an IT professional and that I would exceed in my career in order to earn the respect of my peers and to get Muslim women a seat at the table. It means more to me when I get a kudos from a boss or colleague. It means that my hijab has not limited me, if anything it has only empowered me and given me a platform to expose others to what being Muslim is like.
I take pride in my work not because I like solving complex business problems with technology (although that does really excite me) but because it’s a place I can debunk misconceptions in my own small way. I can show my peers that Muslim women can be traveling consultants. I am proof that Muslim women can live 3,000 miles away from their families to pursue a career in Silicon Valley. Shocker, Muslim women are really freaking smart.
I proudly represented multiple employers at University recruiting events where again, I was the only hijabi – multiple times. I proudly worked with clients as a consultant to solve their technological pain points in the middle of Tennessee where I never crossed paths with a hijabi in their offices. I proudly have the opportunity to represent Islam in a beautiful manner and it is something I am grateful for.
My hijab is a crown I wear proudly. Even if I am the only hijabi at Happy Hour.