I am a 25 year old professional working in the technology field. I sometimes joke that all the odds are against me. I am a female and dark skinned, but the one thing that sets me apart even more from my peers is that I observe the Hijab. Let’s refer to me as the Happy Hour Hijabi. If you told me four years ago I would be at happy hour at least once a week, then I would have never believed you. Mingling in a bar with strangers was not what the “proper Muslim woman” did after work.
Navigating corporate America was a struggle of uncertainty for me. I was always torn between being the successful woman with a career that I had always aspired to be and my Muslim faith. I am still navigating the maze of my personal and professional life without compromising my career or more importantly, my faith and morals. But I want to share my story… and I’ll have to start from the beginning. The very beginning.
Prior to my fairly successful career I had always wished I was a boy.
Although I am the youngest of five siblings and have two sisters, I was closest in age to my brother, and I wanted to be just like him since we always hung out. It also didn’t help that most of the kids on our block were boys and I always hung out with them, too. Which, in turn, meant I wanted to skateboard and pee in the creek standing up just like they did. To my devastation – I couldn’t do those things.
I could barely balance on a bicycle let alone a skateboard, I have scars on my knees and elbows to prove it. And I had to run all the way inside the house just to pee. One time, in rebellion, I decided to pee in the shower standing just to experience how it felt to be a boy. Gosh was it liberating.
In middle school I would tinker with websites and figured out how to copy image codes from other people’s pages and lock my page so that no one could steal my content. I loved discovering a whole new world of information on my oldest sister’s desktop computer and using my creativity to build things. There was no sound more exciting than the dial up AOL tones as I connected to the internet after school to surf the web.
After my 12th birthday, I began to wear the hijab. When the school year began I was eager to find a way to fit in and decided to join the field hockey team. I wore sweatpants under my kilt and a long sleeve shirt under my jersey. I was part of a team, yes, but I was not like the other girls on the team. I was different, I looked different. I ended up quitting field hockey before high school and looking for something else to direct my attention towards. I had always been an honor roll student but now I could actually enroll in honors classes — I had a new focus. Getting really good grades and going to a great college.
Instead of taking cooking or sewing as an elective in high school like my friends, I opted for extra history courses and a physics class so I could calculate for an experiment on how early I needed to drop an egg from the bleacher to land it on my teacher’s head as he walked by. I was a nerd. Plain and simple. But some time after my 17th birthday I decided it was time to swap out my tomboy appearance to look more girly. That summer I learned to apply winged eyeliner and said hello to high-waisted belts.
When it came to choosing a college I was torn between Rutgers and TCNJ. Both were in-state options and within driving distance since I knew living on campus was absolutely out of the question with my conservative Egyptian parents.
Instead, I did what any practical girl in my situation would do. I asked the guidance of my parents in deciding and did the opposite of what they wanted. So in the fall of 2008 I started my college career at Rutgers University with a pre-business major declaration. Being that I had gone against my parents wishes I knew that failure was not an option. I ended my first year of college with a 3.8 GPA.
During my sophomore year of college, I realized that everyone in the business school was Asian or Indian and in my mind that meant they were smarter than me (I’ll take stereotyping for 400 please). I repeatedly told myself this and I actually started to believe it. I believed everyone I was in classes with was smarter than I was. I also discovered that statistics and economics were mind-numbingly boring.
My favorite course at the time was a prerequisite for the business school, Computer Applications for Business. It involved HTML basic code and I loved it! Despite my love for this course and the Arabic course I was taking, my GPA took a huge hit. I had a lot going on outside of school, I had also just started working for T-Mobile part time, and then constantly doubting my myself because I believed others were always smarter, took a major mental toll on me and an even greater toll on my GPA. I got my first F, took my first W and ended up with a 3.2 GPA. Something needed to change fast. I knew that I couldn’t risk this downward spiral, because if my GPA fell below a 3.0 I would never land an internship with a top company like I dreamed of. Failure was still not an option, I would never hear the end of it from my parents. They already disliked my choice of school, my decision to work part time while in school and my group of socially active friends.
I went back to the drawing board — I had to change my major to keep afloat and graduate in four years. The stigma in my community for taking any longer to graduate was etched in my mind. The thought of not walking at graduation with everyone I started my college career with made me anxious. I could not be slower than any of my peers. I considered two programs offered at Rutgers both in the School of Communication and Information. The first was Journalism.
I could only imagine the disappointment from them, that I was commuting 2.5 hours a day to major in writing, so I opted for a major that fit my personality more. Something I knew I could land a job with after graduation. Something that I thought would give me a competitive advantage because I was a woman. I decided to major in Information Technology and Informatics (ITI). What’s Informatics, you ask? It’s the study of how people use and perceive technology, and for a nerd like me, it’s hella interesting.
During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I fell in love with the program and got accepted into it. That spring I landed a spot in a competitive IT summer internship program at Johnson & Johnson and was retaking the course I got an F in. Things were looking up for me. I was about to enter the corporate world as a Hijabi and I was determined to rock it. This is what I had been working so hard towards.
And then two weeks into my internship I got mononucleosis (mono).
What happens when you’re a hijabi with mono? You’ll have to wait and see.