As I stood in line, I couldn’t help but wonder how I looked to the outside world. Me, hijabi, hitting the club.
Having found — as usual — no pop culture precedent to refer to, I’ve customized a few popular song lyrics to help set the scene:
- That’s why I need a one dance/got a hijabi by the hand/one more time ‘fore I go/rogue Muslim girl taking a hold on me
- Hijabi in the club/bottle full of bub/look Muslima, I got the X if you into taking drugs/shouldn’t you be at the mosque or something
- My headscarf brings all the boys to the yard/ and they’re like, it’s better than yours/Damn right, it’s better than yours/I could teach you, but it would be cultural appropriation
I don’t remember what I was wearing. Considering the fact that that my spring wardrobe almost entirely consists of clearance rack maxi-dresses, old-lady cardigans in dark colors, and ill-fitting blouses stolen from my mother, it probably wasn’t impressive. (I don’t think you would want to hit the club — or your local supermarket, or your downstairs mailbox, or even your fire escape in the event of an emergency — in my spring wardrobe.)
I don’t remember the exact name of the club, either; only that it started with an L and sounded vaguely European, sleek, sexy. In one word, it represented everything I was not. For one thing, I’ve never been invited to a single high school party.
This is probably because most people assume that practicing Muslim women embody certain non-partying values. For the most part, they’re right: you won’t find a burka-clad woman sliding down a stripper pole or knocking back vodka at the bar. I personally do not believe in drinking, smoking, or hooking up with strangers.
The problem is that the assumptions don’t stop at partying. I’ve received shocked looks for listening to rap music, for dropping the rare f-bomb, for wearing nail polish. For laughing too loudly, for caring about my appearance, for having friends who drink, smoke, and hook up. In other words, for being anything other than the sexless, miserable, and severe worshipper that my headscarf — the ultimate Islamic symbol — conveys to the Western world.
This kind of social non-recognition is painful. I am, after all, a 17-year-old girl.
Last year, at the peak of my frustrations, I decided to start wearing a snapback atop my headscarf. Perhaps the two social symbols would cancel each other out. They did not. (I did discover, however, that wearing the two items in conjunction is the quickest way to make my friends laugh. It has become my regular party trick — minus the party, of course.) The snapback incident has been the latest in a string of (usually less embarrassing) attempts to distance myself from the extremist stereotype.
So when the three students who were hosting my overnight stay at their college asked me to party with them, I instantly agreed. What better way to show that I was fun and normal and definitely not a suicide bomber than to join them? What better way to prove that I was not too undesirably Islamic than to engage in markedly, undeniably un-Islamic behaviors?
Outside of the club L, the bass dropped again and again, pulsing through me like a defibrillator jerking a body back to life.
The college students were offering me much more than a party organized by frat boys. Beyond the doors of the club lay the opportunity to finally be perceived as an ordinary American teenager. For the first time in my life, the persona of Cool Hijabi seemed more of a possibility and less of an oxymoron. Perhaps I had been too hasty to abandon the snapback aesthetic.
My optimism shattered when I found myself directly in front of the bouncer. There is no better reality check than facing a man whose upper body is bulky enough to qualify as a medical anomaly. And as it turned out, the reality outside of club L was not sleek, sexy, or particularly European. It was pathetic: me, in my dreadful spring wardrobe, realizing that I had a) let myself down, and b) come to this realization much too late.
The college girls looked on intently as I performed the ruse we had planned, rummaging through my bag with an increasingly puzzled expression.
“Oh my God, I think I forgot my ID in my dorm—” I started.
“You need ID to get in,” the bouncer said coldly, looking as though he was exactly one more insubordination away from a fist fight.
“But she’s with us—” said one of the girls, gesturing so that the paper bracelet he wrapped around her wrist flapped gaudily.
“No.” the bouncer said, lifting the red queue rope and all but shoving me under it. If he hadn’t terrified every last cell in my body, I might’ve smiled at him. And that was the end of my first club experience. It was approximately five minutes long.
As soon as the bouncer’s hulking upper body was out of sight, I couldn’t help feeling pleased. After all, I had achieved Cool Hijabi status in my hosts’ eyes that night without so much as touching a barstool. I immediately considered pulling a regular whoops-I-forgot-my-ID stunt at college (even when I did become of age) to show my peers that I was always willing to party. (Though I now suspect that my hosts were not partiers themselves — that would explain their initial offer, their belief that the bouncer would let me in, and their eagerness to leave the club with me after he did not.)
I remember standing in front of the mirror sans headscarf when I was about thirteen years old, wondering whether I would be more popular this way. Would my classmates think me hotter, funnier, and more relatable? If so, would their validation make me happier? Considering that I still wear the headscarf, I must have decided that the answer to these questions was no. But they still cross my mind, usually when I feel the most insecure.
I wish that my takeaway from my first clubbing experience was that my obligation to myself and to God far outweighs my desire to be considered cool by a group of strangers. In this moment, as I sit here writing in solitude, this statement transcends believability: it is a given, a truth. But this statement is hardest to believe when it is most relevant: when an older girl asks me casually — it’s the most casual question in the world — whether I’d like to “come with,” a smile on her face and a pair of room keys in her hand.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t still intrigued by the thought of combining the mutually exclusive worlds of traditional, alcohol-driven, American Pie popularity and Islam. The notion of a Cool Hijabi who can straddle both worlds will likely continue to fascinate and haunt me.
It seems like the more socially vulnerable I feel on account of being Muslim, the more I rebel by engaging in non-Islamic behaviors, of which there will be plenty at college. This cycle is both self-perpetuating and deeply ironic. Young adulthood is on the horizon, and the question at the forefront of my mind is: will I ever find the strength and faith to break the cycle?
Or will this be how I lose my religion?