By: Habeeba Husain
Empowering American Muslim Women
Why Islam’s “A Day in the Life of a Hijabi” series aims to highlight the experiences of American Muslim women who wear hijab. It is time to hear the narrative from the subjects themselves. We know they are eloquent, capable, and deserving of telling their own stories.
We previously heard from Raabia Khan, a graduate student based in the greater Philadelphia area, Tehmina Tirmizi, a social worker in New York, and Sobia Masood, a former fashion student and current Instagram blogger, about their respective hijab stories. Today, we speak with Eman Arafa, a New Jersey resident who has twenty-five years of experience in the field of education. Born in Mississippi and raised in Florida, Arafa has gone from teaching to administrating and now to running for Board of Education in North Brunswick, New Jersey and pursuing her PhD.
“I believe we need more representation in politics. I wear my Islam. You’re going to know exactly what religion I follow as soon as I walk into that room,” she says. “We have so many Muslim children in North Brunswick. Why is it that when a parent walks into a board meeting they can’t see a proud, educated hijabi sitting there that’s also working to make sure their education is taken care of and informed and watched over? I am working to make that change.”
Hear more from candidate Eman Arafa below and follow her campaign.
Can You Provide a Little Background About Your School/Workplace?
I have been in education for twenty-five years. I went from teaching to administrator to head of school, and I also managed several daycares before. I’ve been in and out of several positions within education, and I love my career. I’ve worked here, I’ve worked in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and England as well as the private and public sectors. I have a lot of experience in education.
When/Why Did You Start Wearing Hijab?
I started wearing hijab when I was sixteen. It was my freshman year in college. My dad was going from Florida State University to Saudi Arabia, and my parents needed to make sure I got into a good college. I got my undergraduate degree from Cairo University.
Although people would think that hijab is very, very common and its more comfortable wearing hijab in Egypt, it was actually harder putting it on as a freshman there than it would have been here. Supposedly coming from the United States, people expect you not to wear the hijab. I wanted to make a point that I’m not just a part of the crowd; I am different. I wanted to stand out as a person with a very strong religious background. So that was the reason I first put it on.
When I went in to my freshman year…I was becoming the “popular kid” because I came from the United States of America. I put on my hijab as a protection and as a way to just make a very clear line between me and that stereotypical party lifestyle of a young American college student and Alhamdulillah that worked.
What Has Your General Experience With Hijab Been Like?
My hijab, it’s everything. I love my hijab. When I first put it on, I put it on to protect myself from the unknown and what was expected of me as the girl from the U.S. Later, it became part of me. I feel very empowered by the hijab.
How Has Hijab Impacted Your School/Work Life?
I was actually refused a job when I first started. I was interviewing for a very popular international magazine. The actual office I had my interview in was in Egypt—I was refused the job because of my hijab in Egypt! The guy who conducted the interview was a Muslim, believe it or not. The magazine wanted something “different.” When I asked him what he meant by different, he looked me up and down and said, “You know, different.” I turned around and left, and then I came back and said, “Do you mean my hijab?” I was appalled. He was taken aback because he didn’t think I was going to face him, and he said, “Absolutely, no! That’s not the reason, but we except girls to get friendly with the customers and they don’t dress like that, and you’re going to be brand new to the company dressed like that. You might not bring the company the business.”
I was sent a decline letter because of my hijab. That could have discouraged many who were twenty-something, but I held onto my hijab even tighter. I was prouder to be a hijabi than ever before. That was my turning point from wearing it because I wanted to be different to wearing it because I’m proud to be wearing it. Alhamdulillah [all praise is due to God], Allah gave me strength at that point and I didn’t take it off.
What is Your Favorite Part of Being a Hijabi?
My favorite part is being a representative of Islam, especially here in the United States and everywhere I go. I travel a lot, and I was in Italy at one point going through a checkpoint, and the guy was like “Ugh” upon seeing me. I tell this story to people and they’re always like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I say, “No, don’t be!” When you go through these things for Allah and you know in your heart that I’m not doing it for the next door neighbor, I’m not doing it for a friend, I’m doing it for the Allah who created me—it’s a beautiful feeling. He’s going to give me elsewhere, and He is going to make me successful in life because I’m doing this for him. That’s the part I love. I know I’m sacrificing something in life, the beauty that I could show, for Him. When I go through any hardships, it’s for Him. That’s enough. That’s what makes me happy.
What is One Thing You Would Like People to Know About the Hijab?
Don’t be afraid of it. It’s beautiful, and it’s not a burden.