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What it feels like for a (Muslim) girl

what-it-feels-like-The-day-What it feels like for a (Muslim) girl

Some thoughts on post-Inauguration America

The day before the Election: defiant, confident, strutting around the neighborhood in my Clinton tee, completely sure of a big win tomorrow.

By Hilal Isler

This would make a great title for a memoir, don’t you think? Maybe even a memoir* I could write. After all, I am Muslim. I have lady parts. I appreciate a good Madonna reference like the next person.

What would I write about though?

Maybe I could share what it was like, wearing a burqa every day, as a high school student in Saudi Arabia, how much I hated that thing, that piece of cloth that doesn’t let you run. Doesn’t let you breathe. I could talk about that.

I could talk about coming to this country, releasing the past, making space for an honest, good future. A future on my own terms. I could recount all the exhilarating, surprising ways in which, over the many years, America has revealed its tender soul to me. America, this place I’ve called home since the age of sixteen. Since college.

What-It-Feels-Like-For-A-MuThis is a Rinee Shah illustration. Please visit for more.

I could talk about how I fell in love with this place, fell in love generally, how I stayed and thrived and how, a decade plus after first setting foot in this country, I took the citizenship exam, so that I might have the extraordinary honor of becoming legally what I had already become in my heart: an American. I could share the memory of that bright, cold January day when I took my oath, hand against chest, the other palm reaching for the sky, surrounded by thousands of dewy-eyed immigrants, all of us roaring in one voice.

“I hereby declare, on oath, that … I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America… that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same… so help me God.”

The 2016 Election felt special to me because I cast my vote for a woman. It felt historic. Like a personal victory: look how far we’d come, how far I’d come! From burqa to the ballot box.

I won’t forget the thrill of it, the sense of validation I had that morning. Not only did my voice matter, but I could use that voice in the service of something greater than myself. I don’t want to ever forget that feeling, to take it for granted. I want to remember it whenever I’m disappointed in the way things are going.

Because I know disappointment. I know what it feels like to wake up after September 11, 2001, and find your dorm-room-door vandalized with graffiti, telling you to go back where you came from. I know what it takes to organize after this, to get people who are being unduly targeted to come out of hiding. I know how to reassure students, Sikhs and Muslims, from Chandigarh to Jersey City, that it is okay, that it is going to be okay. I know how important it is to say it, again and again and again, as many times as it takes: This is America. We don’t have to be afraid here.

On Jan. 20 of this year, I watched, on YouTube, the Inauguration of President Donald Trump. I listened to his speech, like millions of others around the world. The most-watched Inauguration in history, members of the Administration would later say. After the speech ended, I found myself clicking around on YouTube, feeling a bit numb, to be honest, arriving eventually at Oprah’s channel, as you sometimes do, when in need of solace.

The first video I watched happened to be of Gwyneth Paltrow, at Oprah’s Pearl xChange conference, two years ago. It was a short video, where Paltrow answered a question, on the nature of her spiritual practice. What did Gwyneth Paltrow do, the woman in the audience wanted to know, in times of crisis? Paltrow mentioned meditation, before pausing. “And I believe there’s a reason this is all happening,” she said.

Then, she quoted from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “Imagine that life is always in the right,” Paltrow said. “That’s been a very powerful idea for me—that no matter what hap-pens, life is in the right. What-ever the challenge, whatever the obstacle, whatever’s in front of you: life… is in the right.”

I watched the video once, and then a second time for good measure. I watched because I wanted to believe it so bad. I wanted to believe the shakiness, the disorienting, sinking sense of fear I now had (would my family and I be placed on a Muslim registry? Would hate crimes spike once again?) had some purpose to it. I wanted to believe life knew exactly what it was doing on Election Day; that life was “in the right.”

I still want to believe this. In fact, I do. I do believe it. I believe things fall apart so they might be reconfigured, so they might allow other things, better things eventually, to take their place. And I believe a person has to, as Rilke also once wrote, “take some action against fear when once it has laid hold of one.”

Taking action against fear—fear in your own heart, fear in the collective—requires bra-very. It requires empathy and compassion and conversation. It requires coming together in order to prevent being driven apart.

It requires that we tell our stories, and share them with each other not as an exercise in vanity, but as an attempt to describe, to understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. What it feels like to be a woman, displaced from your home by civil war, by persecution, by disease and famine. What it feels like, growing up as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. What it feels like to be one of the world’s 65 million refugees. What it feels like to endure an act of rape. What it feels like, being Dakota, being Hispanic, being Asian, being gay, being American, being a human being alive today.

And what it might feel like, for a Muslim girl.

After all, aren’t we the 99%? Of course we are. This is my Election story. What’s yours?

Hilal Isler Follow

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