Free of makeup (forbidden by Islam) and unframed by my thick hair and widow's peak, my face peered back at me, totally naked.
From the ages of 6 to 10, the scarf, along with the loose tunic worn over pants, was my daily uniform, and eventually the official school uniform of all Iranian schools after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Like millions of other Iranians I adjusted and lived as a Muslim until I left Iran in 1981. In fact, for most of my post-revolutionary time in Iran, I was the sole practicing Muslim in my family. I didn't need their support--Iran had become the Islamic Republic of Iran and I was just another kid in a scarf.
Hearing about Muslims--and people mistaken for Muslims--being targeted and attacked in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks made me think of how I would feel if I were still a practicing Muslim. This is what drove me to wear my Islamic garb for three days in Seattle (and surrounding areas) as well as a couple of days in Vancouver, B.C. I also crossed the border with my scarf on--I took a train to Vancouver and flew back.
Having a white American for a mother, my looks pass for Western (not the case for most of the family on my father's side), so the only thing that would set me apart would be my dress.
Of course, women in hijaabs aren't the only targets. Olive skin, turbans and foreign accents, once signs of America's diversity, now instill fear and anger in some Americans. Wearing my scarf taught me a lot about fear.
I noticed that people in my own neighborhood looked right through me and that familiar, friendly glances were replaced with stony expressions set half a block in advance in anticipation of my approach. But that was nothing compared to the chilling incident on Day One of my experiment.
I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Pike Street, waiting for the light to change so I could cross, when a young man shoved me in front of a moving vehicle. Fortunately, the driver stopped in time. I faced the guy who pushed me, but all he said was "I guess I tripped and just didn't see you. Sorry." He looked over my shoulder while talking to me. He almost sounded bored.
"Well, do you see me now?" I asked in a shaky voice.
"Oh yeah, I see you all right," he responded before crossing the street.
Later, I reprimanded myself for not running after him, for not speaking up. The truth is, my thoughts and my voice simply drowned in a sea of fear, indignation and shock.
I don't think the one deranged individual I encountered is in any way representative of Americans; he's representative of a small group of hateful sociopaths. But when I told a colleague of the incident, she was alarmed enough to insist on following me, cell phone in hand should anything else happen.
The shoving business put me on high alert. I had to fight against attaching meaning to things I might not have previously noticed, like being ignored in a store or having someone cut ahead of me at a bus stop. A walk around the block became a psychological minefield.
That said, I was ultimately reassured by the good in people.
There were cute moments -- like when a boy wearing a "Wassup!" T-shirt on a bus leaned over and asked "Who is this Allah guy anyway?" or when the girl behind a coffee counter leaned in to hear me, as if expecting me to speak with a soft voice and a foreign accent. Yet, I was ill at ease.
As soon as I heard about the Sikh man killed in Arizona and the Somalian woman attacked at knifepoint in West Seattle, the horror I felt at the Sept. 11 attacks made room for a dark and bitter resentment. I resented the fact that those responsible for the murder of almost 6,500 people didn't leave a clear record of who they were. The venomous hate of their cohorts hides behind a face like mine, and just as there were no signs hanging over the heads of those who passed me by on the streets reading "open minded" (vs. "crazed and prejudiced"), there was no sign over my head reading "your friend and neighbor." In my scarf, I felt as if I was lumped in with the dreaded Them. Those People. Terrorists.
Lesson 2: Communication alleviates fears
I noticed people's uneasy glances when I walked into the King Street Station. No one looked me in the eye -- it was all sideways glances and nudges. When I got in line for a train to Canada, I could feel my fellow passengers tensing up. The fact that there were no visible security measures in place didn't help. If what happened on Sept. 11 hadn't happened, I would've thought, "To heck with them." But let's face it, people are scared and worse is that their enemy has no face.