As a Journalist, I'm Ignoring the Producer Who Called My Head Covering 'A Distraction'

I discovered that I am to pay the price for expressing myself. I am to pay the price for following a certain religion. I am to pay the price for donning the hijab. I am to pay the price because Arab plus Muslim plus hijab does not equal a true "American" identity.
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I became a journalist to pursue transparency and truth while lending my perspective as a Muslim to clarify misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims.

I've finished my master's degree in journalism and as I enter a profession in which the opportunities are endless, I wonder: Can a Muslim woman wear hijab and be a successful on-camera reporter?

Recent events ranging from the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed to the outrageous anti-Islamic comments by our potentially next president have sparked a nationwide discussion of the insidious effects of Islamophobia in the United States.

Islamophobia. It's real. And it's been real.

I remember my first experience with discrimination. I was speaking Arabic to my brother at a grocery store. A white, elderly woman turned around, glared at me and viciously scorned me for not speaking English. As a 10-year-old I did not understand why she was so upset. I was just telling my brother he couldn't eat his Snickers bar before we paid for it. What was the big deal?

As a child with a mother who wore hijab, I distinctly remember being honked and attacked with racial slurs. My favorite: "Go back to your country!"

Very original.

I remember feeling people's eyes with disapproval and annoyance whenever she spoke her mother tongue.

As a child I realized I was different from many Americans. And I struggled with juggling the two ideologies.

"You can just call me Nora," I told people who couldn't pronounce my name.

For someone who's been wearing the hijab for almost four years, I see the differences in how I am perceived -- and they are obvious. Small talk is no longer about the weather but about the politics and conflicts in the Middle East.

I've learned that I need to try harder, smile more and be more appealing just so people can get past my hijab. It's a piece of fabric -- not a second head.

I've come to surprise people with my "perfect English" and my response to the question, "Where are you from?" The answer: "Chicago." Clearly, the answer never satisfies.

This past year I was covering the Chicago mayoral elections. During that time, I was asked by a journalist if I was a reporter for a television channel in the Middle East, the assumption being that I couldn't possibly be a U.S. journalist.

I've been fighting to stand my ground in the journalism world, even while I was a student.

In my broadcast class in Chicago, students were given the opportunity to produce live shots for a weekly newsmagazine, Illinois Business This Week, which would air on one of PBS's affiliates.

But when the day came to do the live shots, there was a problem.

My professor, Cheryl Jackson, told me the producer hesitated to put me on the air, saying my head covering could be "a distraction." In the end, after some back and forth, I was allowed to do the live shot, but have yet to hear if my segment was ever broadcasted. I've also sent him multiple emails and asked for a comment about what was said, and he never responded.

A distraction. My hijab was called a distraction.

I was speechless, furious, disappointed but most of all - hurt. Where did my hardheaded Arabness and my I-don't-give-a-shit American attitude disappear to? During this journey, I knew that this very incident would happen, but why was I filled with all this sorrow?

I know why: Because it was happening, because it was real.

That day, I discovered that I am to pay the price for expressing myself. I am to pay the price for following a certain religion. I am to pay the price for donning the hijab. I am to pay the price because Arab plus Muslim plus hijab does not equal a true "American" identity.

I look around and see different ethnicities, religions and races, and ask myself, "What does it even mean to 'look' American?" Why is my true self perceived as contradictory to the definition of being American? Why am I constantly expected to demonstrate and flaunt my commitment to my country?

I am an American. For some, my physical appearance may not scream patriotism, but an American I am -- a proud American too. I vote, pay my taxes, obsess over boy bands and, as a Chicago native, hold a firm commitment to never putting ketchup on my hot dog.

I couldn't help but be critical of every detail of the situation. For instance, why was the fact I wear hijab relevant or even necessary to be mentioned, and, furthermore, why did it require approval?

Sure, maybe Cheryl's observation that there aren't any Muslim hijab-wearing reporters made her think 'better safe than sorry.' But isn't this the root of the problem? Was a physical description of all my other colleagues presented to the producer as well?

Let me make this clear: I do not wish to be an on-air reporter because of my hijab or to be showcased as a workforce diversity case. Just as it would be taboo and distasteful to only identify someone as the "black reporter," I do not wish to only be identified as the "hijab-wearing reporter."

By doing so, we are undermining all the hard work and talent of individuals. The hijab does not define or represent my skills as a journalist. My biggest accomplishments should be based on the quality of work, not on identity. Is it too much to want individuals to focus on my storytelling, skills and love for journalism?

I took a look at the news organization's website and read its mission statement declaring it was dedicated to bring communities together and "committed to diverse perspectives."

These are strong and meaningful ideas, but even the greatest and most powerful mission statements fall flat unless they are shared and executed effectively. If media organizations with a mission statement like this fail to follow through on their commitments and goals to contribute to social change, then who will? In addition to addressing the legal underpinnings and requirements of diversity, they should also leverage the diversity that exists within the community.

As I struggled with my disappointment, Cheryl told me five words that reignited my passion and will continue to resonate with me as I continue on this journey: "We won't let them win."

I hesitantly nodded my head in agreement.

What's important to note is my interpretation of winning. This victory can only be attained when we, as a society, can come together and work for true change, when we establish a platform where voices are not silenced because of their race, religion or ethnicity but are embraced, encouraged and allowed to contribute their diverse perspectives.

When I got home, I took off my hijab and looked at myself in the mirror. I thought to myself, "If only." Did I want to take off my hijab? At that moment, yes. Did I think it was the right decision? I had no idea.

What I did know was that this meant I would be surrendering and trying to find the easy way out. Wearing my hijab is my decision, and I won't let anyone take that freedom away from me.

Several students in my class went out of their way to support me, giving me a renewed focus, as well as hope that truly I was not alone and that a more enlightened generation will resolve a dilemma like this.

I mentally took a trip back in time and remembered the struggles of other groups of people and how they were able to challenge our society, fight back and win.

The past mirrored the present so faithfully.

I reminded myself: We are the next generation who will clean up this inherited mess.

We are the next generation of journalists, and we won't let them win.

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