It was in my faint reflection of the Claire’s store window, breath misting the glass as I considered the previously-unattainable – strands of a glimmering customizable necklace on display, the promise of femininity and allure all wrapped up in an $8.99 deal – that I came to my decision. I had a few well-worn dollars in my purse, and I was ready to make a change to my identity.
It was a meticulously made decision, a conclusion from countless nights of confused reflection and days of frustrated reality. I was done allowing people fit me into a box. This was the only way I could see to circumvent the whole system.
I was born to a life already loaded with dreams and expectations. The first child of my young parents, endowed from birth with the fearlessness my mother passed down to me; her savior from the creepy-crawlies of the world that stumbled into our little apartment. My unruly hair was barely held back by baby barrettes as I toddled to the window with the newest culprit, Mama standing up on the table, as far away from hundred legs it possessed as she could possibly be, a phobia embodied – all the while cheering me on for my bravery.
I never had time for dresses.
Their frills were useless to me, posing nothing but an obstacle to my plans and adventures. Mama gave up on me after years of trying, her brow creased, full of frustration.
I was the eldest girl; why wasn’t I being girly? New mothers are supposed to be able to swaddle their little girls in the prettiest of pinks and purples, aren’t they?
The world was out there for me to conquer, even if I was only eight. I could barely brush my hair into place, how was I going to fit yards of fabric into my life?
“How could you like to make jewelry? Aren’t you a tomboy?” My friend couldn’t understand my itching desire to create pretty things.
I didn’t understand.
My mother has always seemed invincible to me.
Creases always perfectly folded in each of her headscarves, each a symbol of care and strength. We weren’t allowed to touch them, but being awarded the responsibility to iron her scarves was something only I was given. I did the job best. It was the closest I came to being her. She stood down for no one, protests silenced by her glare and sharp words.
My Mama had no time for anyone’s foolishness.
“Why are you so weird?”
The pretty girls at the mosque wore their scarves pinned so neatly, the wispy edges of their dresses untouched by dirt or torn from the decision to run for no reason. They giggled and talked behind neatly festive fingers as the boys proved their manhood by throwing the basketball back and forth and riding on their skateboards in the parking lot.
My headscarf was elastic, a two-piece I carefully matched to my outfit, my one special skirt that I wore to the mosque. It didn’t glimmer in the same way the girls’ scarves did. But I was okay with that.
I didn’t understand why the boys didn’t look at me in the same way when I joined them in their sports. Or why the girls gave me a wide berth when I stumbled on them in the bathroom, interrupting their laughter.
I couldn’t get away from their looks fast enough.
“Tell us, Laila. Why are Muslim women oppressed so often abroad?”
The whole room is facing me, my throat suddenly dry. Their eyes are blank and full of questions; why didn’t I have the answer ready? This was supposed to be a Model UN simulation of the Security Council. I was representing China.
My fingers shook as I pushed a stray hair back into my good pink two-piece headscarf. It had an intricate lace overlay and I had felt so put together that morning carefully arranging it over my bun. I opened my mouth, closed it, feeling parched.
“Why are you asking the representative of China to speak for the constituents of the Middle East?”
The words left my mouth before I realized it.
“I bet you can’t do it.”
My Mama is looking at me from the rearview mirror; hand on the back of the seat as she backs the car out of the parking space. I glare at my hands, incensed by the doubt.
“Ayonna wears it. I bet you couldn’t wear it for six months.”
My impatience bursts. “I could. You can’t say I couldn’t. Can I wear the two-piece? I hate wearing your kind of hijab. I can’t run down hills with the pins.”
She laughs, amused. “It’s your choice. I have no say over what you do, Laila.”
I stare out the window, resentful, proud. I can do what I please.
I want to put on the headscarf.
“Ahh! It’s still alive!”
The girls kept screaming at the boys as I came out of the bathroom stall, the only calm amidst the chaos in the lobby of the mosque.
“What, this?” I swiftly cornered the terrified mouse with the dustpan, carrying it out proudly, scalded with the glares of the boys and heralded by the girls as their savior.
That was nothing.
She was well-intentioned, I repeated silently to myself as I walked out of the metro station, she didn’t mean wrong.
It didn’t stop me from feeling funny when the older white woman put a hand on my shoulder and confided softly, “You still look pretty, even with that on.”
Was I supposed to feel indebted to her?
The necklaces shimmered as the store attendant threw them in the crinkly white bag.
Three colors of stones, carefully chosen to match my outfits, my future.
The receipt was barely in my fingers before I ripped off the necklace’s price tag. It moved so smoothly against my shirt, the beads clinking together faintly as I took a step forward.
Maybe I could fit in with the rest of the girls now.
Mosque had never seemed so far away.
“Feminist. How can you be a feminist if you’re Muslim?”
He made it sound like a dirty word. My scarlet letter. I felt proud.
He didn’t think I fit at the mosque. Just because I had spoken out at an event in favor of the women. Weren’t we all in college?
I laughed it off. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He smirked: “I do.”
I broke a necklace climbing the jungle gym at the mosque in a skirt.
The beads dripped slowly off the strings. I scrambled for them before they disappeared forever in the dirt. I could put it all back together at home, I just needed the chance to take a breath and string them all back.
I had the tools to change it.
“Muslim. How can you be a Muslim if you’re a feminist?”
I don’t have patience for this. I didn’t even know her name. She didn’t even know my story.
I can. I am.
The necklaces stay coiled in my jewelry box.
Dust has settled between the beads from the months of neglect. I don’t wear them anymore. I don’t see the need for them anymore.
Who is the world to try and define me?
I refuse to join the necklaces in the box. I refuse to be boxed up with the expectations and stereotypes they hold. I refuse.
I define myself. Nobody can take that away from me.