“When I walk into a room," Aly says, "the assumption is that I’m not from here.” Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Eman Hassaballa Aly, digital communications manager and Muslim.

“Most of the time, I just call it a head scarf. ‘Hijab’ means ‘barrier,’ and it feeds into problematic conversations, because people start saying that it is protection, that it protects you from rape, and then things get very victim blaming. But ‘hijab’ is the word everybody uses.

“My parents are from Egypt, and I was born and raised in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. My mom never pressured us, but she hoped that by the time my sister and I got our periods we would wear a head scarf. I was always like, ‘Nah, I want to do my hair and wear makeup in high school, so maybe I’ll do it after high school.’

“Then, in the sixth grade, I had a tough, tough year. There were only a handful of brown kids in my school, and I was a chubby kid, very shy. My mom was trying to convince us that the next year we should go to an Islamic school instead. To visit that school and see what it was like, we had to cover our hair. I felt so comfortable that I decided that day, ‘I’m just going to wear the head scarf.’ I’ve never looked back since.

“In public, nobody really talks to me. When I used to take Metra to work, it was hard to get anybody to sit by me, even when I had a good seat on a busy train. And when I walk into a room, the assumption is that I’m not from here. I used to live in Elgin, and one day I was at Jewel and some lady said, ‘How do you like it here?’ I said, ‘Here . . . in Elgin?’ She said, ‘Here in America.’ I said, ‘I love it, because it’s the only place I know.’

“I try to project my identity and my American-ness past the head scarf. Like, I’ll talk about how cheeseburgers are my favorite food, or how I love Twitter. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I think, “Everything I do is going to reflect on Muslims,” but sometimes I think, ‘Eff it.’ When I drive a little aggressively, my husband says, ‘You gotta respect the thing that’s on your head.’ I say, ‘I reject that. I’m way more than just my head scarf. I’m not going to be boiled down to that.’

“The morning after the presidential election, I was on my way to work, and some woman looked at me and smiled and looked away, and then she shook her head and frowned, like, ‘Oh, man.’ It was like a sad apology, a sympathetic ‘This is so horrifying a thing that happened.’ Thankfully, I haven’t had anybody say anything to me. My husband is a finance manager at a car dealership. He’s Egyptian, and he has an accent, and a customer called to speak to him. He called her back and left a message, and she drove to the dealership, found a white employee, and said, ‘Why does your finance manager have an accent?’ I feel like that’s something people feel that they can say postelection.

“I heard about the safety-pin thing, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s great.’ I’m not gonna shit on somebody’s gesture of support. If people are putting on a safety pin to make themselves feel better—whatever, I don’t care. I look at it as a net gain.

“I’ve been trying to get my anxiety under control. The problem is, I’m in this echo chamber. Fear is just bouncing off the walls, and I don’t even know where to go to get out of it. A group of my friends was texting, ‘Are you guys gonna get your documents and cash together in case we have to leave in a hurry?’ I’m not doing that. I’m not going anywhere. This is my country as much as everybody else’s.”   v