This article is part of a special series exploring our stories as visibly Muslim women in the last two post-9/11 decades.
By Shay N.
You’ve heard all the stories, and yet there are so many more to share. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning in September when the world changed forever. Where I live, here in New York City, Ground Zero and September 11th is never far from our thoughts. Two years prior to September 11, 2001, I decided to wear the hijab. I was finally feeling comfortable, confident and proud to wear it. But as the events of that horrible morning continued, my anxiety grew. I knew what was coming. No, not that Muslims would be blamed, but that my husband was about to join the rescue efforts.
He was an NYPD lieutenant assigned to a precinct in Brooklyn at the time. My heart ached for the countless lives that were just lost while the world was watching, and I felt more afraid than ever to lose my husband. When he joined the NYPD, he was one of the first Arab-American, Muslim officers to join the biggest police force in the world.
He was not afraid; after all, he had seen unimaginable violence in his 14 years of service. However, when he came home the next morning, he had a look I had never seen before; it was the look of trauma, shock and sadness. The NYPD was joined by police departments from all over the country and the world to help with this devastation. There was so much death and uncertainty, as the city that never sleeps was suddenly silent with sadness.
That sadness quickly turned to anger. That anger soon turned to rage against Muslims. I was afraid to step outside my door; I kept our kids home from school. But, it was about to get worse.
I had a complete breakdown when I found out a few days later that my daughter’s teacher had lost her daughter that day, so much so that her family comforted me at her memorial service. After that, the funerals seemed endless, and the depression was taking a hold of me. I was afraid that as a visibly Muslim woman, I would become a target. I found myself at a crossroads.
I knew that I did not want to take off my hijab. After all, I have the right to practice my religion and worship as I see fit, don’t I? What kind of precedent would I be setting for my daughter? More than that, how could I stand before God and tell Him that I feared people more than His judgement? I had no one to turn to but Allah (S). I prayed and reflected and hoped that I would find inner peace.
From the horror of that day a beautiful thing was born. Many people researched Islam and ultimately decided to revert. The NYPD Muslim Officers’ Society also grew. The organization was approached by many to use their voices to bring awareness that New York is full of heroes, including those who are Muslim. They went on television and visited Washington, D.C. as well as other police departments in order to educate the public. I was inspired.
I put my journalism background to work and started writing. It was satisfying to be able to reach so many people and to see other communities reaching out to us. As the years went by and the wars in the Middle East continued, my faith only increased. I started mentoring Muslim youth and formed bonds that still remain strong. As their questions came, my faith grew stronger. I had to study Islam more so that I could help them. I grew so much as a Muslim, a wife and mother and as a New Yorker.
I rallied Muslim women in the community and with their donations of food and money, we donate to a local police precinct and firehouse on Christmas Day. My children and I delivered them in person with a thank you card. After all, bridging bonds and fostering understanding happen when we as Muslims show who we are, not defend who we are not.
Interfaith events became more frequent, and people from other communities reached out to us to help foster understanding and brotherhood. I encouraged my children to volunteer and to never be ashamed of who they were and where they came from. I realized that part of my depression came from the chaos and uncertainty surrounding us. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could only control myself and my reaction to things.
So, I channeled my energy and anxiety into event planning. At least there I had some control over an event that was happening and found satisfaction in seeing young people starting their lives together or celebrating a milestone in their life.
More and more Muslims became outspoken. More Muslim-owned businesses were formed.
Awareness and kinship to the Muslim community were strengthened. Muslim women emerged victorious as they made their voices heard and asserted their God-given rights to practice our religion in public, in peace and in continued prosperity. As we continue to face challenges the world throws at us, I feel more confident than ever that the new generations of Muslim women will continue to have a positive impact on the world economy, politics, education and bringing their inner beauty out for the world to see.
Shay N. is a first born American Muslim to Egyptian immigrant parents. Her background is in communication and journalism. She is an event planner and designer and the mother of three. She currently resides in New York City. Find her on Instagram @enchantingdetails