The Oldest Language I Know

It must have been the beginning of summer because I was playing with my little cousin at our apartment pool. He was in kindergarten at the time.

It must have been the beginning of summer because I was playing with my little cousin at our apartment pool. He was in kindergarten at the time. I remember the way he looked at me with bright curiosity. “Why do you wear that?” He wanted to know. I was holding him when he asked. Light reflected against the chlorinated water and sparkled across his face. His question was simple, yet it rippled through the beliefs I had been quietly unpacking myself. He stared at me, waiting for an answer. I didn’t have one. Not an honest one at least. I had the rehearsed version. The elevator pitch for why the hijab wasn't inherently a tool used to oppress women, but actually one that could be liberatory. How wearing the hijab empowered me to take myself seriously, without the pressure American culture places on a young girl's body. But somehow it all felt hollow. It wasn’t dishonest, but it wasn’t my only truth anymore. So I said, “I don’t know.” Which satisfied his curiosity enough to avoid any follow-up questions. We continued to play.

I was left unsettled by my answer. If I couldn’t even feign a compelling response for my little cousin, how would I be able to convince anyone else? I knew I couldn’t continue doing something I didn’t believe in. A choice I once felt empowered by had become completely warped by other people’s expectations of me. All of the pressure of Muslim girlhood became a weight I could no longer bear.

Seven years earlier, I chose to wear the hijab. I made the decision to demonstrate the immense pride I felt for my faith, and honour who I knew myself to be. I wanted to emulate the courageous Muslim women who were raising me. I was young, but I felt like there were only two options: align myself with my community and protect our faith from Islamophobes emboldened by 9/11, or distance myself from Islam. From the outside, it may have looked like I was going back on this decision when I chose to stop wearing the hijab. But in reality, it was a continuation of what I had chosen at ten years old: to defend something I believed in. This time, I was trying to defend myself. I knew that if I didn’t, the shame I would feel from hiding who I really was would corrode my spirit until I became someone I couldn’t recognize.

The consequence of pretending felt scarier than figuring out the truth. So I did what I’d shamed other girls for doing throughout my years in youth group. The older sisters of girls we knew, whose transgressions were whispered about in the hallways after Sunday school. The girls who were ostracized or who left our community for all of the reasons girls are forced to leave. I stopped wearing the hijab and soon after, I walked away from the community I considered home.

This time, I was trying to defend myself. I knew that if I didn’t, the shame I would feel from hiding who I really was would corrode my spirit until I became someone I couldn’t recognize.

It was a dramatic decision that was made with a teenager’s lack of grace. But it was a necessary one. I called my mother who was visiting family in Morocco at the time and told her I wouldn’t be wearing it anymore. She asked me to wait until she returned, so we could talk it through together. But I was adamant; I had made up my mind. I was scared that, if given the chance, she might be able to talk me out of my decision. I made my choice and braced myself for the ensuing fallout.

My memory of this time feels murky. But certain moments return like flashbacks. My mother’s voice on the other end of the phone. My aunts coming to our house when she returned, to read verses of the Quran over me. I remember sitting between them on the couch, looking around at my mother’s chosen family, the women who protected her from the loneliness of being a widow in an unforgiving country. They were the same women who inspired me to choose the hijab when I was ten years old. Women who were strong in the face of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Women who celebrated the bravery of my choice. Who tried to uplift me through the years of harassment and bullying. Who now couldn’t understand how I had been led so far astray.

As a Muslim woman, I’m used to being surveilled—having everything I say and do get picked apart by someone insisting that I wasn’t being who I was supposed to be. Sometimes it has been my family and the community I grew up in. Other times it has been non-Muslim peers, teachers, or friends, or some version of the state, like a TSA agent or the media. I have wasted so much time as a result of the paranoia produced by the intensity of being watched, or knowing that I could be watched. I have second-guessed how and when I share myself publicly, balancing on this tightrope of my public and private lives knowing that whatever I do could be used against me or those who share the same community I do. Once, I even pulled a story about a poem I had written regarding the way the pressures of marriage have impacted me. The producer urged me to change my mind, but I wouldn’t. It was three or four years after I stopped wearing the hijab, but I still felt conscious of how my narrative could be manipulated and my intent misconstrued.

I was raised in one of the largest Muslim communities in North America. After 9/11, men in our community were arrested. Some spent years in prison under manufactured charges. I grew up in the aftermath of The Patriot Act. The Holy Land 5. FBI informants who took on the role of converts in our community. I remember when a community member's son found a tracking device on his car, which the FBI quickly demanded he return. I was raised to be protective of my community and myself. I still know how to spot an undercover cop or agent, how to use my discernment when someone starts asking too many pointed questions. It’s a skill I’ve used during protests and direct actions over the years. It wasn’t always outsiders that made me feel watched though. I have always been weary of native informants.

As this unfolded, I watched as ex-Muslims who spoke about the trauma and frustration they experienced in their respective communities were used as evidence of the inherent violence rooted in Islam. Americans, especially white ones, loved to ask me about child marriages, abuse of women, and misogyny in Muslim texts, completely overlooking the way the very violence they were asking me to explain was prevalent in Christian America. In general, Western media is obsessed with unveiling and perpetuating the myth that Muslim women need to be saved from Muslim men and even themselves. The act of removing the hijab has been used as a tool to elicit support for imperial projects, such was the case in Algeria, for example. With this context, I understood the implications rooted in these questions. I learned how to be skeptical of those who never wanted to understand my story, but sought to use my experience to reinforce Islamophobic tropes that have been used to justify US imperialism and rationalize the murder of millions of people in the name of “democracy” and “freedom,” or the “liberation” of women.

Everyone assumes I stopped wearing the hijab because it was “too much.” I couldn’t handle the harassment. “Random” airport searches by agents who look at me with pity, or worse, vitriol. The slurs that followed you from school hallways to the grocery store. The objects suddenly hurled at you from a speeding vehicle. But as painful as these experiences were, they weren’t deterrents. They were fuel. There was a certain power I felt when I wore the hijab, and I refused to let it prevent me from doing things Muslim girls weren’t “supposed” to do.

There was a certain power I felt when I wore the hijab, and I refused to let it prevent me from doing things Muslim girls weren’t ‘supposed’ to do.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend jokingly told me they were convinced I’ve stayed alive out of spite. I laughed in agreement. It reminded me of the way I joined my high school water polo team as a hijabi with zero experience in the sport. I showed up on the pool deck in my rash guard and leggings, wearing a puffy swim cap only worn by old ladies at the YMCA, and despite the looks and comments, somehow made it through the five days of intense conditioning known as “Hell Week.” By the end of my first season, I was bumped up to play varsity tournaments. Whenever I was told I couldn’t do something, or I wasn’t enough, the defiant kid inside of me stood up, prepared to prove everyone wrong. I wore the hijab like a uniform. Literally. My mom and older sister used to tease me because I never ventured into different scarf colours or patterns unless I was pushed to. Everyday, I chose a black or white rectangular scarf that I wrapped over a headband or cotton under-piece to keep it in place. I tucked the remaining piece into the fabric pulled around my neck and called it a day. I never wore pins of any kind to keep it in place. My strategy was not the most fashionable, but it was effective. It kept my hijab in place without ever pinching or accidentally piercing my neck, and I never had to stress about finding a scarf that matched. Looking back, I’ve wondered if it was a subconscious way of mitigating unwanted comments or attention. Colourful hijabs often felt like an invitation for a conversation I didn’t want to have. And I hated fielding inane questions. Now, when I look at photos of me on team picture day, my right arm hugging a water polo ball to my hip, a black hijab tucked in place, I have a hard time recalling what the fifteen-year-old staring back at me actually felt. Was it genuine indifference toward the scrutiny of others? Or was she even more hyper aware of their gaze as I still feel now? Either way, I am trying to hold her with more tenderness now.

I don’t talk about this period of my life because I hate the inevitable questions. The surprise expressed every time I share that wearing the hijab had always been my choice. That yes, a child can have that kind of agency. That it was not forced on me by conservative parents the questioner immediately imagines. That my mother actually resisted my decision to wear it in the beginning because she believed I was too young. Maybe there was wisdom in her pushback, but I am still grateful for my childhood courage. Even now, I turn to my younger self when I need a reminder of the bravery I am capable of.

As I was navigating the realities of Islamophobia while wearing the hijab, I was also dealing with the very real pressure to be a “good” Muslim girl. In high school, I was active in various groups for young politically minded Muslims. I organized interfaith spaces and tried to start dialogue about anti-Black racism within the community. I liked being part of spaces that got people to talk about what mattered. I liked being involved in pushing our community to be better. But this visibility came with attention, attention I didn’t want to receive. When I was 16, a family friend expressed interest in marrying me. He was in college at the time. I realized I couldn’t keep pretending that I wasn’t aware of the path I was being pushed on. I knew that I didn’t want to get married, and I knew I was expected to. Maybe it was because I was raised by a single mother who constantly reminded me of the pitfalls of depending on a man, or maybe it was because I was slowly coming into my queerness, but I had no interest in marriage. The idea of committing myself to someone for life, when I didn’t feel like I even knew who I was, felt like surrendering my freedom—my ability to create and choose a life for myself.

While all of this was unfolding, I was trying to make sense of my sexuality. The fact of my queerness started feeling unavoidable. I had crushes I could no longer ignore. There was a particular one that prompted me to come out to my brother, around the same time as the “proposal.” My brother and I attended different high schools, but sometimes met up after school to go to the gym together. Coincidentally, the person that worked the front desks and scanned our IDs in the evening also went to my brother’s high school. I would feel giddy about going to the gym because I knew there was a chance I would run into them. They were the coolest person in our suburban town. They rocked an undercut, wore vintage band tees, and their nail polish was always a little chipped from playing guitar. They were also Black and mixed, and allegedly dating a girl at my brother’s school. I was never confident enough to start up a real conversation, but I always made it a point to wish them a good night. One night, when we were walking home, I told my brother about my kind of, sort of, crush: “I think I might be queer.” My brother took his time before responding. His pause seemed to last a whole block. “That make’s sense,” he said. Short, simple, and affirming. I’ve always been grateful for how graciously he held that space for me. He didn’t challenge me, or dismiss it as a phase, the way others later did. Instead, he seamlessly expanded his perception of me and we spent the rest of our walk home talking about my crush.

It’s the rigidity of colonial structures, religious patriarchies, and white supremacy that requires us to contort ourselves into boxes that do not accommodate actual human lives. When I started asking about queerness in Islam, it became clear that people’s perspectives were steeped in bigotry. When I asked my Sunday school teachers (always asking on behalf of an invented gay friend), I was told that the “lifestyle” would never be acceptable for a Muslim. But I needed evidence. So I asked various leaders and scholars if there was any clear evidence that queerness was indeed sinful in Islam. I remember being told by an Imam I had looked up to throughout my adolescence, that, at best, being queer could be tolerated if kept extremely private and never “acted” upon. I remember walking away from that conversation feeling surprisingly let down and ashamed. I knew there was so much I didn’t know, but I also knew these interpretations were myopic. I had to make a choice: to expand my heart to make room for what I felt, or keep it closed. The way I felt couldn’t be nearly as haram as everyone made it out to be, because the desires I was grappling with felt freeing. They expanded my consciousness and made me feel like more was possible than what I had been raised to believe. Finally, I felt like there was a possibility of understanding myself that wasn’t rooted in something being “wrong” with me. And I couldn’t live with the regret of not taking the time and space to discover who I might be.

We are forced and pressured to shut off parts of ourselves. We cut off our desires, suppress our curiosity, deaden our connection to the erotic (Audre Lorde’s definition), in order to make ourselves legible within these systems, to make our lives tolerable within these communities. But contending with queerness forces you to say fuck that, I am choosing myself. I am choosing this heart, this body, and this spirit over whatever idea of normalcy I have been taught. My queerness saved me. Being queer helped me see that either way, I was going to be judged, so my life might as well be on my terms.

While I love living my queerness outwardly, I also miss being identifiably Muslim. I thought if I stopped wearing the hijab, I would be free of expectation. I thought maybe the hijab was why I felt so pressured to perform a certain kind of womanhood. I didn’t realize that pressure would morph and disguise itself everywhere I went. The hijab was never the problem; power structures that flourish on the subjugation of women are. The truth is, I felt honoured to wear the hijab and represent Islam. Sure, I stood out. Sometimes I was even targeted. But I was never interested in assimilation. I was the daughter of a mixed Black American and an Amazigh Moroccan. I knew I didn’t fit into the dominant white culture, and I had zero interest in contorting my spirit to try to. I liked being able to show people that Islam could be practiced in many different ways, and my approach was just one version of what it could look like.

My queerness saved me. Being queer helped me see that either way, I was going to be judged, so my life might as well be on my terms.

Sometimes I imagine what it would feel like to wear the hijab again. I miss feeling like I am part of a collective experience. That I belong somewhere. I hate that not wearing the hijab leads non-Muslims to think I resent Islam. I hate how easily people equate hijab with a lack of choice. I hate that people assume violence against queer people is innate to Islam, somehow overlooking all of the anti-trans and queerphobic violence that is steeped in American culture. I also hate that when I’ve shared these sentiments with some Muslims, they assume I want to return to how things were. That I have finally come to my senses and outgrown this “phase.” Herein lies the myth. When I wore hijab and visibly represented my Muslim beliefs, I was consistently made to feel like I was being manipulated and controlled. When I stopped wearing hijab, I was made to feel the same way, just for different reasons, and by different people. Either way, whatever I decide, people are eager to make me feel like my beliefs were not my own, and that I am being oppressed.

So much of my relationship to queerness has delicate roots in Islamic theology. Particularly, the pursuit of truth through curiosity. I once had a teacher at Sunday school tell me that Allah SWT[1] is as merciful as you imagine them. So if you imagined a punitive, punishing god, that was your god. But if you imagined a merciful creator, boundless in their mercy and understanding, that was your god. It was a choice, the ultimate exercise in creative imagination. Since then, I have made it a practice to imagine Allah SWT to be as merciful and understanding as I need them to be. Because Allah SWT could fill you with fear and compliance, or with courage and hope. And if Allah’s mercy was so boundless, then why should I be subject to the limited imaginations of others?

It was always made clear to me that Allah SWT was beyond gender, beyond race, beyond any social constructions humans use to control and subjugate one another. So in order to truly believe, one must be able to stretch their imagination beyond what feels possible. This act of imagining may have very well been my initiation into thinking beyond binaries, to the infinite possibilities that exist outside of their restrictions. My experience of Islam has also been about accepting the fleeting nature of this world, this dunya, a lesson I try to integrate into my life; nothing is permanent. This idea eases my anxieties about earthly concerns by grounding me in the fact that all of this is in flux constantly. Similarly, my queerness has taught me about compassion and accepting the limitless possibilities of our experience. Wherever there is a wall, a border, a binary, you will find queer folks, especially Black queer folks, imagining a universe beyond it. This is how I have come to understand salvation in this lifetime. In so many ways, Islamic theology is what prepared me to live authentically, by sparking a desire within me to seek the truth and try my best to embody it in my daily life, contradictions and all. True freedom is being able to accept the limitations of this dunya we find ourselves in, not as a way to consign ourselves to inaction, but rather, as a tool to sharpen our imaginations and build realms beyond this one.

A few days ago, I saw a man wearing a gorgeous cream-coloured Senegalese thawb. Something about him, so radiant in line waiting for his morning coffee, brought me to tears. When I saw him, I remembered that it was Jummah. A Muslim holy day. A prayer I haven’t participated in for years. I was struck by how homesick I felt. Not for my birthplace, but for the community that raised me, that loved me in all of the complicated and messy ways they knew how. I wanted to thank this man, with his immaculate thawb, because even though I was sitting at least five metres away from him, I knew he smelled of musk, and that he dressed himself with a gentle care and attention reserved for Jummah. And in a few hours, he would make his way to a prayer hall, surrounded by people wrapped in their culture’s celebration of the holy day. Islam has taught me, that at its best, reverence for the creator can help you practice loving and caring for yourself and your community—Allah’s creation. I wanted this man to know that his celebration of Jummah brought me back to myself. To Allah. To the sweetest parts of what I was raised to believe. That Allah’s mercy is limitless. And that our one true duty is to struggle for justice and pursue the truth.

When I left the community that raised me, I was convinced I had to leave Islam, too. It took years before I gave myself permission to return to the oldest language I know.


[1] Abbreviation for “Subhanahu wa ta'ala” or "the most glorified, the most high”

About the author

Sarah O’Neal is a North African and Black poet, swimmer, and collector of shells who is sentimental about everything. Her work is informed by interests in mourning rituals, queer poetics, and Black liberation. Sarah’s first collection, Even Two Hands Pressed Together Are Split, brought together poetry, photography, and ephemera such as riso printed postcards and handwritten stickers, to create an immersive experience for readers to explore the way embodied trauma shapes our relationships. You can read more of their work at