“To be an attorney, you need to have a certain look. And you just don’t have it.”
“Why the f*** do you even wear that thing on your head?!”
“The judges are going to be more critical of our team when they see you with us – It’s not personal, you understand that, right? We’re just trying to do what’s best for our team.”
Surprisingly, I did not hear these criticisms at a Trump rally. I heard them from a teammate, a coach, and a captain in the course of two mock-trial seasons during my junior and senior years of college. Looking back, I regret that I failed to muster anything more than silent, seething indignation in response to these comments.
I am a Muslim American woman in my first year of law school in Chicago; I aspire to be a public interest attorney and rid the world of all evil with a casebook and a gavel. Ambitious, I know. Since childhood, I knew that I wanted to spend my life helping others. There was something rewarding about forgetting myself and investing my time and talents to making someone else’s life better. But that was the easy part–I had no idea exactly what shape this life of helping others would take.
I come from a sheltered, traditional Indian/Pakistani/Kenyan family that did not push me toward a high-powered career. However, my parents highly value education. My dad inculcated two concepts in his daughters’ minds. One, that we could do whatever we set our minds to, granted that we always remembered our faith, family and heritage. And two, that education would open all doors.
I attended a small, private Muslim school and enjoyed a close-knit family life, so essentially everyone I came into contact with was a close reflection of myself. Unfortunately, this comforting familiarity both in and outside the home shaped me into a timid person, always apprehensive of new and different settings. I did my best to blend inconspicuously into the background, assuming I would not leave much of a mark on the world–not because I did not want to, but because I did not think that I was capable of it.
The idea of going to law school was a fleeting thought sometime in my junior year of high school. It was the time of ACTs, college visits, and cocky students presuming that we actually knew what we wanted out of our lives. When a college admissions counselor came to our school and laid out options for those interested in law school, I meekly asked a question about the program. The students around me immediately scoffed, “Mahira? Law school? Don’t even.” Cheeks flushed, I sunk even lower in my seat. The door to law school had slammed shut.
Six years later, I don’t blame my peers for sneering. Everyone knew of my paralyzing stage fright, my shaky confidence, and my mediocre grades. But there was something else: I was terrified of leaving my comfort zone and defying the status quo because I was a brown girl who desperately longed to fit in. Over the last half decade, I have come into my own and I credit my growth to a handful of mentors and friends who pushed, challenged and cheered me on.
Everything appeared to be moving in the right direction, until it came to a screeching halt. In my junior year of college, I joined a mock trial team, excited for the opportunity to take the principles we had been studying from paper to stage. My enthusiasm was short-lived.
On day one, a coach bluntly told me I couldn’t be an attorney on the team. He told people behind my back that I could never be an attorney because of my hijab.
To me, he was always nice and made me think that it was because I just wasn’t good enough. People were quick to reassure me that he did not mean that my intellect that would hold me back, but rather my hijab—apparently my being an attorney would attract too much negative attention. They intended to comfort me but it doubly stung to know that I would not even get a chance to fail before being written off.
I internalized these comments and fell back into my old, diffident self. “Maybe there was some truth to his perception of me?” I never doubted my choice to don the hijab, but this person had planted a rotting seed in my mind—“Maybe I won’t be a successful attorney because I’m not smart enough. Why can’t I think on my feet? I should craft more persuasive arguments. I’m just not cut out for this.” I kept my nagging doubts to myself, but in private they grew to such a degree that I surreptitiously began to research paralegal programs in case law school proved too much of a stretch.
After an entire year of internalizing all the insecurities, I finally told my mentor and my friends what was bothering me and they were angry that I had let it go on for so long. I came in the next year and suddenly ended up as a team captain and double attorney when my team captain had to take an extended leave. I did not want the position, and nor did I think I was capable of it but I was told by my mentor and another coach that I had no choice and that there was no one else to lead the team, so I took on the challenge. I spent my senior year furiously preparing for the LSAT, applying to law school, and proving to myself that I am capable. I stopped questioning myself and God. He had put me in this position for a reason and that reason was to help people.
There is something uniquely odd about experiencing prejudice – no matter how intelligent, educated or kind a person you are, those moments reduce you and your entire life to nothing more than a stereotype.
It takes your breath away, because with one cutting sentence or action, you are stripped of the nuances of your identity. Just as damaging is how these instances make you wonder if your hijab is a liability and not an asset. It makes it difficult to walk down the street with your hijab-clad head held high.
Take Dalia Mogahed or Linda Sarsour, for example. These are two incredible women who break barriers, own their identities as Muslims and challenge the status quo wherever they go. They are, as Linda Sarsour says, “unapologetically Muslim.” I aspire to be like them—to be unapologetically Muslim and also to dedicate my life to public service. I aspire to take on the world on my terms, the way they do—using my faith as a guiding light and my hijab as my armor. To me, they are superheroes to a world of women, particularly Muslim women, desperate for role models.
My path to law school is riddled with mistakes, fear, and insecurities, and I am sure that my future will contain much of the same. But right now, I realize that these discrepancies are only human and that the most important thing is to rise above it all. I did not come to law school for glory or for fame. I came to law school because I see the problems that my community and many other communities deal with, from discrimination to lack of resources, and I aim to fight such injustices.
In the last few days, I have seen so many communities gripped with fear over the results of the presidential election– I feel it too and every day feels a little scarier than the last because we don’t know what to expect. But trust me– I don’t intend to cower in fear or give up and move to Canada. I intend to strengthen my resolve and to move past the fear and to watch and learn and to fight back the very moment anyone is attacked for who they are or what they look like. I intend to be strong and to stand tall and to never give up, even if I am the only one fighting. I am a Muslim American woman and proud to be, and I will never give up because this is my home and I’m not going to let ignorance and bigotry conquer it. So who’s with me?
Mahira Musani is a first year law student in Chicago.