I was a girl the first time I saw the pink boxing gloves, hung high on a rack in Sports Authority. Another soccer season, another shoe size. I was eleven, thirteen, fifteen, I was waiting for my brothers as they piled boxes of cleats, laced up and walked the aisles to see if they fit right. I held onto my shopping bag: the jeans my mother always insisted on after refusing the ones I picked out, two sizes too big for me to recognize my body as my own. I was disappointed by the end of our back to school shop, and increasingly aware of the distance growing between us – my brothers, who could choose what they wanted as long as it fell within the price range, and my mother, who seemed to sense something in me she wanted to contain. And every year, while the boys tried on possible lives, I’d point to the pink boxing gloves and ask if I could have them.
I remember the simplicity of the thought: that the color of the gloves was a sure sign that there were girls who did more than watch the boys lace up.
‘What will you do with those?’ Mummy would reply.
We would step out with the new cleats, and I’d take one last look at the gloves on the same shelf they were always on.
I am the only daughter and the eldest child in my family. Growing up, my primary friends were my cousins, and during the summers I’d watch the boys of our extended family play soccer. What I always wanted was to be a part of them. Had my ten-year-old self been given the choice to have been born a boy, I would have said yes without hesitation. I had a recurring thought that I took great pride in, and now am saddened by: that I wanted to be like a son to my father.
When my body was still a girl’s, I did play for a little while with the boys. Even at that young age I had fallen behind. I was afraid of the ball, and, perhaps sensing this, my older cousins were gentle as they passed to me. For a brief stretch I’d feel the ball against my feet and be so amazed by my ability to run with it that I’d stumble, the ball would be stolen, and still I’d be thrilled.
But the older I grew, the longer I wore hijab, the more inappropriate it became to join them. Though I wanted to test the boundary of propriety, stretch it until I became as breathless as the boys, I had started to feel, however falsely, that I was the only one of my female cousins who possessed this desire. So I assumed my place beside my sisters at the edge of the field. We came up with chants, and I was the loudest cheerer. We clapped them on, the boys, our boys, running from one end of the field to the other.
In PE class, when the basketball court or soccer field was mine to claim and there was no one to stop me, I was miserable. It was the class I dreaded most. While my classmates stepped out of the locker room in matching basketball shorts, I emerged self-conscious in baggy sweats and an oversized shirt. Though bold at home, I was shy in school, ever aware that I was the only girl in my classroom that wore hijab, and some years the only girl in the entire school. Alone before my reflection, I took pride in pinning my hijab and my personal touch of letting my bangs peek through. But in PE, where the emphasis was on the body, I shrunk myself, stood by choice at the sidelines, took long trips to the water fountain and feigned apathy for the sports we were playing.
Now it is that shame that disappoints me. Why couldn’t I be proud of who I was? Be more confident? Why did I save my birthday money to spend at Abercrombie, a brand focused on an image so unlike my own life it was as if I had been specifically excluded from it? (At seventeen, I felt personally betrayed when I learned that Samantha Elauf, a hijabi who’d applied to work at an Abercrombie store, had been told that her scarf clashed with the company’s look policy.)
It is impossible to know what it would have been like, or who I would have been, had I grown up seeing girls like me on the TV. But there were no Muslim women among the teenagers I watched on TV shows and none in the books I was reading. No hijabi musicians, news anchors, athletes or actors – we were nowhere. There were no examples of possible lives I might imagine for myself. I was in the world, watching others participate in it, but the world itself, I felt, was unaware of, or indifferent to, a girl like me.
We do unto others what was done to us: it was the women of my world that taught me that a woman’s highest virtue was her modesty. That the strength of a man was external, determined by what he could exert, whereas the strength of of a woman was internal, determined by what she could endure, and was proven through patience over conditions that were frustrating or painful. This primed me and my female cousins to accept these conditions as an inescapable reality. It was my aunts who passed us the soaped sponges and drying towels after family gatherings, while our uncles waited for their chai, their sons leaving – without admonishment or questioning – to meet their friends, to play basketball beneath the park’s blinding spotlights, to return home in the middle of the night, smelling faintly of smoke.
There was camaraderie between my female cousins and I. We scoffed and rolled our eyes at the ease of our brothers’ lives. Why can’t we go? We’d sometimes ask. Why not have them clean for once? But we’d be told again what we had already learned: the world was not safe for us, we could do what we wanted when we were married and our husband’s responsibility.
In high school, if I wanted to go for a walk, I was allowed to the stop sign at the end of the road. To stretch my time alone, I’d walk back and forth past the same few houses. Once, an assignment required me to take pictures around the neighborhood, and I was infuriated when I was told to take my younger brother. I was seventeen, he was thirteen. What did his body, skinnier than mine, possess that mine did not?
We were taught to fear rape in ambiguous and omnipresent terms, as though it always lurked just beyond the stop sign, or would come as soon as we left our families’ sight. We feared it long before we ever learned of sex, of consent, of pleasure. Our bodies were at once so powerful they could endanger us and also, confusingly, fragile – we were incapable of protecting ourselves from the very danger our bodies provoked.
It was the way it would always be, there was no point protesting. So I washed the dishes. I carried out the trays of tea. I was infamous for being the laziest of all my cousins, I was teased for it, but I didn’t care. I’d walk to the stop sign and then turn the corner, take a seat there with my notebook. I played chicken with myself – aware of approaching footsteps, noting the make of each car that slowed as it drove by, waiting for one to come around again, wondering if what I had been taught about the world was true.
When I was fifteen my cousin Khayam taught me how to throw a punch. Where to place my thumb so it was protected, and how to land knuckles first with my wrist locked in. He was one of the cousins who had gone out of his way to pass me the soccer ball. Maybe it was his unvoiced understanding of me – that I wanted into the boys’ world, or rather out of the boundaries imposed on my own – that made him teach me. Hands up like this, he said, guard your face. I took it so seriously he laughed. I raised my fists. He held up his palms and I practiced landing punches. Eventually he gestured to his upper arm saying, let’s see what you’ve got. I positioned myself and looked down at my formed fist. All it took was for someone to say: hold your body like this, position your feet like this, and I sensed it – I could have a relationship with my body beyond deflecting attention away from it, that there was a knowledge of the body I could learn. I took a deep breath and exhaled as I released my hand, but in releasing I did not let go. I followed the movement with all the force I had in me, like I had something to prove, like this was my one chance to do so, until my knuckles landed flat against his arm and he jolted from the impact. We both looked, for a moment, startled. That hurt, he said. Your knuckles are bony, he added quickly. I was also surprised: not at being capable of inflicting pain, or even that I had enjoyed it, but by how when he flinched I had felt the possibility of my own power. For years the thought would return to me with pride: I know how to throw a punch. How to protect my thumb.
By the time I was twenty-four I owned a pair of pink boxing gloves. The first time I slipped them on I did not know how to jab or cross. I did not know about wraps for my knuckles and wrists. I did not know to control my pace or the impact of my fists. I only saw the punching bag, and I went. Full speed, full force, without thinking to conserve my energy. I didn’t even want to, I wanted to exhaust it all. I was unrecognizable to myself, but also arriving at myself, finally, ecstatically alive. When I was out of breath and sweating, when I was dizzy from how good it felt, when I was in so much pain I had to stop, I pulled my hands from the gloves, and each of my knuckles was bleeding, the top layer of skin scraped clean off.
Growing up, it was not unusual for childhood disagreements to suddenly crackle into scuffles. My brothers and I would draw our fists to finish our arguments. We understood early on that the peace, restored as quickly as chaos erupted, would be tilted in the winner’s favor: their prize the last Popsicle, or the choice of that Saturday morning’s cartoon.
‘Be careful,’ Mummy would tell me, ‘One day they will be stronger than you. You won’t win.’
I didn’t believe her. And I especially didn’t want the fact of my body to prevent me from trying to win, from participating. To fight was a way of giving voice to my own desires, of asserting my own existence. But one day my brother hit my arm with a force that shocked me: my entire arm turned into jello. I did not hit back. I maintained a brave face. Even in the logic of children the lesson was linked: if power was held through asserting one’s strength, to be a girl meant being vulnerable to the wills and whims of others.
It was my choice, at nine years old, to wear the hijab. I was in third grade. I understood enough then to know that it was worn for God, that it was an expression of devotion to the faith. But sometimes I wondered how much I wore it for the women of my world, as a way of saying to them: look, I am with you. I belong to you. And I’ll assume my role beside you, no matter what it entails.
That first day I wore it, my mother came to my class to explain why. She spoke to a room of silent nine year olds using terms like attraction, desire, detracting attention from the physical body, drawing attention to the mind. My face burned. What even was desire? I didn’t know. I was too young to recognize it in myself; it would be years before I could locate it in my body, even longer before I could name it and claim it. But even then I knew not to trust my capacity to inspire it.
‘Did you understand what she said?’ I’d asked my friend after my mother left.
‘Sort of,’ she replied. ‘It’s about who you are on the inside.’
Every way of relating to our own bodies was for some end, or in relation to something other than itself. We wore hijab for God. We dressed modestly so as not to ignite a man’s desire, to guard men from sin. We saved ourselves for our husbands. Was sex then, also for them?
The body is where the sense of self begins. You must feel ownership of your body to know yourself – to be able to trace your feelings and name them: fear, hunger, desire. Only then can you advocate for your body, define a relationship to it that exists beyond what other tells you it is for – that exists just to exist, just to experience its own existience.
I wore my hijab until I decided, at almost 22, that I wouldn’t any longer. By the time I was 25, I’d seen, for the first time, hijabi characters on TV shows and hibjabi girls in GAP Kids campaigns, hijabi Barbie dolls and athletes wearing hijabs designed by Nike. I’d held the first magazine featuring a hijabi cover girl, watched the first American hijabi Olympian bring home bronze, and listened in awe to a hijabi rapper on repeat. Each time I experienced a flood of pride that swelled and felt so deeply personal that I didn’t quite understand it and was almost embarrassed by its force. But I was also unnerved by the presence of a voice – my voice, or rather, the voice of the girl I once was, asking, where were you?
Did I wonder if I might have felt both shielded and affirmed had there been hijabi athletes and anthems growing up? Would it have made it easier to imagine the possible lives that awaited me? Or is it that I might have never chosen to take off my hijab, giving up the daily ritual I chose in earnest: to fold and wrap it gently, pressing the safety pin beneath my neck and letting my bangs peek through. Perhaps I would have remained that woman, if not forever than for a little while longer, before becoming the woman I am now, who cannot go back to undo that decision, who would not, most days, want to.
Still, to this day, I go to meet the eyes of hijabi strangers I see on subway platforms and street corners, I nod, prepare to lisp a salaam, before it occurs to me all over again – they will not recognize me as theirs. And maybe I am no longer theirs, maybe my body only represents itself now – and wasn’t that exactly what I once wanted? But sometimes, when I wear my hijab again out of respect for the mosque, I am so overwhelmed by tenderness for my old reflection and a longing I do not understand, I have to look away after the thought, there you are.
Almost a year after I moved to Brooklyn, my brothers visited me. It was the first warm weekend in months. We walked along the promenade and they took off running as soon as they saw the soccer fields. By the time I reached them they’d joined a game. Ali was the goalie, Mahdi was dividing a group of strangers into teams. I dropped my bag and my green sweater on the turf. I tied my hair into a tight bun. As I stepped onto the pitch to join them, I realize I hadn’t even hesitated, and neither did my brothers. For a moment, I thought of how far we’d come, my brothers and I. How clear it was when we were growing up what behavior was inappropriate for me. But now we were running together with strangers and thinking nothing of it. Mahdi moved beautifully, his body carrying the knowledge of all those games Mumma Baba drove him to until he bored of the sport. I was proud as I watched him, of how he kept up with the other players, how he had a style his own, but I was envious too. Not because of the difference in our skill, but because of how effortlessly he inhabited his body on the pitch, as though that were a language he had learned to speak, one he had to be introduced to as a child, one I sometimes feared was too late for me to learn.
I followed the grand arc of the soccer ball each time it was kicked high across the blue sky. I sprinted. I guarded. I wasn’t good, I was pretty bad even, but now it was my younger brothers who passed me the ball, and not so I could assist the team. I loved them for it. They didn’t know what I was battling again inside me as I played, and they couldn’t possibly understand what it had been like to sense, as a girl, that I was born apart from them, that their bodies would know their own strength, their own ability, while we cheered from the sidelines – but their kindess seemed rooted in dim awareness of that difference.
This year I’ve developed a boxing routine. Each time I walk to the gym I feel like I’m fulfilling a promise to my past self. I love it so simply. I love the ritual of wrapping my knuckles and wrists, and I love the bruises on the days when I forget to. I love asking my trainers questions, love learning to twist my whole body to emphasize one action, love the connection between extending a fist and lifting an ankle. I love expelling my breath in sync with each punch. Whenever I learn something new, or practice a sequence until its smooth, I’m elated for hours.
No one ever actively stopped me from playing sports. I know that now. I never said to my parents, as they drove my brothers to soccer games hours away: ‘Take me too. Put me in. I want to try.’ I had never seen a hijabi athlete, but I also never said: Fine, then I will become her.
Sometimes, when I’m boxing and locked in a flow, an old anger rises in me and I recognize it at once. It is the same anger I swallowed when I watched the boys lace up. Or when I looked back at the pink boxing gloves. When I watched men moving through the world with such ease, with so little to stop them, bewildered by what they chose to waste their freedom on.
The anger is so potent it is as if I am still inside of it, as if I have never left it. I do not dismiss it or swallow it. I try to turn it into something I can use against the bag. And the ringing of the chain with each landed cross, each thudded hook, reminds me that my body is mine, and that my life is mine too, that I can continue to try to make possible what I imagine for it, and that thought only fuels me to hit harder, faster.