Mejgan Rahimi* was coming out of a doctor’s appointment and headed to the parking garage one clear morning near South San Francisco, California. Her attention was fixed on her three-year old-daughter, who was in the midst of a customary tantrum, when a man came up to her. Mejgan’s first instinct was to smile, until he moved closer.
“You fucking Muslim. When Trump gets elected, you better leave,” he said to her.
It was 2016, before Trump got elected, before the Muslim travel ban, before he tweeted his most contentious Islamophobic comments yet. Fearing assault, Mejgan, whose face was framed by a hijab, went to shield her daughter, but realized she had someone else to protect as well — her unborn son.
She turned away and started to dial 911. But when she looked back, the man was gone. She called the doctor’s office to see if they had security cameras installed. They did not. She drove home that day terrified, her daughter in the car seat kicking up her feet, her hijab growing tighter and tighter, to the point where it felt claustrophobic.
“Not only was my oldest child in jeopardy, but my unborn child was in harm’s way,” Mejgan told me earlier this year.
And so, after weeks of contemplation, she decided to take her hijab off.
Removing your hijab is never a spontaneous act. Like most things, it is gradual, like the way you build (or unbuild) a relationship with the person you once called home.
For Mejgan, that relationship with the hijab was unbuilt in three years. She put on a hijab when she was 30 and came to the decision on her own, as a way to reflect her inner resolve and spirituality. The first year Mejgan wore a hijab, she loved it, but soon after she began to struggle.
Mejgan always had anxiety, but when her strong, willful daughter was born, it grew worse. Beyond the sleep deprivation that comes with being a new parent, she “started to feel intense claustrophobia.”
“I had felt this way before if I wore turtlenecks. If I got stressed out, it felt like someone was choking me. As my daughter got older and threw tantrums, my anxiety and stress level would go up, and I’d get more and more claustrophobic.” Like clockwork, anytime she was stressed over her daughter, any cloth stretched on her skin felt confining.
And so when the man verbally attacked her, it was the breaking point. “With my claustrophobia being what it is, [wearing a hijab] wasn’t worth it. And when that incident happened, I started to realize that hijab is not for me.” She had worn it for five years.
When Muslims think of California, they think of the strong job market, the diversity — and, most importantly, safety. But with a seven percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents the year Trump ran for office (the highest rate since 9/11), even California has lost its protective shield, making almost no place safe for a Muslim today. And at the front lines of this growing conflict are hijabis, the most visibly Muslim people, who bear every attack, every insult, with grace.
For Engie Salama, a UCSF pharmacy student who has worn a hijab for twelve years, these hate crimes escalated in 2015. She’d begun studying at one of the best schools in the country but was besieged by competitiveness, demanding coursework, and the perpetuation of microaggressions. Engie called election night in 2016 “one of the worst nights of my life,” but it was the San Bernardino mass shooting, in December, 2015, which occurred when Trump was campaigning, that made her feel unsafe to wear a hijab.