The 2014 Women’s Leadership Awards allowed various women to share their stories with us. They were inspiring and we wanted to share them with you.
Fatima Bawany is a junior studying Religion and Biology. She won the Fannie Bigelow Award. Below is her personal statement.
“What’s that towel on your head?” I can’t count the number of times I have been asked this question.
I chose to wear hijab, the Muslim head covering, during high school as a symbol of commitment to my faith. As I entered school on the first day, I had no idea that it would produce such a reaction. I was greeted with stares, gasps, and a barrage of questions, some bordering on the ridiculous. I soon realized that the hijab would signify more than just a change in appearance; it would mean a change in character.
Over the years, it has grown on me, serving as a reminder of my identity and values. It has given me the responsibility of furthering my own religious knowledge in order to portray Islam in its true light. Now, I no longer avoid the questions it draws. Whether through blogging, writing editorials in the local newspaper, or speaking to communities across Rochester about my decision to wear hijab, I feel honored to act as a representative for my faith, for brave women everywhere who have challenged societal perceptions on beauty.
In this post-9/11 society, many people associate my hijab with oppression, terrorism, and extremism. In fact, my hijab is liberation and empowerment. Covering my body has allowed me to unveil my voice, ideas, and actions as a strong and capable young woman.
As I continue to answer questions about hijab, all the while increasing my confidence and molding my individuality, I also strive to help others express their own unique identities. On campus, I have helped to create the Students’ Association for Interfaith Cooperation (SAIC), in order to empower students to share their different spiritual traditions and experiences with each other. Though faith can be a taboo topic, SAIC has allowed us to break barriers by creating a welcoming environment where students are allowed to question, to discuss, and to understand
My goal to connect with people of different backgrounds has not only encompassed
diversity in faith, but also in cultures. In order to explore cultural diversity in Rochester, I spent a year as a regular volunteer in the refugee community. The heartbreaking stories of violence and hardship that I heard from young children quickly inspired me to organize student-run festivals and service trips in subsequent years to help refugee youth feel a sense of belonging in Rochester, and to instill a sense of social responsibility in Rochester students.
As I continue to pursue my passion to promote understanding amongst people of all faiths and all traditions, I can’t help but think about that very first day of high school, where I felt misunderstood and scrutinized, just because I veiled my hair. I overcame, and I have counteracted stigmas of Muslim women as I, with my hijab on, have served as a leader and advocate for understanding on my campus and in my community. My hijab has given me the courage to stand up for myself and for the traditions and faiths of others. Though it appears to be simply a piece of square cloth, after being transformed by it, I can say that each and every thread carries with it responsibility, empowerment, and an inner desire to excel.