How White Supremacy and Islamophobia Under a Republican President Created a Muslim Marathoner Girl
By Nadrat Siddique
One recent MLK Day, I experienced deja vu in the park where it all started. I was at Burke Lake Park in VA, engaging in what I thought was an appropriate activity in honor of the great civil rights martyr: an 8K race billed as the “Keep Moving Forward” 8K Trail Run. I had hoped for a race in DC or Baltimore, organized by a Black rights or civil rights organization, with which to mark the occasion. Since I couldn’t find one, I opted for this. Proceeds from the event benefitted United Community Ministries, not at the top of my list of organizations to support. But then beggars can’t be chosers.
I attended high school entirely during the Reagan years, and proudly wore the hijab for the entirety of my middle school and most of my high school. In 1979, I experienced a life changing event: a visit to Iran following the Islamic Revolution there. I was 11-years old at the time, and accompanied my father, Dr. Kaukab Siddique—a freelance journalist and maverick whose work, albeit lacking formal recognition, would come to influence the Islamic movement in the U.S. for decades to come—to the Islamic Republic. Together we witnessed the power of the people to topple Shah Reza Pahlavi, a dictator armed to the teeth by the U.S. government, his monarchy and that of his father supported by the U.S. for decades. The Shah operated by imprisoning his political opponents, who were often brutally tortured by SAVAK, the secret police closely aligned with and trained by the CIA. Eventually the Iranians had enough, and took to the streets in a bloodless revolution, literally stopping the Shah’s tanks and troops with their bodies.
As a young Muslim girl growing up in a non-Muslim country where I was consistently treated as an outsider, I was particularly struck by the confidence, near swagger even, of the young Iranian college women. Dressed in unconstraining black headscarves and tunics, which they wore over elegant flowing pants loose enough to facilitate a round-house kick, the female college students walked with confidence and carried automatic rifles, holding their own. I was in teenage awe, and when I returned to the States, I deliberately adjusted my rather generic style of head-scarf to a style which more closely resembled that of the Iranian students.
At the time, we lived in the homogenously White DC suburb of Annandale. Each morning, my sister, who is two years my senior, jumped out of bed around 5:30 AM, ran to shower, then put on her silk blouse, designer jeans, and makeup. She styled her hair perfectly, checked herself in the mirror, and made her way to school very early, so she could be there before most of her peers. She was on the photo journalism club, a member of the student government, and every other school club imaginable. Sleek and slender with a model’s body, she was a runner who, much to my envy, ran at least five miles a day. With her dark hair, long lashes, and exotic beauty, my sister mesmerized nearly every guy in school.
While my sister was already on her way to our school, each morning, I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed. I put on my dark-colored hijab and loose-fitting shirt, and made my way to the same school. On a good day, I would make it there just as the school bell rang. More often I would be there a few minutes late, or not at all.
No one forced my sister to dress as she did. And no one forced me to wear the hijab.
My sister and I attended the nearly homogeneously White, upper middle class Annandale High School (AHS). She was an upper classman, and I had just started there. There were no other evidently Muslim students. There was an Iranian boy named Reza, whom I suspected was Muslim. But he looked and acted White, interacting without qualm with his White peers and teachers, but redirecting his gaze immediately if we made eye contact. So, I did not pursue conversation with him. In any case, my communication skills as an adolescent were nil, and I would hardly have known what to say to him if we had conversed.
The persecution started soon after I began school at AHS. I do not recall how it started. Granted, not only I wore Iranian style hijab, but I brazenly displayed a poster of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, whom I greatly admired for his stance against what I viewed as an imperialist superpower, in my school locker. I viewed both the wearing of the hijab and the display of the poster as First Amendment protected-actions. Hence I did not think it should make me the target of violations of my civil rights.
Yet, every day, fellow students, often White males who were much bigger and older than me, would hurl ephithets of “Blue nun,” “ayatollah,” or “raghead” at me. “Get that rag off your head,” they would jeer, savagely yanking my hijab or slapping me on the back of the head. Very often these sorts of interactions occurred in the school stairwell or hallway soon after I arrived at school. Unfortunately, they were but a prelude for what was to come during the course of the school day.
Without realizing it, I developed strategies for dealing with the bullying. At times, I would arrive in class as early as possible and take a seat in the part of the classroom where I thought the bullies were least likely to sit. At other times, I would get to the class as late as I could without missing the attendance roll call, to minimize the time between student arrival and teacher arrival, and therefore the “bullying window.”
In some classes, the persecution was worse than in others. The classes with the most “freedom,” i.e., allowance for the students to physically move about, were the ones I dreaded the most. Off these, Earth Science was perhaps the worst. The bespectacled, bearded, hippie-looking Caucasian teacher was particularly inattentive. The students could wander about the classroom, under the pretext of looking at the aquariums, terraniums, and other displays set up by the school’s Science Department. And that gave them an opening to yank at my hijab.
A pair twins, Denise and Robin Wright, were among my classmates in Earth Science. Both were very beautiful per the Eurocentric ideal, and very physically fit. Denise had highlights in her hair. Robin’s hair was so black, it was almost blue, and her lips were always perfectly made up in red lip color. Robin gave me a proverbial pat on the head, telling me I had beautiful hair, and why did I have to wear “that thing on my head.” She thought it horrible that my father made me wear it. She would tell him—on my behalf—what he could do with it, if she had the chance.
It was my very first semester of high school, and my first crack at a real science class. Needless to say, I fell flat on my face, earning an “E,” and was ordered to retake the class in summer school. With such a start, I marveled in later years that I was able to undertake and effectively complete a degree in a hard science—biochemistry—at a competitive American university.
Physical education (PE) class was by far the worst. On the first day of PE, the school screened us for multiple scoliosis (MS). All of us girls lined up in long lines that spanned the length of the gym for the screening, waiting to be seen by the nurse practitioner and her assistant. I had no understanding of diagnostic screenings, or why they were done. I had poor posture, accompanied by a very negative body image. By the time I got to the front of the line, I had convinced myself that the spinal curvature of my slouch was an indicator of MS. (It wasn’t).
Not having a clue how to nourish myself, I indulged in the heavily meat- and sugar-laden diet of my family home with abandon. As a consequence, I had the typical rotund desi build, and was very uncomfortable with the idea of having to undress in front of other girls. On top of that, there was the Islamic prohibition against disrobing, including in front of those of the same gender. I was shocked that the other girls seemed to think nothing of it, bantering and carrying on in the nude, as they changed and showered together in the locker room. Loathing the concept, I feigned illness or injury, and got exemptions from PE class whenever I could. At other times I would simply hook the class. Even when I was physically present, I would stay in the girls’ locker room during PE class while the other students ran around the fields or played handball, volleyball, softball, flag football, and other sports. Amazingly, I made it through that first year of PE, earning a “P” (for “Pass”). But, the following year, I missed so many sessions of the dreaded class that I received a failing grade, and had to re-take it during summer school.
Eventually, the girls’ locker room became my cave. I would frequently seek refuge there even when it wasn’t time for PE class. I hated lunch almost as much as I hated PE. In the cafeteria, bereft of the political correctness provided by adult monitors, some of the wildest behaviors occurred. Kids would indulge in salacious talk as a matter of course. The bolder or stronger ones would concoct cruel pranks to play on smaller, weaker, or more susceptible students. They would bully, hit, sexually harass, or subject such students to epithets.
To escape the horrors of the cafeteria, I would come to the locker room and sit very quietly. I never cried in response to a set of circumstances which I realize in retrospect would have left many girls sobbing, screaming, or reporting the perpetrators. And although I came from a highly educated family—my father held a PhD and my mother a Master’s degree, and and at least six aunts and uncles held, or were in the process of completing medical, engineering, or RN degrees—no one suggested to me that what I was experiencing was a gross violation of my First Amendment rights. Nor did it occur to me, a child of 14, that I could have taken AHS to court for these violations.
In the locker room, I would sit and eat the high-fat/ high cholesterol lunch prepared by my mother. If anyone entered the locker room —they rarely did during the lunch period—I would freeze like a terrified animal, in the hopes of remaining unnoticed. Only later did the oddity of eating lunch in the semi-dark of the locker room, and its implications for my incipient eating disorder hit me.
History class gave me a glimpse of alternatives to hiding or persecution. There too, at the beginning of the class period, as the students were taking their seats and before the teacher got there, there was persecution and taunts about the hijab. In the class were two tall skinny White boys, one with sandy brown hair (named Tim), and another with dark brown hair (named Kevin). In blue jeans, boots, and with chiseled good looks, they were the epitome of cool, and had the respect of the class. And—for some inexplicable reason —they defended me regularly. In response to the bullying, one or the other of them would tell the youthful tormentors, “Come on, man. Leave her alone. That’s not cool.”
Only later did I find out that these two were flunkies, which was why they were so much older and more informed than the rest of the students.
The class was taught by a stylish young woman with auburn hair, named Sallie. She found out about the persecution, and admonished the perpetrators that it was my right to wear the head cover. Very quickly, the perpetrators blended into the woodwork.
A few weeks later, we were all standing in the hallway during a fire drill. Taunts and whispers about the hijab had started when Sallie walked by. I was happy to see her, and thought she might defend me as in the past. My heart sank when she told me, “I’m sure you have beautiful hair. You don’t have to hide it all the time, you know.” Sadly, she said it in front of some of the tormentors.
The bus ride to and from school was where some of the worst abuse occurred. Since there was only one adult present, and about 30 kids, all unmonitored, they could do what they wanted to me. One of them would slap me in the back of the head. Then, when I turned to identify the perpetrator, they would cover for each other, pretending they had no idea what I was talking about. Or they would apply one sharp backward yank on my hijab, which I had tied tightly underneath my chin. The tight knot alone prevented the removal of the holy garb. But—the daily ordeal convinced me that I was surrounded by enemies.
Sometimes the persecution continued even after I got off the bus. I would walk purposefully, holding my head high, in the direction of my house. Sometimes a bully or two would follow me for a short distance, muttering things about the head scarf. Perhaps fearful of being observed by adults now that they were out in the open, they did not pursue me for any great distance.
One day, the bullies—I wasn’t sure how many, because I refused to look, or do anything that revealed fear—followed me further than usual into the town house complex. One of them came bounding up, and tried to kick out my knees from behind me. Fortunately, I was walking with a sturdy, balanced gait, and although my knees partially buckled at the impact, I did not fall down. Another kid who rode my bus, fearful I was about to be beat up, yelled, “Run Nadrat! Run home!”
I did not look back. And—I did not run. Innal hokmo illah lillah.
Eventually, the attempts to forcibly remove the holy cloth became too much for me. I would deliberately miss the bus, and then my mother would have to drop me at school. I felt badly, that I was adding to the burden for an overworked, frequently exhausted mother. And—from the single conversation I’d had with her on the topic, I knew she did not support my wearing the hijab. This made asking her for a ride even more unsavory.
On the sole occasion when I raised the topic, the conversation went as follows:
Nadrat: “Ami. They pull my scarf.”
Mother: “Pull it back a bit, then they won’t do it” (meaning I ought not wear the hijab in such severe fashion, far down on my forehead, and perhaps allow a bit of hair to show as she did with her Pakistani-style hijab).
Deeply chagrined at what I felt was justification for the bullies pulling my hijab (ie the style in which I was wearing the holy garb, was eliciting the attempts to forcibly remove it), I never mentioned it to her again. I also did not bring it up with my father, expecting that my mother would advise him of the situation if she thought it important enough. (She didn’t.)
My mother would drive my little brother to his elementary school, drop me at my high school, and finally make her way to her part-time job. One day, I decided I would walk. Henceforth, I neither burdened my mother with requests for rides, nor endured the purgatory of the school bus.
The only problem was getting out of bed. Leaving the house in the early morning hours, when the sky is still dark, and—if it’s winter—it’s cold outside, is anathema to any 14-year old child. But rushing to a place where one will inevitably be persecuted makes it even less attractive. Hence I would stay in bed as long as possible, until my mother came to my room and told me “Stop hibernating like a stupid, fat bear.” This only added to the perception of my mother as wholly lacking in empathy for me. And—it cemented the very negative body image I already had. Since I typically woke up late, I had to hurry to make it to school before the first bell rang. The idea was to sneak in before that happened, so as to attract as little attention (and thus elicit less persecution) as possible. So I had to walk fast.
At first, a slow walk was all I could muster. I lumbered along through the woods on the short cut to school. I was a bit out of breath, my ill-fitting jeans were tight on me, chafing against my thighs, and I was sweating. As the weeks went on, I walked slightly faster and felt better. Initially, I walked only to school, taking the bus on the return. Eventually, I started walking home as well. I would hurry along, hoping to beat the school bus home, thereby avoiding any encounter with the persecutors. Although I did not realize it at the time, this caused me to walk ever faster. My fitness was improving gradually. And some mornings, I would wake up very late, not wanting to go to school at all. When I finally left the house for school, it was at a trot. I trotted through the woods in my hijab, tight jeans, and long shirt, book bag on my back, wishing I was going anywhere but to school.
By the time I entered the 11th grade at AHS, I had further refined my technique. I would leave the house in the morning as if going to school. Instead of school, I headed for a patch of bushes on the periphery of the housing development. The bushes were substantial enough to shield me from view, but sparse enough to let sunlight through. Somehow I found great comfort in them. I would lie there, sometimes dozing off, until such time as I imagined both parents had left the area. Then, I would get up, dust myself off, and head to a nearby trail I had discovered. By this time, my family had relocated within Annandale. We now lived in a townhouse off Braddock Road. Nearby was Burke Lake Park. Fortuitously for me, the trail I had found led to it. I would walk at a good clip, arriving at the lake by noon. The lake was spectacular, and I grew to be in awe of it, letting my imagination run wild. I would dream of paddling the huge, glistening lake by canoe, or throwing out a fishing line and pulling out a very large, shiny fish. I felt great comfort in spending the day by myself in the wilderness. It did not occur to me that anything could have happened to me, a young girl of 15, alone in the park for hours each day. I felt a Force protecting me there, and I was certainly much safer there than at school, where there was only hatred and bullies.
Not far from Burke Lake was Wakefield Park, a recreation center which included a swimming pool and tennis courts. Sometimes I would spend part of my day there, watching kids in their swim classes. Then I would make the hour-long trek home. My sense of timing remained sorely lacking, so sometimes I left the park too late, necessitating a jog to beat bus, bullies, or my parents’ arrival home. Amazingly, the running was getting easier, and I was moving more quickly and with confidence.
Occasionally I would forsake the park for the city. At age 15, I had a political consciousness far beyond my years. I attributed this to the fact that my father, to whom I’ve always been close, was a journalist, writer, and political activist. He was a long-time opponent of the Bhutto dictatorship. In point of fact, Bhutto had threatened to jail him if he dared return to Pakistan. Instead my father had chosen self-exile.
One of his first jobs in the United States was with the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the largest and most reactionary Muslim organization in the U.S. at the time (it later became known as the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA). My father was editor of MSA’s news magazine, called Islamic Horizons. In violation of editorial policy, he dared to criticize the Saudi dictatorship, as well as other repressive Arab regimes. The MSA, whose major underwriter at the time was Saudi Arabia, rapidly fired him. But—they could not silence him.
Needless to say, much of the talk in our household was of a political nature. As a consequence, I too, became very political, and my activities in the city reflected that. But first—with Annandale being so remote and inaccessible—I had to catch a bus, followed by a train, followed by another bus to get to the action.
By age 16, I had joined the youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party and regularly travelled to the city by myself, using public transportation. The oddity of an ostensibly sheltered Asian Muslim teenage girl, traipsing around some of the most downtrodden areas of Washington, DC, never occurred to me at the time. As with my visits to Burke Lake Park, I felt much safer in the DC Hood than in the White Supremacist trap of AHS.
Lying about my age to the socialists, I hooked school to attend their meetings, as well as those of various anti-war and solidarity organizations. I liked the SWP’s rhetoric, against U.S. backing of dictators in places like Iran and Nicaragua, and their support of liberation movements like the FMLN, FSLN, and the New Jewel Movement. They were very accepting of me, hijab and all, and appreciated my youthful enthusiasm for their various campaigns. Under their tutelage, I read the Marxist theories propounded by V.I. Lenin, studied the techniques of labor organizer Farrell Dobs, and marveled at the sacrifices of the socialist leader (later political candidate), Eugene Debs. I also worked on the campaign to stop the deportation of a Mexican labor leader named Hector Marroquin.
One day, I was campaigning with the socialists at a Black high school in the heart of DC. Our tactic was to stand outside as classes were letting out, and offer students copies of the party’s newspaper, called “The Militant.” But for a short while, we were inside the school building, waiting for classes to let out. The bell rang, and students proceeded from their penultimate class to their final one. I was shocked to see that some of the students were young Black Muslim girls in hijab. Even more shocking was the fact that no one was harassing or belittling them. In fact, their (entirely Black) peers seemed to be treating them like equals, and as if everything was normal!
In Spring of 1985, I hooked school near daily to work as a student volunteer in the national office of the April Actions Committee. The office was run by activist Michelle Tingling-Clemens, who later became renowned in the DC activist committee for her principled stance for DC statehood, among other issues. It was also at the April Actions office that I met Luci Murphy, a local jazz legend and activist who would become a role model and mentor for me. The office coordinated a diverse coalition of groups, which cut across racial, ethnic, social, and gender lines, bringing them together for an April march for “Jobs, Peace and Freedom.” The experience enlarged my horizons, gave me confidence in dealing with the public, and helped formulate some of my current world vision.
Time flew by, and before I knew it, I had missed two-thirds of the classes I should have taken that school year. Fortunately for me, the parents never asked how my school day went, or what I had learned at school that day, so I continued to flourish in the safety of Burke Lake Park, or at the April Actions Committee.
Then one day, there was a knock on the door, and it was the truant officer. Only then did my parents realize something was amiss. Needless to say, I had failed the 11th grade, and would be taking it again.
Our family moved to Perry Hall, a Baltimore suburb, in conjunction with my father’s job. There, I had a fresh start. After five years of wearing hijab completely unsupported and in a hostile environment, and yet refusing to remove it, I felt I had won that battle. Temporarily, I set it aside in favor of a kaffiyah. And—I wore a black tee-shirt saying “Question Authority” to class. Amazingly the kaffiyah did not elicit quite such hatred as an actual hijab. (The “Question Authority” tee, on the other hand, did raise the ire of some teachers.)
In keeping with the tee’s message, I daily questioned what I regarded as “the establishment version of history” in my humanities classes. In April 1986, the U.S. bombed Libya in violation of international law. The strike killed Colonel Qaddafi’s daughter. The next day, I clandestinely placed fliers decrying the bombing in the students’ lockers. The administration announced over the PA system that the fliers in no way represented the views of the school, were in fact anti-semitic, and that anyone with information on the culprit ought come forth.
Despite these minor clashes with the PHHS administration, I had a more positive view of school there. And, although the persecution had ceased, and there was no pressing need, I continued to use running as a mode of transportation, at least one way (usually on the return, from school to home).
Perry Hall High, for some reason, placed me a PE class with entirely obese students and smokers. The class was tested for their mile times on the high school track. Other than a very fit girl who happened to be a smoker, I was the only one able to meet the minimum requirement (in fact I was significantly faster than the requirement).
As a result of doing well on the one-mile test for PE class, I developed an affinity for the Perry Hall track. I would frequently run on it after school even when I didn’t have to. And- I would nearly always run home after school, books and other belongings in a backpack on my back. It was a liberating feeling.
That fall, while my parents were away, I participated in my first race, a fun run at White Marsh Mall. I was not very fast, and looked nothing if not dumpy in the few photos I found of that race much later. But that did not stop me. Shortly after that, I did the very hilly Zoo Zoom 5-Miler (at the Baltimore Zoo). I had just begun to run, and would not stop until I had done dozens of 5Ks, 10Ks, and 10-milers. I did my first half marathon (13.1 miles) in 1992, five years after completing high school.
In 2007, as I wrapped up a long, drawn out biochemistry degree, I toyed with the idea of running a marathon. Throughout high school, when I had an exceedingly low self-concept, regarding myself as fat, dumpy, and unattractive, I’d admired Grete Waitz, Ingrid Christianson, Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter—all world class marathoners, and all very white. There were no Pakistani women marathoners for role models. Pakistani women simply weren’t lean and fast, And they weren’t crazy enough to run such ridiculously long distances. Neither—by all appearances—did African women, or any other women of color. So, in this arena at least, there were no shoulders to stand on.
After two years of convincing myself that running 26.2 miles was within the realm of possibility for me, I ran my first marathon in 2009 in Harrisburg, PA. I did not hydrate or replenish electrolytes properly in that first marathon, and so “hit the wall” at mile 21. That forced me to stop running, and, feeling a tinge of disappointed at getting so close, but yet missing the mark, I walked the remaining 5 miles of the race. But, as I result I was challenged to do another marathon. And then another. That year, after Harrisburg, I ran the Rehoboth and Charlotte marathons.
The following year (2010), I did the Washington, DC; Frederick; and Omaha marathons. Omaha was my first time running the 26.2 miles in under 4 hours, but that has rather become a standard for me.
Last spring, I ran the Boston Marathon in the name of Pakistani woman neuroscientist whom the U.S. unfortunately holds political prisoner on trumped up charges, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. That was my proudest moment ever, not because I was running Boston—I’ve qualified for that many times prior, but elected not to run it. Rather, I was so pleased to run in her name, that of an outstanding, innocent Pakistani Muslim woman of great achievement. She deserves to have a marathon named after her. And—she deserves be released, immediately and unconditionally.
This past fall, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, my 34th time doing the 26.2 mile distance.
On Martin Luther King Day, as I visited Burke Lake Park, an adult athlete about to run the MLK 8K, the memories from adolescent days spent there came flooding back. As a young girl, I had experienced isolation, loneliness, and the need to flee persecution. But, I had been certain of, and determined to defend to the hilt, my identity as a Muslim and my right to wear the hijab. At that time, I had only a superficial awareness of the civil rights movement. Even White High Schools like the ones I attended mandated that students watch a movie on Dr. King on MLK Day. The students did so reluctantly, many of them rolling their eyes with evident resentment or contempt for the film’s subject. So I was aware, at least, of the popular version of Dr. King. But—I had never heard of Freddie Hampton, George Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, Assata Shakur, H. Rapp Brown, Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, and others who had made immense sacrifices for true freedom for all people. At the time, I had known only that my right to wear the hijab, something ordained by the Creator, was being denied. But as I soon found out, Black people in this country were experiencing far more serious violations: They could be shot by police, merely for walking or bicycling down the street; strip-searched in public view by police; beat to death for not wearing a seat belt. All these were daily violations experienced by Blacks in a country which claimed to extoll Dr. King.
Once slow and lumbering in that very same park, I took first place in the 8K that Martin Luther King Day. And I did so again the following year. As I thanked the Creator for the gift of running, I realized that a furnace of persecution could be a means to open my eyes to natural alliances.
© 2018 Nadrat Siddique