On November 8, while most of the country watched election returns in varying degrees of disbelief, Varisha Khan was debating a bill on the floor of the University of Washington’s student government. The senior and founder of the school’s Middle Eastern Student Commission peeked occasionally at her peers’ laptops for news, but her focus was representing her constituents. It wasn’t until her drive home to Woodinville that she considered how life was about to change for the more than three million Muslims living in the U.S. Rather than despair, though, she stopped to buy ice cream and chocolate for her two little sisters. The first step was comforting those closest to her; the next will be fighting for everyone else.
I was six on 9/11. My dad was driving me to school, and my mom called and said, “Something bad happened in New York. The Twin Towers have been hit. Don’t send Varisha to school.” Once we got home, she was crying. And I still remember her words. She said, “Things will never be the same.” And she was right.
The first time I felt unwelcome in the country I was born in, simply because of my religion, I was in elementary school. I was called anti-Muslim slurs by one of my closest friends. She thought it was normal and playful. I didn’t want to go to school after that. I didn’t feel like I could trust my closest friends.
My parents taught me to have faith in God, no matter what. My mom and I would reflect on things that were going on in everyday life, and I might say, “I felt uncomfortable because of something that someone said.” And she would say, “There’s a verse in the Quran related to this. This is where the hope is, in this verse or this teaching.”
I’ve lived my whole life conscious of my faith and how others perceive me. But I’m proud of who I am. I know that I’m different, and I want people to know that.
Election night was so bizarre. It was like, Okay, the tables will turn at some point. We’ll start to see more blue on the map pretty soon. And that just didn’t happen.
Do I feel safe? Yes and no. I feel safe within the circles that I’ve found in student government. In my office there are student commission directors for black students, native students, queer students. It’s literally an office full of people whose communities have been attacked. So we all understand each other. But walking around campus, right now? No, I don’t feel safe. I’ve tried to implement a buddy system, and I try to walk with someone as much as I can. It’s hot in here. I’m hot right now, but I’m wearing a jacket with a hood. I came in here wearing a hood to cover my hijab because I don’t know who is walking behind me.
It never once crossed my mind to take off my hijab. I’m not here to compromise my faith. Now, I understand doing it if you just don’t feel safe. But it’s an extremely hard decision to make. The hijab gives you a sense of security. There’s a bubble of comfort. And to take that off, it’s almost like walking outside without clothes.
Anytime I interact with someone, I know I could be the first Muslim they’ve ever met. So I always put out my true self and my best self—every single time. That person’s impression of Muslims may be based on their interaction with me. And that’s empowering.
Once I’m in the dirt, it’s just me. And I have to face my maker with everything that I’ve done and everything I haven’t done or could have done. So every single day, I wake up thinking, “What am I going to do today that’s going to have the biggest impact?”
The great thing about being the Middle Eastern Student Commission director at UW is that it actually gives me the opportunity to do tangible things. And what I’m doing is talking to my constituents, the Middle Eastern students that I represent, and saying, “If you do experience a hate crime, the most important thing to do is to report it.” We need to document this. We need to make sure that people know this is happening right now, that we’re not just ignoring it and letting it happen.
The Thursday after the election I couldn’t go to class. My brain just wasn’t there. I intended to go to a lunch for safe space and conversation scheduled by the Department of Communication. I needed that self-care and support. But then I got a text from someone who said, “There’s a press conference happening in Beacon Hill at El Centro de la Raza. Would you be able to go stand with these community members?” I weighed the options and realized if I went to the lunch, I’d be going for myself. But if I went to the press conference, then somewhere in Seattle or Bellevue or Bremerton or maybe Spokane, an American Muslim mother and child sitting at the dinner table would see that on the news and think, “They were speaking out against the hate and the rhetoric, and there was a Muslim there to represent us.”
What gives me hope is the promise of America. I can get a college degree. I can be an attorney and make a difference in the legal system. I will not only have opportunities to get by, but also to be highly successful. I guess the call for first female president is still open.