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Laila Alawa

Artist & Researcher

Princeton, NJ

I chose not to let others set barriers and limitations on me because of the manner in which I dress or what I believe.

I am a Muslim American woman.

The reason I lay out those three key identity components is not to simply state the obvious, but to explain how I perceive myself.

Growing up in America, I believed in the American dream: that everything was laid out there for me to pursue. I was outwardly identifiable as Muslim, to be sure, because of the way I dressed, but I believed firmly that with the right amount of guts and hard work, nothing could stop me in my pursuit of a higher education and a better quality of life; nothing, not even the perceptions of my faith by others.

It was in this frame of mind that I entered my senior year at a well-known women's college in New England and, just like every other student at my school, applied to a travel program for winter break session. I fell in love with an educational psychology program and applied to it confidently, sure that my qualifications would more than guarantee my admittance to the trip.

I was more than overjoyed to receive an invitation to the program, and when I was asked to meet with the program head, I eagerly set up a time.

But at our meeting, the program head said that my admittance into the program was not final because I wore a headscarf. It was a shock. "The principal at one of the schools we will be observing isn't happy that you wear it," she said matter-of-factly, "So we need to figure out how to hide your scarf or you won't be able to attend the program."

I sat there, numb and almost incredulous, as she asked me whether it would be possible to take off the scarf (no!). As the meeting ended, I plastered a smile on my face and she patted me comfortingly on the back, no resolution to be had for how to remedy this situation.

I left the office and walked robotically to meet a friend for lunch, the smile still clownishly stuck on my face. It was only when I relayed the story to my friend that I burst into tears of utter helplessness and frustration. How could this happen? I was being forced to choose between a potentially career-changing opportunity and the very physical fiber of my identity. As I mulled it over, I realized that two paths had unfurled before me: to lean in, or to lean back.

I could not afford to lean back in this situation. I would not - could not - allow anybody to force me to choose between compromising my beliefs and my potential.

With the support of those close to me, I made the bold decision to leave a message with the secretary to the college president: "If your winter program was not open to women wearing the headscarf, why did it not say in the catalog, women with headscarf need not apply?" Regardless of the consequences, I could not allow for future students to face the same discrimination and be turned away from the program for their choice to express their beliefs.

I woke up the next day to a number of phone calls and emails from the college's administration and deans, all scrambling to rectify a situation that, until I had made the choice to stand up for myself and lean in, seemed to have been a closed book.

I became the first woman with a headscarf to attend the college's winter program. It was an empowering and developmental experience in more ways than one. I chose not to let others set barriers and limitations on me because of the manner in which I dress or what I believe, and that resonates with me to this day as I make my way through the "real world."

In choosing to lean in, I chose to regain the power that was wrongly taken away from me. I regained the autonomy to carve my own path as a Muslim American woman.

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