When I moved to America in 1994, I was a bride of two weeks. I lived on campus at Northern Illinois University with my husband while he completed his undergrad. That year I began wearing the hijab, or the head scarf that many of my fellow Muslim women wear.
After we left NIU, I continued to hold onto this facet of my faith. I wore the hijab with diligence while I interned at Chicago Public Radio and even as I had my first child in 1997. Soon after, I began working full-time at an internet consultancy. I was one of the few people who had a family to rush home to after work. I was one of two people who sounded different when I spoke. I was one of the ones who didn't head out for drinks after hours, because it was against my religious beliefs.
Wanting to fit in and to forge friendships that lasted beyond the 8 hour work day, I began to view the hijab as a symbol of what stood in the way. Over the next few months, I gave up wearing it while on the commute on the train into Chicago. Soon, it came off completely. The Islamically appropriate loose clothes I wore gave way to more form-fitting outfits. I felt comfortable with this new style. But when my boss told me that I'd done the right thing because the hijab posed an invisible barrier between me and our team, it stung.
Happily, I realized that the people who had chosen to be my friends at work while I wore the hijab were the same people who continued to be my friends. Perhaps wearing or discarding the hijab didn't impact my relationships after all.
Over the next decade or so, I ran my own business and did many public speaking engagements. All the while, the hijab stayed off. I told myself that I was a more approachable ambassador of my faith if I didn't wear it. If people had questions about Islam, they would be more comfortable approaching me without the hijab. I noticed that no one knew I was a Muslim unless I brought it up, and my justification for not wearing the hijab began to feel hollow.
In 2011, I completed my Masters from Northwestern and decided to build a career in corporate America. This was also the year that I decided to adopt the hijab once again in my own life. I hesitated with what to do at work. I decided I would only wear it outside of work. I thought the hijab could be a strike against me, especially in PR where image was everything.
But as I reconnected more strongly than ever with my faith, I felt cowardly for hiding my beliefs.
I found the courage to lean in and to wear the hijab in public, at interviews and, if hired, at work. Didn't my faith teach me that as long as we worked hard, bounties came from our Benefactor? I began interviewing with the hijab on. Within weeks I landed my dream job. I wore the hijab with pride.
I recently changed my LinkedIn photograph to a smiling woman in hijab. Am I afraid that future employers may judge me and disregard my potential worth? Certainly. But leaning in takes courage. It is about risk. And I've decided to take one.