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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT | COMMENTARY

American beauty: Young, Muslim, and female

Asha Janay (left) and Tusneem “Neemz” Abuhasan stood at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Asha Janay (left) and Tusneem “Neemz” Abuhasan stood at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. (Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

Nikes on her feet make most of her outfits complete. But Tusneem “Neemz” Abuhasan never leaves home without her hijab.

Last week, wearing her faith on her long sleeves and being her whole self paid off when she became the first hijabi to star in a fashion editorial for Bodega, the nationally celebrated sneaker boutique based in Boston.

In a Nike hijab and Nike x Matthew Williams camouflage bodysuit, she is covered, but her dreams are on display. A graduate of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science, she wanted to be a creative and a model. She wanted to work with Nike. She wanted to have the confidence to look directly at the camera and let herself be seen as a Palestinian-American woman.

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“People see a hijab and think you’re oppressed,” said the 23-year-old, who goes by Neemz professionally. “I am just being who I am and practicing my faith, and when you are confident enough to be yourself it gives others the confidence to be themselves.”

She had tears in her eyes in May when Halima Aden, a Somali-American and Muslim model, became the first woman to pose in a burkini for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

But just as Neemz made her Bodega debut, Muslim women in France were fined for wearing burkinis in the water. The pool was shut down in a move reminiscent of the swim-ins of the Civil Rights era. The full-body swimsuits some Muslim women wear to beaches, pools, and as activewear are banned in some French swimming pools and resorts.

A new study published by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that more than one in five Americans say small businesses should be able to refuse to serve Muslims on religious grounds.

Neemz was just a child in the wake of 9/11. Born and raised in Medford, she doesn’t remember the anti-Muslim wave that washed over the country then. But now we have a president who regularly paints Muslims as dangerous. He’s targeted Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

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“I have some friends who are scared of hate crimes and going to the mosque when they are shooting people,” she said, referring to the terrorist attack on a New Zealand mosque in March that killed more than 50 worshipers. “I can’t lie and say it prevents me from going about my day. It disappoints me. It makes me show more love because that’s how you can combat hate. I want to show people those misconceptions of Muslims are not what they think.”

Tusneem “Neemz” Abuhasan.
Tusneem “Neemz” Abuhasan.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

People sometimes ask why she wears her hijab. She has come across people who wrongly think that being Palestinian means being anti-Semitic. For her, the assumption comes to down to ignorance and systemic supremacy. She is not anti-Semitic. And she’s just as much an American as anyone else.

“At first, it wasn’t that easy to talk about and come out of my shell to be proud of who I am,” she said. “To be an American has taught me to find my value and to put in the work to get what I want rather than be controlled by limits. Yes, I am a Palestinian, and I am American, and I am strong and proud of myself from every aspect and corner.”

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When people stare, she doesn’t let it ruin her day. Her desire to model is partly because of her desire to celebrate being a Palestinian-American Muslim woman in hijab.

“We never see someone who looks like us on TV or in magazines,” she said. “Now we see women in hijab and they are not terrorists. They are not oppressed. They are wearing hijabs and working in Congress. They are wearing hijabs and fighting for human rights. They are wearing hijabs and symbolizing power and beauty and educated women. We just have to keep pushing so it’s no longer a surprise when it happens.”

When the Museum of Fine Arts debuted its “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibit in March, the MFA asked Bostonians to discuss their style story and gender philosophy. And the museum chose a few to be featured in a digital series on the gallery wall through August 25.

When Asha Janay stopped to look at the portraits, she froze when Neemz flashed across the display. Goosebumps sprouted along her arms. Janay’s face seemed to beam brighter than her fuchsia hijab as she stared at Neemz, the Muslim model in Nikes and hijab.

“Honestly, it felt really powerful,” Janay said. “It felt good to see a Muslim person with a hijab broadcasted on the museum screen. We’re told to be doctors, to be nurses. To see her on screen motivates me to come out and wear my hijab and be proud of my religion.”

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Janay came to America as a toddler to live with her grandmother. Growing up in Roxbury, even as a black girl, her hijab and long skirts made her a target.

“They would call me names like ‘terrorist’,” she says. “I was constantly bullied, and it made me feel really insecure and not want to wear my hijab or tell anyone I was Muslim. I would say I was black or Somalian.”

She would take her hijab off and hide it in her backpack. But she learned there is a whole country out there that will hate you because you are black, hate you because you are an immigrant, and certainly hate you because you are a woman. It was better to take her grandmother’s advice and be happy in herself and happy in her faith.

By the time she got to Lesley University, she started to see more and more women in hijab.

“I used to have my hair out, but seeing more Muslims made me feel more comfortable in my skin and closer to Allah and happy with who I am,” said Janay, 28. “I am American. I am Muslim. I am Somalian. I am proud of who I am. In the past I let bullies define who I was. Not anymore. I choose to wear hijab because it’s part of my religion and it makes me feel beautiful.”

Asha Janay.
Asha Janay.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

But there are still times when she grapples with insecurities. As a maternal mental health care worker, she knows the toll racism, xenophobia, and hate take on wellness.

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Seeing the world close its eyes to what’s happening in Sudan as people fight for a democracy and protesters are killed and raped bruises the spirit. Watching the world open its heart and pockets to restore Notre Dame while people ignore the Palestinian-Israeli divide and rising white supremacy in America scorns the heart.

And Donald Trump, she says, is not the lone problem. We live in a system that isn’t set up for a black Somali-American woman like Ilhan Omar to become president.

But on the red and gold prayer rug she keeps in her bedroom, Omar for president one day has been one of her meditations.

“Donald Trump is a symptom of the world,” she says. “The world is not going to change until the system changes and allows for more Ilhan Omars and the system changes and we quit being so divided and come together.”

No one bullies Janay anymore. But she gets looks. And people often ask the same question: “Why are you Muslim?”

“I feel like people want me to be racist, negative, or anti because of their stereotypes of what Muslims are. We are so divided amongst ourselves. Why does anyone practice Christianity, Buddhism, or any religion?” she asks. “All religion is the same, and there’s only one God, and people call God different names.”

We are supposed to be a people with freedom of religion. We are supposed to be a people with freedom from religion.

But as a country, if we don’t do the work to build a system that allows people to wake up free to be who they are without having to fight to exist, there is no faith here. And hell hath no fury like lost hope.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee