PEI·First Person

I'm an athlete, and I happen to wear a hijab. Get over it

Fairouz Gaballa does not see many other people wearing a hijab at the track when she trains — or very many other places in Charlottetown.

My hijab doesn't define me, but it's part of who I am and I will never give it up

Fairouz Gaballa started wearing her hijab in Grade 8, and now sees it as an integral part of her identity. (Submitted by Fairouz Gaballa)

This is a First Person column by Fairouz Gaballa, a student in Charlottetown. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There are moments when I'm running when I feel out of sorts and completely different from everyone around me.

I wear a hijab and you don't see many others wearing them on the track — or in other places on Prince Edward Island.

However, there are other times when I forget that I look different from everyone else because I feel so comfortable doing something that makes me feel good about myself.

There are a lot of people who genuinely believe that women are oppressed in the Islamic faith. A hijab — a head covering that many Muslim women wear — is perceived by some as symbol of oppression.

When I first began wearing my hijab in Grade 8, it was just a religious act. But a few years down the road, it became who I was — a sweet proclamation of my identity in the face of Islamophobia.

There are awesome things that come from wearing a hijab — like never having another bad hair day. But in a western society, there are a few setbacks to wearing a hijab. Aside from the prejudice and discrimination I face regularly, I realized that there aren't many athletes who are also hijabis.

A drastic change, overnight

When I started wearing my hijab, my life changed drastically.

I went from having friends to having no friends, from people thinking I was of mixed race (because of my pre-hijab appearance) to people automatically assuming I must have been a refugee from Syria who spoke no English. I had immigrated as a child from Egypt, but I grew up on P.E.I., and I speak English fluently with a Canadian accent. 

Whether anyone decides to admit it or not, there are some teachers and kids who discriminate against students who are different.

I went from being a friend to a "terrorist" or a "towel head." People avoided me. Living on P.E.I. was especially hard because the Island at the time was not as diverse as it is now. 

Fairouz Gaballa says no one remarked on her appearance until she started wearing a hijab while still in school. That's when nasty, hate-filled comments filled her ears. (Fairouz Gaballa)

Fast forward to 2021, and there are still bigots who think any individual who wears a hijab is automatically a refugee or a "terrorist" or some terrible human being.

Finding my place on the track

While wearing a hijab, I've been part of two sports. From 2016 until 2020, I was part of Charlottetown Martial Arts where I competed in many tournaments and a couple of championships. Aside from myself and my sister, there was only one other female competitor who wore a hijab, and she wasn't from P.E.I.

I joined the track team in my last year of high school in 2019, and I've been running ever since. I'm now on the women's distance team at UPEI. I'm again the only athlete on my team who wears a hijab.

I'm happy to prove bigots wrong, and I'm happy to smile at people who call me 'towel head' as I run past them

Sometimes, when I'm running, all some people do is stare, and not the "hmm … cool" kind of stare. Those stares lead to a smile, and then those people go on with their day. These stares are different: eyebrows pinch together, mouths open, heads turn and follow me as I move. There are no smiles, and it's uncomfortably awkward. 

Fairouz Gaballa, centre of front row, is a proud member of UPEI's track team. (Submitted by Fairouz Gaballa)

My varsity coach, who got me into running in the first place, creates an inclusive and tolerant team culture, and everyone is expected to work as a team. I don't think there's any space for intolerance or bigotry. 

As well, there have been some awesome teammates who genuinely go out of their way to make me feel comfortable and part of the team. And that effort definitely goes a long way.

I am happy to be an athlete who happens to wear a hijab. My hijab doesn't define me as a person, but it is part of who I am, and it's something I will never give up.

I'm happy that I know for sure at least one person who feels like they're the odd one out will see me running, and feel like they too can do something regardless of how they look.

I'm happy that regardless of how much insecure, angry individuals try to put me down, I don't stop running. I'm happy that I'm doing something I love.

I'm happy to prove bigots wrong and I'm happy to smile at people who call me "towel head" as I run past them.

Fairouz Gaballa says she will not stop running with her hijab regardless of what bigots call her. (Submitted by Fairouz Gaballa)

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fairouz Gaballa

Contributor

Fairouz Gaballa is a third-year psychology student at the University of Prince Edward Island, where she is also an athlete on the women's cross-country team. She was born in Cairo, and immigrated to Charlottetown when she was nine years old.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now