A Day in the Life of a Niqabi Mother in New York

3 September, 2023
The introspections of a South Asian niqabi mother in Manhattan on anti-colonial and post-colonial literature as she spends the day with her daughter at one of New York’s oldest libraries.


Noshin Bokth


Living in an apartment in the middle of Manhattan is treading the nebulous line between intimate coziness, oppressive clutter, and endless wonder. That is the sentiment I begin with on most mornings. My overzealous toddler rouses me to the hazy glow of dawn. But trepidation and anticipation are inextricable when you live life as a mother and a writer. So it begins: Pancakes or oatmeal for breakfast? Have you seen my doll, Mommy? By now, my mind is resuscitated via an incessant pandemonium of to-dos, demands, and apprehension. As the apartment becomes redolent with the scent of coffee, I wonder about lunch. Do I have to cook, or will leftovers suffice? With a deadline approaching, when and how do I schedule work? Do we go out today, or do we stay in? Of course, toddlers are notorious for their mercurial dispositions, which means most of our daily endeavors depend on my two-year-old. 

On this particular day, there was a slight respite from the searing humidity typical of New York City summers, and following my daughter’s wishes, we decided on muffins and books, meaning brunch and the library. This also meant that I would have to forgo a few hours of sleep to enjoy a leisurely and intimate day with my daughter and also work on my article. Wandering down the shabby yet vibrant New York City streets brought back memories of my time as a teenager attending high school on the West Side and reminded me that I was no stranger to city life. My introspections are unrelenting as we pay a visit to our local library, park, or cafés. I recall being one of the few South Asian Muslims in my classroom. It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to process how my past experiences colored my present. Today, alongside my role as a mother, I am a niqabi woman who, strangely enough, writes about anti-colonial and post-colonial literature for a living. 

Taking my daughter to the library is a weekly and necessary affair. However, I am profoundly aware that navigating the shelves to sidestep the Western narrative is a harrowing task. My daughter’s future will be saturated with fake news, the rise of AI, and social media. Propaganda could consume her if she is not equipped to be critical of it. I was not trained to do so. Nevertheless, despite my high school syllabus consisting overwhelmingly of Western authors, I found a brilliant literary canon in which everything I was taught about the white man saving the persecuted people of the East was shattered. But I do not wish for her to endure this agony; my fervent hope is to enable her to confidently challenge the inevitable deceit of popular media and academia.

In school, I was taught a sanitized version of history, one in which the discovery of America was a boon to the world, and the savage plundering of indigenous people was obscured. A particular day in my global studies class has left an indelible impression on my psyche. The lesson was the East, as they preferred to call it. The enduring legacy of Muslim leadership was abridged, to be discussed for only a day. Being the only Muslim in the classroom, I felt a sense of duty to contribute, essentially taking on the role of educator. Of course, I was lauded for my participation, but was still left feeling disaffected. This discomfort continued as headlines proclaimed that the United States’ invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were crucial and worthy of esteem. It is only they that can rescue the downtrodden and oppressed Oriental woman. As a teenager, I unfortunately did not have the language or knowledge to articulate that Western writings aim to depict those like me as the “other” and Westerners as the standard or even the ideal. I was simply left in my lonely haze without clarity. 

This othering manifests itself in characters I once revered, such as Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Jane Eyre, Jo March, and Natasha Rostov. Yet, when I recall them now, my affection is tinged with dubiousness. My personal and ancestral realities are glaringly absent from these female characters’ narratives. In my mind’s eye, I once experienced a sense of companionship with these women. It is perplexing to realize the lack of books featuring characters that resembled me. And when they did, the characters felt like an aberration or were otherwise associated with Oriental tropes devoid of human nuance or acknowledgement of our colonized history.

We can never rely on anyone else to enlighten us. Dedicated consciousness is a lifelong skill that must be passed down through generations.

I contemplate this deliberate erasure as I survey the children’s bookshelves at New York’s oldest library, the Ottendorfer, and immediately spot a slew of titles and illustrations that evoke solace and warmth: Ramadan festivities, a vibrant Iran, a mother in a hijab. It is here, inside New York’s numerous and effectual libraries, that I have spent hours acquainting myself with the prose of Mahmoud Darwish, the ruminations of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the chimerical world of Naguib Mahfouz, and the profound teachings of Edward Said. Leaving the Ottendorfer with an assortment of books for my daughter, I am acutely aware of the world she is a part of, and how distinctive it is from my childhood. I had to pry myself out of the white man’s literary domain to unearth my ancestors’ obfuscated past of victimization through violence and pillaging. I was never exposed to literature that echoed my history and identity until early adulthood. And while my daughter will have to maneuver in an environment of unfettered animosity, tokenized representation, and rampant misinformation, she will surely be more cognizant of her identity and more self-assured than I ever was — because I will not rest until that happens.

My ruminations are interrupted in an almost satirical twist of fate, as a comically blunt tirade interrupts my walk home. While New York City is considered a melting pot of cultures, my veil emphatically declares my faith, making me the target of unwarranted curses and stares. Just as my daughter requests another one of the snacks tucked in her stroller, an elderly white woman walking past us hollers at me, Take that thing off!  In what feels like a microsecond, I must process this violence, assess whether my response would harm us, and come up with a reply. By the time I eventually tell her to mind her own business, she’s already moved on, not once looking back at me. I am unperturbed, since this was not the first harangue I’ve experienced. There is no Sharia in America! and Go back to where you came from! are just a two of the reactions my niqab has prompted. Even healthcare professionals have assumed I need a translator or that my migraines result from the stress of moving to a new country, though I was born and raised in New York City. Although these exchanges are jarring, ludicrous, and provoking, I am resolute in faith and self.

The unity I found through literature and the simple fact of routinely experiencing such aspersions have not only acclimated me to them, but have also fortified me. That passerby’s absolute inability to make eye contact during her confrontation with me showed her wavering morale. For most of my life, I was made to see my heritage, skin color, and faith as alien, as something antithetical to Western principles and ethics. Frequently, this was achieved subtly, interwoven into my favorite books, history lessons, and reporting. It was so shrewd that it took me years to become cognizant of it. Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl are among the authors whom I cherished and studied. I remember when I came across those of their tales’ passages, however fleeting, that disparaged Native Americans and Arabs. Though I did not recognize it then, reading these sentiments jolted in me a desire to reclaim my identity. It is worth noting that publishers recently revealed that they will be reworking the novels of Christie, Dahl, and others to remove offensive and racist language.

Yet there are books that provide glorious catharsis. The ones in which colonialist and imperialist thought is debunked. The ones in which fictional characters share my appearance, traditions, language, faith, and experiences. The characters of Isabella Hammad and Leila Aboulela and the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish are imprinted in my psyche. They have given me education and camaraderie, and for that I am grateful. I recall that Edward Said once said, “We cannot fight for our rights and our history as well as our future until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness.” This is the crux of the matter. We can never rely on anyone else to enlighten us. Dedicated consciousness is a lifelong skill that must be passed down through generations.

Back at home, surrounded by my bookshelves of beloved global stories that could not be repressed in favor of the plundering of colonizers and sanctimonious saviors, we finished our dinner and prepared for bed. We ended the day in each other’s embrace, and in the embrace of the books we had the privilege of reading. There are no simple answers, as matters of faith, self, and community are convoluted and bewildering. The abuses I have faced on the streets, the redacted history I was taught, the quiet racism in beloved stories, and the bizarre reality of my daughter’s future all haunt my day’s concluding reflections. The last email I read was an article breaking down how the media uses language to craft headlines that manipulate the Palestinian plight and sway the public towards sympathy for Israel. I am enervated, knowing that our children will have to struggle on. Yet, as I also know, though literature has the power to diminish, it can also magnify the human spirit. The truth is inexorable but must be reached intentionally and with resolution. I send my daughter to sleep, hoping her reveries remain lambent with the stories we read together.


Noshin Bokth is a freelance writer and a book reviewer for The New Arab. She has written on a range of topics and issues, including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe.

city lifeNew YorkNew York City LibraryniqabRacismreadingSouth Asian

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