When Elhan moved to Washington, D.C. from Somalia, the United States was not at war with Iraq and Afghanistan and the Twin Towers still dominated the New York skyline. But just a few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, everything changed. Overnight, “Muslim” became a dirty word—and Elhan became “Amy.”
With this one day of terror, the nation’s attitudes toward followers of Islam went from fairly neutral to vitriolic, after the perpetrators of the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil were revealed to be Muslim. Elhan, a high school freshman at the time, could see the change happening before her eyes.
That’s when she decided that in public she’d be “Amy,” a normal American teenager.
For the next 15 years, Amy would go to school, hang out with her friends, and go to parties, never letting on that she was deeply attached to her religion. When she wasn’t at school, though, she was at her mosque, where she prayed regularly and engaged with a close-knit community as Elhan. Never did these two lives meet, she said—not even any close calls.
That all changed earlier this year, however, when Elhan finally worked up the courage to come clean to her friends about her double life—and the entire world.
“It felt like a very heavy rock was on my chest. I just didn't know how to get out of it,” Elhan, now 32, told me in a phone conversation last week. “I was stuck. I got so used to it being my daily routine and it became a normal thing to be ‘Amy’ once I was outside the door.”
Not only did Elhan decide she was going to finally share her secret, but she elected to do it on the season two premiere of the Pivot network docu-series Secret Life of Americans. Each week on the show, a different subject reveals something personal they’ve been hiding from loved ones. On Friday’s episode, viewers follow Elhan on her self-filmed journey toward revealing her religious, Muslim self to her friends—and her secular identity as “Amy” to her family.
“My whole adult life, I’ve been living in fear,” she tells the camera, set in selfie mode. “Fear of rejection from society. Fear of being labeled as a terrorist. Fear that someone might hurt me because I’m Muslim. That fear is still there.”
While not all Muslims go to the lengths Elhan did to hide their religious identity, her story provides a vivid example of the conflict many Muslims feel in simply navigating daily life in this country. In the years since 9/11, racial tensions have arguably gotten worse, not better. This climate of intolerance has forced many, like Elhan, to hide in shame. But perhaps leading by example will encourage others to come out from the shadow of hate.
In the days following 9/11, Elhan made a few practical decisions that would affect her life and identity for the decade-and-a-half to come: She asked school administrators to officially address her as Amy and she began changing out of her traditional garments and into jeans and t-shirts before school. Once she began hearing mean-spirited jokes in the wake of 9/11, including insults about how Muslims look and dress, she became convinced this superficial assimilation was the only way to live a peaceful existence in this country.
“It’s not like I had two different personalities,” she tells me. “I was still the same girl.” But one of those girls—the real her—was only seen within the safety of her home and at her mosque. It was never a question of her commitment or love of her faith, but rather a paralyzing fear that left her, and so many like her, she says, feeling like she would be put in harm's way by simply being herself.
This fear was not unfounded. According to 2015 numbers from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program, the county has seen five times more annual hate crimes against Muslims since 9/11. The group estimates that 100 to 150 have occurred per year, in contrast with 20 to 30 per year before the attacks.
Merely “looking” Muslim isn’t the only thing Elhan and fellow followers of Islam need to worry about—so-called “Muslim-sounding” names can also impact how others perceive you. In a 2014 study that analyzed the way employers respond to prospective employees whose resumes indicate a religious affiliation, the researchers found that resumes with one of the seven religions tested "received [on average] 29 percent fewer emails and 33 percent fewer phone calls than the control group." But Muslims fared even worse, receiving 38 percent fewer emails and a staggering 54 percent fewer phone calls.
Despite these discouraging odds, earlier this year Elhan took the bold step of embracing her religion and lifestyle in public after the big reveal to her family and friends. She’d been contemplating it for the past few years since being diagnosed with relapsing Multiple Sclerosis and realized the stress of concealing her true identity was not only bad for her emotionally, but also bad for her health. These days, she can once again be seen everywhere she goes donning the headscarf and traditional garment she had worn in Somalia, from her regular Starbucks to the gas station and over to her friend’s places. As far as she’s concerned, the hardest part about “coming out” as Muslim is over, which was telling her friends. Before she told them, she feared that not only would they not accept her because of her religion but, above all, they’d be angry she lied to them for all of these years.
When she finally told them, tears streaming down her face, they understandably had some questions. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” “How have you been able to party with us when Muslims don’t drink?"—a common misconception. But she says that since the initial shock wore off, they’ve all been accepting and supportive. It’s other Americans that still need some help.
In a December press release, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.” The comment came in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, carried out by suspected ISIS sympathizers. Ongoing threats to the safety of Muslims continued to haunt Elhan.
“It’s been really disappointing. It’s sad. It just makes me wonder if there’s gonna be a day that I might have to wear something [government issued] that represents I'm Muslim,” she said, . “With [Trump’s] comments, it reminds me so much of the beginning of a new era…How do you function when you’re afraid you might have to be kicked out of your home?”
Earlier this year, President Obama visited a mosque for the first time during his presidency. It was a seminal moment for the progressive leader (who has often been called a Muslim as a slur), and Elhan watched in amazement as the president delivered a speech just up the beltway in Baltimore, directly addressing Muslim Americans.
“There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities,” he said. “Do not believe them…You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”
The speech strengthened her resolve to be a proud Muslim and a proud American. “I felt like he was talking right to me,” she shares in one of her video confessionals. “My president acknowledges me.” But with Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, she still worries.
Trump’s record of hate towards Muslim continues to ripple, with a story breaking on Wednesday that former republican Senator Bob Bennett, who passed away last week at 82, told his wife and son on his deathbed that he had a message for the Muslim people.
“I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump,” his wife and son told The Daily Beast.
But Elhan doesn’t want an apology: She wants people to go out and let their votes do the talking.
“So many communities are being swooped to the side because they want to be free, want to be themselves,” she said, pointing to the embattled transgender community as an example. “We’re Americans no matter what we are. And all we need is to be loved.”
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.