In the early 1990s, most people didn’t know what henna was, let alone the variation of the word “mehndi.” You see, Gwen Stefani had not happened at that time, and mainstream audiences hadn’t quite accepted that South Asia was “the land of colors and magic” just yet. During that time, my family lived in a town called Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I say that as if the town does not exist anymore, but it does, and we still have extended family who love living there.
The Mechanicsburg of the early ‘90s was different than it is now. There weren’t many minorities. In fact, in my entire elementary school there was one African American kid. He was the adopted son of our wonderful and white Principal, Ms. Ingram. The other minorities in school consisted of: me, my younger sister, and an Asian girl named Chloe whom I tried, and failed, to befriend. She was cooler than me back then because the early ‘90s was also not the age of the smart-girl dominance. Despite the lack of diversity, Mechancisburg was a great place to grow up. Our neighbors were always incredibly nice, no one was ever overtly racist, and there was a growing Muslim community that met up at the small local mosque every Sunday. All in all, it was quite a picturesque upbringing.
That same Muslim community was where we celebrated Eid every year. Quick religion lesson: Eid is a Muslim holiday; it occurs twice a year. One is Eid-ul-Fitr, which occurs after Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan.The second is Eid-ul-Adha, which is celebrated after Hajj and marks the celebration and understanding of Abraham’s unwavering faith in God. To commemorate Eid, Muslim families hold open houses where family and friends are welcome, mehndi is applied as a decorative celebration on our hands, and new clothes are worn. My parents worked hard to make Eid a true celebration for us; my dad never worked on Eid and we always took the day off of school, even if there was an exam scheduled. The importance of Eid as a day that was ours to own was something that was very deeply seeded in us as an immigrant family.
Now, I don’t remember which Eid the following events occurred on, as Muslim holidays follow a lunar calendar and the timing shifts every year, but I do rememeber I was in fifth grade. My younger sister, Nadia, was in first.
Sometime after the morning bell, my fifth grade teacher stopped the class and walked to the classroom door, then motioned me over. Confused, I walked outside to find my little sister crying in the hallway looking for me. Even then, as a first grader, Nadia Shah was not a crier. She was the kid that played street hockey, climbed trees, and acted as a determined protector of our much younger little brother. She’d picked her own clothes out since the age of three, and Nadia Shah of 5 years old did not suffer fools. Seeing her cry was terrifying.
I had two choices: you either stay quiet and don’t create a scene, or you stand up for yourself in a way where you cannot be seen as the bad guy. It’s a lesson most brown kids need to learn—some of us just learn it in easier circumstances than others.
Through tears, she told me that her teacher had yelled at her in front of her classroom and forced her to scrub “the marker” off her hands. The teacher had berated my little sister for writing “gibberish” on herself. Nadia, about six years old, had tried to explain to her that it was not gibberish, that it was not marker, but how could a child explain to someone what henna is? Or what this variation of it, mehndi, is? So Nadia had tried her best, but was sent to wash her hands over and over and over again. Because a marker-ridden hand was uncivilized.
The marker, of course, was actually mehndi that had been applied on Nadia’s hands the day before, for Eid, and the color of henna (the root that is the base for mehndi) takes weeks to wear off.
I’m not entirely sure what I did in that exact moment. We’re not the type of family that hugs, so I’m pretty certain I did not try to hug my crying sister. I do remember thinking that no one gets to embarrass a kid, especially not because of their own ignorance. I sent her back to her classroom and I promised her everything was going to be okay, as older sisters do.
The next morning, as we all lined up outside the school to be let in, I walked up to her first grade teacher and excitedly said, “I want to show you something!” I pulled out my hands and with the most innocent smile I could muster, to cover my seething anger, and I showed her my mehndi-marked hands. I used the most excited, adult voice I could find and said “Look at my hands! This is called henna and it has religious significance.”
I still remember the sheer inner fulfilment of watching the teacher’s face contort as she realized what she had done. I was lucky, the teacher was kind. She immediately called Nadia over and apologized to her.
Not everyone is that lucky; oftentimes, we end up telling those stories to people who are indifferent, or worse, plain racist. But even at the level of a fifth grader, I knew that I had two choices: you either stay quiet and don’t create a scene, or you stand up for yourself in a way where you cannot be seen as the bad guy. It’s a lesson most brown kids need to learn—some of us just learn it in easier circumstances than others.
But there is good news: Nadia’s love for mehndi has not died, nor has her knack for being a badass. Similarly, my determination to call out well-intended racist behavior with a smile has also not died. It may have become more honed after a law degree and a career in marketing. I don’t think Nadia even knows that being her older sister is what propelled me into my commitment to civic engagement—but I guess that’s just what sisters do.