On January 16, 1990, my parents named me for the first (and what they thought would be the last) time: Ruwaid Ahmadi.
On October 18, 2001, I became Wade Abraham, All-American surfer dude. I even had a piece of paper to prove it. I wanted to frame it to hang on my wall next to my autographed Tony Hawk poster, but my parents wouldn’t let me.
It all started when my sister and I came home from school to “GO HOME TERRORIST TRASH” spray-painted on the garage door of our suburban Connecticut house.
“Do you think they got the wrong house?” wondered Aylin, who was in 3rd grade at the time.
Instead of answering her question, I put my hand on her backpack and led her inside, “Maybe we should wait for Mama and Baba to come home before we play outside, today.”
“But why?” she asked before popping another handful of Sour Skittles into her mouth.
I decided to tell her the truth, or at least as much of the truth as my 6th grade self could fathom, “’Cuz some bullies at school have been saying our family is terrorists. Maybe they wrote the rude stuff on our garage.”
Aylin gasped, showing off her purple tongue and some partially-chewed Skittles, “That’s so mean! Mrs. Walters told us the terrorists came from Afghanistan, but we’re American! I bet those mean bullies didn’t even pay attention in school.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, opening the fridge to look for a snack of my own, “If anybody in America is a terrorist, it’s bullies like them.”
As it turned out, the bullies did not have the wrong house. 3 weeks later, our anonymous tormentors were still coming up with creatively destructive ways to tell us to get out of the country. It was my idea to hang an American flag outside so they would know we were Americans just like them. The final straw was when they burned it, along with a sizeable patch of our grass. Less than a week after they burned our flag, we were on our way to Providence, Rhode Island with a U-Haul and our brand new name change certificates. We would be starting at our new school district at Wade and Lynn Abraham, protected by the anonymity of the city.
When I came home with yet another name-change certificate nine years later, my parents’ reactions were not quite what I expected.
“Kye Ruwaida… Ahmadi,” my mother read my new name slowly and glanced tentatively at my father.
“After all that we did to protect you, now you are throwing it all away?” my father declared.
“Baba, we talked about this. I’m your daughter, now. I can’t go around living as a woman with a name like Wade. You know that. You knew that when I started hormones months ago.”
“Yes yes, of course you are our daughter. That is not what I worry about. I have already done all of my worrying about that,” he assured, “What I mean is: why do you change your family name? Why not Abraham? Why would you put yourself in danger for a name?”
That’s when reality hit me. My parents weren’t still freaking out about my transition—that was old news by then. They were freaking out because I had readopted my original Persian surname. They had given up what was left of their heritage to protect my sister and me, only for me to reject their sacrifice nine years later.
I mustered up my most eloquent response, founded on my deep new insight into my parents’ perspectives, “Baba, are you serious right now? I am so freaking proud of my heritage that I reclaimed our old name, and you’re too busy worrying about Islamophobes to be proud of me? I’m a trans woman. Do you even know what that means? Do you know how many of us get killed just for being what we are? But you think I can’t handle a name like Ahmadi?”
“What I think is that you are stupid if you want to put yourself in more danger for a country you have never lived in,” my father huffed.
“Listen,” I said, “If people give me shit because of my name, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ Until then, can you just be proud of me?”
“Wa—Kye,” my mother said softly, “You are an intelligent child. Don’t forget to use that amazing mind that God has given you.”
“Mama, I’m not a kid anymore! And don’t start talking about God. When was the last time you stepped foot in a mosque? Nine years ago! If Allah thinks I’ve made the wrong choice, let Her tell me Herself.”
With that, I plucked my name-change certificate out of my mother’s hands and stormed out of the house before my parents could say anything else. I hopped in my car, roared my engine, and slowly backed out of my parents’ precarious alleyway “parking lot.” I was angry, but not angry enough to risk smashing my car into a wall.
I wasn’t sure where I was going. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, so I drove around the city for a while, keeping an eye out for good places to stop for lunch. Instead of a restaurant, though, I found myself drawn to the little Middle Eastern variety shop where I sometimes stopped for spices (for my mother) and ready-made curry sauces (for myself). Instead of the cooking section, though, I made my way back to the clothing section.
A wave of self-consciousness hit me when I spotted the small rack of colorful scarves at the back of the store. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the lone storekeeper was distracted, then made my way back and ran my fingers over a silky pink scarf draped around the head of plastic manikin, perched above the rest of the scarves. The floral pattern reminded me of the hijab my mother used to wear to the mosque when I was little.
My parents were never especially devout Muslims. They came to America in 1980 to escape the Islamic Revolution in Iran. I’ve always found it ironic that they left one country because they weren’t Muslim enough only to be persecuted in the new country for being too Muslim. In any case, the only time we ever went to the mosque was for holidays, and the only time my mother ever wore her hijab was at the mosque. I remember loving her hijab and wondering why she only ever wore it during Eids.
“Mama, I have a question,” I announced on the car ride home from an Eid dinner. I was 6 years old at the time.
“What is it, Ruwaid?” she smiled back at me in the rear-view mirror, her floral hijab framing her face perfectly even in the dim light of the roadside lamps.
“Fatimah says her Mama wears her hijab all the time and that it’s really super important for grown-up Muslim ladies to wear their hijab all the time if they want to go to Heaven,” I recited, “Why don’t you wear your hijab all the time like Fatimah’s Mama?”
“Oh, Ruwaid,” she laughed sadly, “Tell me this: do you think a good God would send His creations into the fire for a silly thing like not wearing a scarf every day?”
I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head, “No, that would be silly! I think Allah cares about big stuff, like if you’re nice or mean to people maybe.”
“Yes, that is what I believe too,” she agreed, “Let me tell you a story, little one. Your Baba and I came from a country—“
“Iran!” I interrupted.
“Yes, Iran. We came here from Iran, because the leaders there wanted us all to worship Allah in the same way. They made silly rules, like that you have to wear the hijab or that boys could not be friends with girls, and then they would punish people for breaking those rules.”
“Would they make you go to jail?”
“Yes, and other bad things. So your Baba and I came here to America, where we could worship in our own ways. We did not think that people should be allowed to punish other people for something that should be just between them and Allah.”
“Do you think Fatimah’s Mama is a bad person for wearing the hijab every day?”
“Of course not! That is her decision to make, as long as she does not punish other people for making other choices. Everyone should be allowed to decide for herself whether to wear the hijab.”
“Can little kids decide to wear the hijab, or just big kids and grown-ups?”
“If they understand the meaning of it, I do not see any problem with that. It does not make sense for a girl’s Mama or Baba to put a hijab on her before she understands it, though.”
“Can you tell me the meaning of it?”
“Many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab to show that they are proud to be Muslim and to not be too show-offy with their bodies by covering everything except for their hands, feet, and faces.”
That was enough information for me. I had made up my mind—I would wear the hijab. The next morning when it was time to get dressed, I put on my best dinosaur-patterned turtleneck and wrapped my winter scarf around my head in my best approximation of a hijab. I was ready for the day.
I was, of course, heartbroken when 5 minutes later my mother explained to me that boys do not wear the hijab like that and made me put my scarf away. I put it “away” in my backpack, only to pull it out again at school, where pretty much everyone was from white, Christian families and thought I was pretending to have a toothache. This went on for several weeks before my teacher finally called home to ask if I had been having any trouble with toothaches or feeling cold.
When I got home that day, my mother was waiting for me, “Ruwaid, if I teach you how I put my hijab on, will you promise me you will not keep wearing your scarf on your head at school?”
“But Mama, I want everyone to know that I am proud to be a Muslim!”
“Little one, your teacher called me today. Everyone thinks that you are ill, not that you are proud to be a Muslim. Besides, you are a boy. Boys do not wear a veil.”
I groaned, defeated, “Okay, just teach me how you put it on.”
I’ll never forget how right it felt as my mother swaddled my little head in her grown-up size hijab. As I looked in the mirror after she finished, I promised myself that someday I would wear the hijab every single day. I hardly ever cried, but I wailed like my toenails were being ripped away when she made me take it off.
I blinked a few times to bring myself back to the present. Nervously, I flipped through the different colors and patterns of scarves on the rack in front of me, glancing over my shoulder again to see that the storekeeper was no longer distracted and was calmly watching me, the only customer in the store. Taking a deep breath, I turned back to the scarves and decided I didn’t care what he thought.
Eventually, I settled on a sunny, tropical looking orange that would look awesome with my vast collection of blue and green t-shirts. Gingerly, with another glance over my shoulder, I lifted the scarf off its hanger and draped it over my head, wrapping it with a lot more coordination than I had at age six.
I surprised myself when I looked in the mirror. It was the first time since puberty that I had looked in a mirror and seen a girl looking back at me instead of some strange male body that didn’t quite belong. I spent a few minutes marveling at my instantaneous transformation before proceeding to the checkout counter. “Hey there, I’d like to buy this scarf that is currently on my head,” I announced boldly, holding out my debit card along with the price tag at the end of the scarf for the storekeeper to scan. He checked me out and wished me a nice day, clearly unaware that I was in the midst of a life-changing moment.
When I returned to my car, I pulled my rain jacket on over my short-sleeved t-shirt in order to complete my hijab with the only long sleeves available. I knew I would have to talk to my parents eventually, but first it was time for me to go get an updated driver’s license with the right name and the right clothes.