At 24 years old, Noor Tagouri started her own movement, filmed a documentary and posed for Playboy. Before doing any of this, Tagouri was a teenage girl having an identity crisis.
Tagouri spoke at Webster University on Monday. The Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs (MCISA) director Colette Cummings said Tagouri’s perspective could show students how to accept themselves and the things that make them unique.
Tagouri said she knew from a young age she wanted to be a journalist, or more specifically, she wanted to be Oprah. She loved questioning the people around her and learning their stories. She worried, however, her Muslim identity would hold her back.
She said she never fit in with her classmates. They did not celebrate the same holidays. Her mother wore a headscarf–otherwise known as a hijab– and Tagouri’s peers continuously asked her why. She said as a child, she did not want to be Muslim. Her parents wanted her to make her own choices and never to let anyone else influence her. She said doing so was difficult when she did not know how to embrace every aspect of herself–both as a newscaster and a Muslim woman.
“There I was, 15 years old sitting in my room, and I pulled out a headscarf,” Tagouri said. “I remember looking at it and thinking ‘Is this going to help me find myself? Will this give me the same strength it gave my mother?’ I was just broken, insecure and desperate for an answer and impulsively put it on. In that moment, I realized that being honest in front of God was more important than being Oprah.”
Tagouri said that experience influenced her determination to be the first American hijabi news anchor. Her dreams have shifted since then, and she has focused primarily on her documentary “Sold in America: Inside Our Nation’s Sex Trade” in recent years.
Though her goals have changed, Tagouri’s beliefs have not. She said she has always wanted to encourage people to accept and proclaim what differentiates them from others.
“Declare your dream, your personal legend, because people think of you what you tell them you are,” Tagouri said.
Webster graduate student Asmaa Ali has followed Tagouri on social media since before she announced her speech at Webster.
Ali is from Egypt and has worn a hijab since she was 14 years old. Like Tagouri, Ali said she never felt pressured to wear the headscarf but decided doing so would help her represent herself while growing closer to God.
In Egypt, Ali said though wearing a hijab is not totally uncommon, she had been forced to turn down jobs she was qualified for because they would not allow her to wear her hijab. She said she felt connected with Tagouri and other women who faced similar challenges. She said she did not understand why people enforced such rules and would not work for companies who tried to shape her into being someone she was not.
“What’s the difference of a hijab for you and a hat?” Ali said. “Nothing. But it’s my identity, so you better accept me the way I am… just hire me for the job, let me do the job according to my qualifications.”
While Tagouri and Ali’s families encouraged them to decide for themselves whether to physically wear their identities, Webster student Noor Fatima “Bunny” Rashid did not have the same support.
Rashid is from Pakistan and said in her country, she felt pushed by her family and classmates to wear the hijab. She said she tried to conform for a few months, but wearing the headscarf ultimately made her uncomfortable.
When she decided to represent herself without the hijab, Rashid said she stood out and lost some friends, but did not want to take back her decision. She said she and Tagouri both wanted to show who they were and encourage others to do the same without fear of judgement or ridicule.
“For me, not wearing the hijab shows who I am,” Rashid said. “I’m outgoing, and I don’t care about stereotypes. I don’t care about being put in a box, like, ‘Okay, this is what you’re expected to do, and this is what you’re going to do.’ I think [Tagouri and I] are trying to fight the same things but in our own ways.”
Rashid said she wanted people to see her as a human, not a representative of religion. Tagouri agreed, but said her religion was part of her personhood.
Women like Tagouri did a good job of spreading a positive hijabi message, said Ali. However, she said she liked talking with people about who she was and how her hijab helped her follow God’s guidance and represent herself.
“Since I came here, one of my goals was any person I talk with, I’ll make sure they know me as who I am,” Ali said. “I’m not going to fake anything. They know how I’m just Muslim, a hijabi Muslim.”
Tagouri agreed with Ali’s sentiment and said she wanted to express her message to as many people as possible, especially to groups who would not otherwise hear it. Though the action caused some controversy, Tagouri decided to model for Playboy magazine’s 2016 Renegade Issue because of this desire.
The appearance made Tagouri the first woman to ever appear in the magazine fully clothed and wearing a hijab. She said Playboy saw her dedication to the hijab and her ambitions as a sign of rebellion.
“I disrupt places I go to in the best possible way, and [Playboy] noticed,” Tagouri said. “It definitely shook the world and caused a little chaos.”
For Rashid, not wearing a hijab, especially while home in Pakistan, was her own personal rebellion.
“This is who I am, and even if I have to be a rebel and be rebellious against it because if not wearing the hijab is a representation of who I am then that’s how I’m going to be, even if I have to fight for it,” Rashid said.
Tagouri hoped all her personal and professional endeavors would ultimately help people realize the value of expressing themselves. She said her hijab–her identity–helped her do her job better than many other journalists and wanted people to turn their unique qualities into accomplishments.
“After hearing so many people’s stories, I’ve come to see that many of us feel powerless, different, judged and irrelevant to the world,” Tagouri said. “What I’ve learned is that the very thing that makes you feel different, that thing you may perceive as a weakness, is the very thing that can lead you to your own success.”