ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Tahera Rahman whispers the lines of her script as the newsroom bustles around her.
With a few minutes until the 6 p.m. newscast, Rahman may as well be in a bell jar: just her, the crisply folded paper in her hands and her unwavering mission to deliver that night’s top story.
A similar scene was no doubt playing out in local newsrooms across the country. But at the Quad Cities’ WHBF-TV, the ripples of a history-making event were still being felt.
With a few seconds to air, Rahman blots her lipstick and secures a runaway piece of hair under her bright white hijab. She straightens the decorative lace cascading down from the headscarf and gently nestles her microphone into its crochet work.
The newsroom quiets. The camera’s light flashes. Rahman is live.
After two years producing the station’s evening news, Rahman recently moved into an on-air role. She’s “living her dream” and, in the process, she has become the first woman to wear a hijab while reporting full time for a mainstream American TV station, according to the Muslim American Women in Media group.
Growing up in the post-9/11 era, Rahman didn’t see people who looked like her on TV. And for years, Rahman was told in both coded and overt language that her hijab was holding her back, that viewers didn’t want to see a Muslim reporter wearing a headscarf on the evening news.
“When people said it was going to be tough, I was just like, I know, but life is tough,” said Rahman. “People live in places where it is hard to even practice journalism in general. I live in America, and I was born and raised with the values of equality and democracy and hard work getting you to your dream, to the American dream.”
Even as Rahman built herself up, a small voice echoed in the back of her mind, Could they be right? But she never lost hope completely that someone would take a chance on her, and spent weekends shadowing reporters and methodically cutting and re-cutting new audition reels.
For Rahman, 27, her new title marks the end of that long period of rejection and, hopefully, the beginning of a new era for hijabis on television. (A hijabi is a woman who wears a hijab, a headscarf often worn by Muslim women to cover their hair.)
“What I prayed for every night for years is to be able to soften people’s hearts and basically be a light for people in a scary world with a lot of misconceptions,” Rahman said.
While her barrier-breaking moment was met with overwhelming support — including encouraging notes from places as far away as Sweden and Eastern Europe — the station has received a handful of hateful messages.
Within days of her debut, a white supremacist blog posted Rahman’s photo and personal phone number and asked people to call and write the TV station until she was taken off the air.
The newsroom is taking precautions to keep Rahman safe, declining to give details, citing security concerns.
But seven hours before the 6 p.m. broadcast, how “haters” are responding to Rahman’s on-air presence is nowhere near the top of her mind.
She’s just beginning her journey to become a celebrated newscaster, and the path to that goal is long and somewhat opaque. But what she does know is every great journalist starts with a great story.
And right now, she needs a story.
The young and the religious
Rahman came into the station on a recent Wednesday with a few stories in mind. She was hoping to find a good daily piece somewhere in the station’s coverage area of the greater Quad Cities metro, which includes Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, Ill.
Photos: Quad-Cities TV reporter breaks a barrier for Muslim women
She found a story the local newspaper had covered that she thought could interest viewers: an ongoing dust-up between Palmer College of Chiropractic and the Davenport Civil Rights Commission over the college’s plan to expand in a low-income housing area.
Rahman has donned a headscarf on and off her whole life. Attending a private Muslim school in Bridgeview, Ill., she began wearing a hijab all the time in about fifth grade.
Headscarves, or hijabs as they are commonly referred to in the West, are normally worn by Muslim women after puberty as a way of showing their devotion to God and fulfilling the Quran’s commandments for modesty.
“I remember the first day I decided to wear it full time, because I wouldn’t wear it outside of school or anything,” Rahman said. “I walked out of the house and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no, I’m starting to wear it now,’ and I ran back in and put it on.”
Her mom discouraged her from wearing it so early, telling her she had her whole life to make that choice. In reflection, Rahman thinks her mom knew the scarf came with the possibility of backlash.
But Rahman was stubborn.
“I knew there was no one who looked like me who rushed Greek life, but I did because I wanted to,” she said. “I would show up to formals and Panhellenic events and I would be the only one who wore a headscarf, but it never stopped me, and I still had fun and I still studied abroad and I still traveled with my sorority sisters to Spring Break.”
Being so openly devout was unique even at Loyola University Chicago, the Catholic college Rahman attended. And living as a young person who is religious can have “negative connotations,” said Stephanie Jarosz, Rahman’s sorority sister.
“I can go through my life being Catholic and no one would know, but in Tahera’s case there is an immediate visual association that, hey, I’m Muslim and I’m devout,” Jarosz said.
“But what is amazing about Tahera is that she is totally secure in wearing her hijab despite what American society tells us is cool or not cool or what young people should be doing.”
As a child, the lack of people who looked like her on TV was evident, Rahman said. The dearth of representation became even more obvious as Islamophobic stories about Muslims grabbed headlines and airtime in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The narrative back then centered on “who (Muslims) really are and what they really believe in and whose side they are on?” she said. “That’s when I realized they are talking about us, but there is no one who looked like us who can speak to it truthfully.”
After college, Rahman sent reels to professors and internship managers seeking criticism. She heard from one producer that maybe she should apply to a market such as Dearborn, Mich., which has a significant Arab-American population.
Another colleague told her that “America wasn’t ready” for a hijabi on TV.
“It’s those subtle statements that actually have a big impact,” Rahman said. “It’s those little things, those little pebbles that keep pelting you and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not going to work.’ “
She went on Facebook soon after receiving these critiques and saw an article about the first Somali-American legislator, a hijabi, to be elected to office.
She devoured the story and anything else she could find about the woman before posting a piece to her wall.
“Tell me again about how America is not ready for this,” she remembered thinking.
Soon after making arrangements for an interview with the civil rights commissioner, Rahman set out with her colleague Kit Cloninger. They will report their daily pieces together, first going to Cloninger’s shoot at a local hospital’s Valentine’s Day celebration.
When the spokesman arrives to escort the pair to the patient’s room, the reporters introduce themselves and he looks at Rahman quizzically, trying to place how he knows her.
“Are you T-Rahman?” he asks, referring to her email address.
“Yep!” Rahman says with a big smile. “I used to set up interviews for the reporters, but now I’m on-air with them.”
Originally from Naperville, Ill., Rahman has always been a scribe. As a child, she’d carry around stapled pieces of notebook paper to write stories, and when her family went somewhere new, she’d take notes on everything she saw.
In college, Rahman kept writing, becoming the first Muslim editor in chief of her college paper.
She found her love for TV news through a broadcasting class. The intense adrenaline rush of “going live” and the frenzy just before deadline was intoxicating, Rahman said.
Graduating in 2013, Rahman interned at Al-Jazeera English and CBS Evening News’ Chicago bureau and worked for Radio Islam, a community radio station. She slowly added to her reporting toolkit, seeking help wherever she could find it.
“She has a good eye and she reports thoroughly, really almost doggedly,” said Malika Bilal, a hijabi anchor on The Stream, a digital branch of Al-Jazeera English.
“She’s nice, which I think someone might brush off, but that goes a long way in this business,” Bilal said. “Someone might be immediately turned off, but then she smiles that million-dollar smile and it’s disarming, especially if people maybe have never seen or met a Muslim before.”
Her storytelling, her unique way of weaving sensitive experiences into hard-hitting news, set her apart, said her professor Julia Lieblich.
“I honestly thought that a station would see that talent and risk incurring the wrath of bigots earlier than now,” said Lieblich.
Why the Quad Cities
After a successful interview with the civil rights commissioner, Rahman took background video of everything she could.
Rahman originally applied to be a multimedia journalist at WHBF-TV about two years ago, but was offered the producer role instead.
When she accepted, she made no bones about her aspirations to be on air. Her bosses were candid that she would have to apply, like anyone else.
She did, a few times, and continued working as a producer, where she was a standout, said sports director Jay Kidwell. Memorably, she kept her wits while producing 90 minutes of straight news, both the 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts, after a colleague called in sick, he said.
While news director Mike Mickle doesn’t hire based on skin color — quality of work is most important, he said — his newsroom includes minority journalists of all backgrounds.
He wants his reporters to reflect the diversity he sees in the Quad Cities, he said.
Almost 20% of Quad Cities residents designated themselves as non-white in the Census’ American Community Survey released in December.
And the Muslim population in Iowa is rising, too. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of Muslims in Iowa increased by an estimated 38%, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives.
Rahman said she’s only experienced two incidents of racial harassment while living in the Quad Cities. Both were in passing and she said neither felt very threatening.
“Two might seem like a lot to people, but as an American Muslim woman, that is not a lot,” she said. “I think superficially it seems shocking that a rural, semi-rural Midwest area would be the first (to have a hijabi reporter), but in the end it goes back to that Midwestern hospitality.”
Additionally, the mechanics of broadcast news don’t allow a reporter to jump straight to the TODAY show. Television journalists have to start in smaller markets, said Mariam Sobh, an award-winning hijabi reporter who has been trying to break into TV for a decade.
“It’s a double-edged sword for many of us because, sure, bigger markets are going to have more diversity and maybe it would be an easier fit,” Sobh said, “but you have to start in smaller markets where maybe Muslim faces aren’t something that viewers see every day.”
When Mickle decided to hire another reporter late last year, he knew Rahman would apply. He opened the process to the public but found her reel to be the best submission.
“I don’t care if Tahera is the first or the 30th or the 3000th, she’s been hired because she deserved the job,” he said.
As Mickle prepared to help Tahera make the move from producer to reporter, he looked for suggestions from other stations. But he quickly discovered no local market had been through this particular transition.
The importance of the situation dawned on him: WHBF-TV would be making history.
Mickle wasn’t concerned with ratings or advertisers; his worry focused squarely on Rahman’s mental and physical safety. Just “one or two” bad actors can “cause a lot of problems and heartache,” he said.
“Once again, she has proven that she was up for this challenge,” he said. “She is a very strong young lady.”
‘My America, too’
Wil Patton heard she was looking for people living in or near the area proposed for rezoning by Palmer. He does, and he was willing to speak with her.
Rahman was ready to go immediately but had to wait to bring along a photographer. The station doesn’t want her going out by herself yet — though that is as much for her training as for security.
The station has received a few negative comments, Mickle said, but most naysayers aren’t Quad Cities residents.
“I took another phone call today from a lady that lives in Davenport and she said, ‘I just wanted to call and tell you how proud I am to call the Quad Cities our home and I love knowing that we live in such an inclusive community,’ ” Mickle said.
The entry on the white supremacist website featuring Rahman’s personal phone number has more than 30 comments with some calling her “subhuman.” Others suggest a protest of the station or hope the station goes out of business.
“Just take the rag off your head and be a good American and enjoy your job,” reads one.
“Well, time to find a new place to live,” another said. “Not many places left to go to get away from them.”
Rahman is aware of the nasty remarks and threats, but she doesn’t dwell on them. Instead, she’s taken to falling asleep reading the supportive notes she’s received.
Muslim headscarves explained
“We want to offer you encouragement and hope you continue your successful journey complete with your convictions,” wrote a couple from Raleigh, N.C. “We know it is hard sometimes to be different from what other people consider ‘the norm’ but we have found that being different is a strength.”
In these messages, Rahman recognizes that in some small way it’s gotten harder to say a hijab will hold you back. There will always be someone who says they aren’t ready for change, Rahman said, but what they really mean is “they’re scared.”
“It is not your obligation to appease that part of them if it means shutting yourself down and putting yourself on mute,” she said.
Rahman hopes the focus eventually shifts from her head to her reporting. She wants to become that great journalist who happens to wear a hijab instead of the hijab-wearing journalist.
For now, Rahman is trying to enjoy “living her dream” as much as she can.
Recently she’s found herself marinating on one particular conversation from those years of rejection. A trusted mentor asked Rahman that if her dream job called with an offer, would she consider taking off her hijab?
No, she answered definitively.
In reflection, Rahman said she feels if she had wavered then and removed the scarf, her “victory would have been marred.”
“A small part of me feels like I am giving into the haters if I take it off,” she said. “Because that’s the first thing people say is, ‘Take that rag off your head and go back to where you came from.’
“I want to be like I was born and raised here and I wear it, so I am where I belong,” Rahman said.
“And you have to deal with it because this is my America, too.”
Follow Courtney Crowder on Twitter: @CourtneyCare