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At Rock Island TV station, a Muslim-American reporter makes history

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For Tahera Rahman, wearing a hijab has been part of her identity and, really, an extension of herself, since middle school, about the same time she began filling up notebooks with stories about her day and thought, “Maybe, I’ll be a journalist.”

It didn’t occur to Rahman, a Chicagoland native, that she would ever give up her hijab to be a TV news reporter. It didn’t occur to her, until after she graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2013 with a journalism degree, that anyone would ever ask her to.

Rahman’s journalism professors at Loyola and her mentors told her, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that landing a reporting job would be hard for her, she said. During an internship with "CBS Evening News" in Chicago, a producer asked, “If you got your dream job at your dream network, but they wanted you to take off your headscarf, would you do it?”

She quickly told him, “No.” And he replied, “Well, get ready to hear a lot of ‘Nos.’”

Rahman remembers that conversation being “a tough pill to swallow." 

For three years while working for a Chicago radio station and freelancing, she applied and was rejected for entry-level reporting jobs across the country.

“If it’s one piece of cloth that is separating you from your dreams, that’s tempting,” Rahman said, noting many Muslim women choose not to wear hijabs. “It would be a lot easier if I took it off. I wouldn’t get as much hate. People would still think my name sounds weird, but, you know, it’s definitely not as weird as seeing someone who looks like me on TV.”

For Rahman, 27, this piece of cloth means too much to take off. Even when people around her suggested she “stick to radio” or “just be an international reporter,” Rahman knew she’d regret not going after her dream.

“I’ve done everything I wanted to do in life wearing (my hijab) and I never felt it was a barrier for anything,” she said. “Taking it off might get me this job a lot quicker, but I don’t think I should have to sacrifice who you are to do that. Especially not in America.”

Rahman kept waiting and working toward the moment she could find her big break. It happened on Wednesday, when Rahman reported her first story, while wearing a green hijab, for WHBF, or Local 4 News, the Rock Island-based CBS affiliate where she had worked as a producer since May 2016.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Rahman said, about going on air for the first time. More so, she was “happy and grateful.”

“I think it was 50 percent happiness and 50 percent relief,” she said of getting hired. 

Two days later, Tiffany Lundberg, a Local 4 News evening anchor, shared Rahman’s story with the world. The 4-minute segment, which introduced Rahman as the first full-time reporter who is a Muslim woman to wear a hijab on mainstream TV news in the United States, has since gone viral.

Lundberg’s Facebook post about Rahman has been shared more than 7,000 times and the accompanying video now has nearly half a million views.

Making history

Rahman produced many of Lundberg’s evening segments and soon shared her dream of being a reporter. After each "No," Lundberg told her, "Keep going." 

“I had never seen (a reporter wearing a hijab) before and I was actually surprised about that,” Lundberg said. “But if someone was going to break this barrier, I knew it would be her.”

When Rahman got the job, Lundberg congratulated her friend and colleague. Then, her story radar went off.

“As a journalist, I knew it was important to tell people about this amazing thing she’s doing,” Lundberg said. “We’re all so excited for her and proud of her, because she worked so hard to get here. I just thought we should celebrate that.”

In reporting the story, Lundberg realized Rahman would be making history.

They consulted a Muslim American Women in Media Facebook group as well as Mariam Sobh, a journalist based in Chicago who is also one of Rahman's mentors. Sobh said she has been trying to get a TV reporting job for 15 years and has been “tracking this issue” for just as long.

“What many people may not realize, because there have been lots of girls who ‘aspire’ or ‘claim’ the title of being ‘first’ hijabi this or that, there hasn’t been anyone yet,” Sobh wrote in a post about Rahman on the hijab fashion blog she founded.

“People have told me,‘Well, no one’s ready for this,’” Sobh said in a phone interview this week. “Well, who is taking the poll that no one is ready for a Muslim-American reporter?”

After learning Rahman got the job, Sobh thought, “Finally, something is happening.”

“I hope this opens doors for other Muslim Americans or other people who don’t fit the mold,” she said. “I think people have been waiting for this for a long time." 

'Why does it take Rock Island?'

When she applied at Local 4 News, Rahman shared with Marshall Porter, the station’s general manager since 2008, that her goal was to be a reporter. On at least two occasions, Rahman applied — and was rejected — for open reporting positions there.

Each rejection pushed Rahman to work harder. She often came into the station on weekends to practice putting stories together and shadow reporters.

At times, though, she considered giving up. 

While driving home from work one night, Rahman called her mother, who lives in Chicago, and, through tears, told her, "I don't think I can do this anymore." 

Her mother's reply?

"Are you kidding? You've worked so hard for this. You have to keep trying." 

In the application process, Porter said “there was never a discussion” or concern about Rahman's hijab. When Rahman applied most recently, Porter said “it looked like she had perfected her craft and she had learned and improved. We said, ‘This is the best candidate and this is who should get the job.’”

“It was all about the job,” he added. “It was never about the hijab.”

At the time, he wasn’t aware he had possibly hired America’s first hijabi TV reporter.

“I don't know why it took this long. Why wouldn’t there be one already in a bigger city, like Chicago or Detroit?” Porter said. “Why does it take Rock Island?”

'Yeah, but my whole life is kind of hard'

Since Rahman’s reported her first story on Local 4 News on Wednesday, the response hasn’t all been positive.

On the station’s Facebook page, people have written comments such as “Goodbye Local 4 News” or “I’m going to stop watching.”

Rahman expected backlash.

“I knew people were going to see me or find out about me being on air and it being different,” she said.

She also knew this: “At the end of the day, if my story was good, if I had my facts right, there wasn’t any justifiable insult that I would take to heart.”

Over the years, she has figured out how to deal with strangers yelling slurs her way or “just staring because I'm different." 

“At a certain point as a Muslim-American woman, you grow a really tough skin,” she said. “You learn to just move on.”

That sense of perseverance is, after all, what got Rahman here.

“When people would tell me how hard this would be, I understood it,” she said. “I also would think, ‘Yeah, but my whole life is kind of hard.”

Rahman said it “still seems surreal” to be reporting each day, and, of course, it was worth the wait.

“If I was the 300th or the 30th or the 3rd, I still would’ve wanted the job as much as I wanted it,” she said. "This is all I've wanted to do." 


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).