ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS —
It’s 6 p.m. in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, four towns that straddle the mighty Mississippi River in the heartland of America, and as an audience settles in for the latest local news and weather on the Nexstar-owned CBS affiliate WHBF-TV, they are about to see a new face in town.
"I love the way that you can craft a story with TV news," explains Tahera Rahman, who started her job as a reporter at WHBF in February. "You get to do it in the words of the people themselves."
This is Rahman’s first "on camera" job, and her appearance is uniquely identifiable.
"It seemed normal to me, because I was just following in the footsteps of my mom," she told VOA.
WATCH: Hijab-Wearing TV Reporter Charts New Path for Muslim Americans
Those footsteps ultimately brought her to the WHBF-TV newsroom where Rahman now stands alone as the first full-time broadcast television news reporter in the United States to wear the traditional Muslim head scarf, also known as a hijab.
"I always knew that I had never seen anyone who looks like me on camera before… at least on American television," she says. "I have a lot of family members who do not wear a head scarf, but my mom wears one and a couple of my aunts also do. We are taught that in Islam, it is a choice."
'Connect more to my heritage'
It is a choice Rahman embraces. She says she first wore the hijab when she was 12.
"I think I’ve made more of a conscious effort as I’ve grown older to connect more to my heritage," she says, though she admits it has sometimes been a struggle.
"I think when you are younger it’s all about fitting in. And when you are in elementary, middle school and especially high school in America, you just want to be like everyone else."
Rahman’s parents are immigrants from India and Pakistan. Rahman herself was born outside Chicago. But the job at WHBF isn’t about that heritage or her faith. Her boss says it’s about her talent.
"Tahera deserves this" WHBF news director Mike Mickle said. He never once considered asking Rahman if she would remove her hijab.
"We realize that she is the first. But if she had been the 30th, the 300th or the 3000th, it wouldn’t have made a difference. We did it because she’s Tahera and she earned this opportunity," Mickle said.
Rahman’s appearance on a local news station is a welcome surprise to the small but growing Muslim population in the Quad Cities.
"It shocks me actually," said Mohamad El-Zain, president of the Muslim Community of the Quad Cities, one of two area mosques.
The Quad Cities' total population is about 400,000. El-Zain said there are about 1,000 Muslims in the area, a number that is growing quickly.
The Pew Research Center estimates there are 3.45 million Muslims living in the United States. Islam is expected to become the second largest religious group in the country by 2040.
'Empowering to our kids'
El-Zain views Rahman’s opportunity locally as a critical moment for Muslim-Americans nationwide.
"It’s empowering to our kids to see anybody with a veil anywhere, because our kids struggle going to high school, so imagine this lady being in front of a public audience on TV."
Being in front of that audience isn’t always easy.
"In just the past couple of days, I’ve got two or three emails just about how my religion is the religion of the devil and I should reconsider," Rahman told VOA.
It is unfortunately old news to Rahman and her family, who have experienced other incidents of hate and racism. She says her mother was particularly concerned about the unwelcome attention her historic moment might generate.
"I think she knew that it comes with… especially in the post 9/11 era… comes with a political statement," Rahman says. "You know you are going into it with some backlash. I saw that growing up… being in the car with my mom and seeing people next to us stop and make their gestures and things like that."
She says those past experiences have steeled her for the expected backlash of being shown wearing a hijab. "When you grow up as a Muslim-American, you grow thick skin and you just learn to roll with it," she says.
Also, rather than removing inflammatory comments, including those on her personal social media accounts, she’s determined to let everyone see. “I think people should know this is what people like me deal with, even if they aren’t on TV, this is just the reality," Rahman added.
"We knew that she would be attracting attention, not only in this market but outside this market," Mickle, Rahman’s boss at the station, said.
Prepared for debut
He says he was careful in preparing her ahead of her debut. “Her knees haven’t buckled once. She’s done a great job.”
Mickle stresses the positive feedback pouring into the station outweighs the negative, and adds the only real pressure at the moment is dealing with the overwhelming media interest in Rahman.
"It’s allowing Tahera to share her journey with others, which we want her to do, but at the same time she has a deadline and she needs to meet it," he adds.
For her part, Rahman says the grind of the daily news cycle keeps her grounded.
"I do think that this is a huge moment... but at the same time, day in and day out, nothing has changed. Just because you got to where you want to go doesn’t mean you work any less," she says.
Rahman says she hopes her hard work pays off, not just to move up the television news career ladder, but so those who follow in her footsteps will have similar opportunities in offices across the country.