She’s an infectious-disease specialist who runs her own practice, so her lab coat is first to meet the eye. Underneath, she blends trendy and cultural fashion in her attire, plucking inspiration from her favorite style icons and influencers on Instagram. She’s drawn to name brands — Chanel, Kate Spade, Hermès.
The third layer is a long-sleeved shirt and stretchy leggings, and her head is wrapped in a scarf. This part of Syed’s ensemble is dictated by her religious beliefs.
Syed said that in Islamic scripture, “The thought is to conceal your beauty a little bit so you can be a little bit modest in your day-to-day living.” Hence, the covering of her hair with the scarf and the covering of her bare arms and legs.
Syed is Muslim. She said growing up in Syosset, she was raised with her parents’ Indian culture and religion blended into the day-to-day rituals of the Western world. The family used to attend the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.
She said none of the female members of her family wore a hijab, the traditional head covering that some Muslim women wear to conceal their hair.
In August 2001, when she was 21 and right before she started medical school at the University of New England in Maine, Syed says she felt a need to get more in touch with her spirituality. She didn’t tell her now-husband, Faisal Zakaria, but she decided to start wearing the hijab.
“It was a very personal decision for me,” Syed said. When she put it on, they both said he almost didn’t recognize her.
Syed says she faced an “initial struggle” with wearing the hijab, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when her friends and family told her “to just take off the scarf.” She said they wondered why she would risk “putting a target” on herself.
“It was so emotional in the U.S. and in New York, and everybody was on edge,” she said. “But I have to tell you, the nicest people — my neighbors, everybody that was around me in Maine — would just come to me on a daily basis. ‘Do I need anything? Is anybody bothering me?’ They were always there for me.”
‘The second they see a woman in hijab, they already start formulating some thoughts in the back of their head.’ -Uzma Syed
Now 39 and back on Long Island, Syed is confident in her multifaceted identity. She says there isn’t just one thing that defines all of her.
“We all know that appearance means a lot because people will say don’t judge a book by its cover, but unfortunately the first thing that people see is the first idea they get in their mind,” she said.
“The second they see a woman in hijab, they already start formulating some thoughts in the back of their head.”
Syed said she confronted some of those misconceptions while campaigning for the Syosset school board earlier this year. But she saw the campaign as “another opportunity to educate [the community], for them to see that not every Muslim-American person is bad and you can’t judge everybody by one person.”
Syed also ran because her daughter, Noora, 14, started her first year of high school this fall, and her son, Aydin, 5, just began kindergarten.
She missed getting elected by five votes and says she is considering another run. Until then, most of her time is consumed by her practice, with offices in Syosset and Bay Shore. Since she’s not a surgeon and isn’t required to wear scrubs, she can express herself through fashion, trying different colors, textures and patterns underneath her lab coat.
Syed decided to start an Instagram account in 2014, dedicated to her daily wardrobe along with food and travel. At first, Syed set the account to private. But as she posted photos of her outfits, she realized how much she was connecting with her followers — currently at more than 600.
“People think you’re a doctor and you just go back and forth to work and that’s all your life is really, medicine and work,” she said. “Then you throw in the Muslim woman and the hijab and then there’s another layer that comes in and people assume that you’re this conservative, quiet, shy person who’s not into fashion or anything like that.
“So there were so many barriers that were being broken as people were seeing [my photos], and so many stereotypes that were being broken.”
‘I will, a lot of times, build my outfit around the scarf because it is a statement piece.’ -Uzma Syed
Her scarves are organized by color on two shelves in her bedroom. She has “at least 100” of them, she says — some cotton, some silk, some blends. Syed says hijab is an “extension of [her] clothing.”
“I have a huge closet full of clothing and hijabs because [of] how fashion-driven I am,” she said. “I will, a lot of times, build my outfit around the scarf because it is a statement piece.”
She added that misconceptions people have about hijabs are because they don’t know the meaning behind them.
“People often ask me, ‘Are you wearing a particular color because of a certain mood?’ When I was pregnant with my daughter, people asked me if I’m wearing pink or blue because I’m having a boy or a girl.
“You just get the funniest questions. And the simple answer is it really just has to do with your taste and your fashion sense, and I always have it matching my clothes. So that’s all it is.”
Syed says that even though she and Noora haven’t had the conversation yet, her daughter’s choice of whether to wear the hijab will be hers alone.
“It’s going to be a personal decision for her,” she said. “If she feels like that’s something she’s comfortable with, it’ll be her decision. When she’s ready.”