Since I became a “hijabi:” What it means to wear a Muslim headscarf

hijabiI decided I wanted to don the hijab last summer. It’s been almost a year now since I became a hijabi (someone who wears the hijab), and I’ve learned some fascinating things since then; I thought perhaps you might be interested in my experiences.

But first, let’s talk a little bit about what the hijab actually is and why I made the decision I made. The most basic definition of hijab is simply that it is a headscarf worn by Muslim women (not to say that other women of other faiths don’t wear headscarves of some form, because it’s actually quite common in many religions).

Obviously, though, it means a lot more– and that is not the oppression/subjugation/dehumanization of women in the name of Islam, as too many people would tell you, because Islam is actually an advocate of women’s rights, and hijab is actually a form of female empowerment. For a lot of people to whom I tell this, it’s a radical notion– it’s the first time they’ve ever heard anything other than the facile, fallacious “Islam is misogyny.” But it’s not. Aminah Assilmi does a fantastic job of explaining:

For me, hijab started out as a purely religious thing. I wanted to do something I felt was asked for in my religion and I wanted people to know I was Muslim, rather than just guesstimating by the color of my skin or my family’s country of origin (not kidding about the skin color thing, by the way). But it quickly became a very political statement, too, that went hand-in-hand with my strong feminist identity. Because the purpose of the hijab in Islam is multifold; yes, it identifies you as Muslim, but it also identifies you as human. It demonstrates to the world that I am a person whose worth, respect, and dignity are not founded upon her appearance; I will be judged not by the way that I dress or the way that I look, but what I say, do, and think; my value as an individual does not come from my appearance, but from my actions.

So, to me, hijab is also a way of reclaiming my body as mine– that it is not for public consumption– and reiterating that I will not support a culture that sexualizes, objectifies, or commodifies women. And this is a fundamental value of feminism.

Which brings me to lesson #1 I’ve learned since I became a hijabi: When you become a representative of Islam (or of any group), people will not perceive you as a representative of Islam, but of what is perceived as Islam. I mean that if people think Islam is misogynistic or violent or hateful, etc., then they automatically assume that I condone such behavior and that my hijab is demonstrative of that support. Which means I have a lot of the same conversations over and over and over again about what Islam is and what the popular news media makes it out to be, oftentimes two very different things. So when people weirdly assume that as a Muslim, I can’t be a feminist or a woman’s rights activist, you can be sure I’ll set them straight.

And one of the things I reiterate again and again is that I can still do the things that I want, and I’m still the same person as before. If I wanted to be athletic (I don’t, but if I did), I could be. If I wanted to take art lessons, I could. If I wanted to pursue higher education (as I am), I can. Putting a scarf over my head and wearing longer sleeves doesn’t inhibit me from being my usual, obnoxiously stubborn, sassy, sarcastic me. At all. Does your personality or capability change with your attire? Didn’t think so.

All that being said, I still love getting questions from people about my hijab. It means that person is going to get information from a Muslim who knows, y’know, a little more about Islam than say… FOX news? Bill Maher? Don Lemon? Which is exciting for me.

Let me just collectively address some of the most popular questions I get.

No, I don’t shower with it on. I also don’t sleep with it on. In fact, I only wear hijab in front of men to whom I’m not directly related; so if I’m in a women-only setting or with my family, I don’t wear it.

Yes, it does get hot wearing it in the summer, but I can deal with it. Plus, it’s not like I have to wear a thick wool scarf, I can wear a thin cotton one tied loosely and still enjoy every breeze and every breath of fresh air.
Also, it’s not the scarf itself that is of significance; it’s what it represents. So, my scarves aren’t fancy religious things; most of them are from Charming Charlie’s or Target or Walmart. The cloth itself is not an object of any religious reverence.

Yes, when I’m in new situations or places, I do sometimes get uncomfortable. I feel like everybody is staring at me sometimes and I wonder how people will react. Am I near any Islamophobes? Is anyone going to say/do something stupid or hateful? Am I safe? If someone did say/do something would anyone come to my defense? Would anyone even sympathize with me? But I try not to let self- doubt dictate how I live my life.

There are also a lot of implicit assumptions people make, but never quite vocalize. As I previously mentioned, I haven’t always worn it. It hasn’t even been a year, but everyone assumes I was, like, born with a hijab. Yeah, didn’t pop out of the womb with a scarf on my head.

Also, everybody assumes I’m Arab. That doesn’t surprise me about people not from Asia/Middle East who aren’t familiar with racial/ethnic politics in that area (here, my race is intimately tied with my religion and so all Muslims, no matter their actual ethnicity, are automatically Arab), but even people from there make the same mistake. There are tons of South Asians at Webster University right now, and not a single one of them guesses I’m from that area. Every single one of them initially assumes I’m Arab, and it’s not until they hear me casually muttering to myself in Urdu (to them, Hindi), that they realize I’m Pakistani-American not Saudi Arabian.

Sorry, guys, but it takes a hijabi no less time to get ready than a non-hijabi. No time is saved. The time we previously spent doing our hair is not spent perfecting the wrap and setting of the scarf.

As for as the effects the hijab has had on my daily life, they’re mixed. On one hand, there’s the delightful fact that I automatically have a bond with any other hijabi I meet. I have an immediate connection to her, or to any other Muslim, and it’s easily the way to a friendship because the hijab makes the introduction for me. And that means I get random salaams from people I don’t know, but who recognize me as Muslim because of my hijab. And it makes me smile every time– strangers wishing peace upon me.

Also, almost everyone on campus knows me– if not by name, then by face. There aren’t too many other hijabis on campus for them to confuse me with. So we can build a working rapport a lot faster when they remember me after just one meeting.

On the other hand, I have become hyper-aware of my race and religion as a defining factor of how people regard me, with all the baggage those labels may hold. I am always aware that people perceive me first and foremost as a Muslim woman when meeting me for the first time and later as a student, American citizen, daughter, friend, employee, etc. Most people get over that shock pretty quickly and can see me as a person independent of what I’m wearing on my head (success!)… but there are plenty of people who don’t. So while many of my closest friends tell me all the time that I could do great things in politics (because I’m a very blunt, no-BS, dedicated, and passionate person), I know I’ll probably never get that opportunity. My opportunities as an elected political official are slim because many people will judge me by overt otherness before anything else. But it comes with the territory, and I’ve learned to accept it. There are certain public employment opportunities I may or may not ever have now that I showcase my otherness, but I can deal with it. And I can work to make change so that others after me aren’t faced with that challenge, and I can use my experiences to motivate me on a path to that change.

Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime, but one day, inshAllah (God willing), it will.