I am an unrepentant lover of the hijab. I love it when it’s dolled up, cascading, folded simply, slung loosely, tucked up under, or tightly wrapped around just the hairline. The colors, the fabrics; I can easily spend hours in a hijab store and never be satisfied. I have gotten them shipped in from Kuwait, parsed through them in Agadir, and bartered my ass off for one in Bursa.
Yet in everyday life I almost never wear hijab. Sure, I sling them around my neck all the time, and in a mosque or during a special occasion I’ll always pin one in. But any casual wear is almost exclusively done while I’m in a Muslim country. Where it is easy to rock and nobody looks at you twice. But put one on in America or Europe and whether you live in Seattle, Little Rock, or London, apathy is the last reaction your likely to get.
To don a hijab in predominately Christian societies can feel like an act of revolution. Intentionally or not you are challenging what your country and its citizens truly stand for. Is freedom of religion a fundamental value? Or is that a bunch of hot air that got sucked out of the room when xenophobic citizens see Islam popping up in their own backyard?
However, chances are, if you are wearing a hijab or simply wondering if it’s right for you, your reasons are much more personal than political. Whether they are cultural, religious, or some random amalgamation, you have a right to a frank discussion of what to expect while hijabed up. There will be questions, irritants, and there are possible risks. However, you might also forge new connections and opportunities to change the way some people in society view Islam and women. So here is the dirt:
Some People Are Really Nice to You!
The invisible Muslim community you never really knew existed will come out of the woodwork. Men who wouldn’t look at you twice will suddenly greet you in the street, “Salam alaykum, sister” they will say as they pass you. These same men will open up doors for you, give up seats on buses for you, and even strike up a casual conversation about where you worship and how long you’ve been (or if you have always been) Muslim.
The same goes for your fellow hijabis. But rather than the formal Muslim brother to Muslim sister greeting you’re more likely to get a grin, “salaam,” wave, nod or some other sign that you two are connected through something spiritual and sacred. Plenty of fellow hijabis will come right up and talk to you. Some hijabis will ignore this similarity and try to normalize hijab by pretending as though it doesn’t even matter. But both of you are minorities who are vulnerable and often face open discrimination by society. A certain amount of solidarity does matter. Smile and say hello, but if the other Muslimah does not want to interact, don’t push it.
Some People Are Really Mean to You
Women who wear a hijab in public are at a much higher risk of street harassment. This can range from verbal abuse to physical assault. Numerous stories are out there of women having the hijab yanked right off their head. For those that do not wear them it’s important to realize that hijabs are usually held in place with a series of straight pins and tucks. You cannot just yank it off cartoon style without dislodging those pins and driving them into the scalps and necks of these women. Furthermore, if a woman is not wearing a bonnet under her hijab, they can also have their hair yanked out along with the hijab.
Then there are the more insidious forms of discrimination. Being ignored at counters, having to wait extra long for service, being talked to as though you must not know the local language. On one occasion, while out for sushi, my brother gifted me a brand new hijab. He knew all about my never-ending love for them, and they were being sold at a fundraiser he attended for the local Islamic Center. I put the gauzy fabric on my head in the restaurant. It was a light to dark green fade with gold lines threaded though and I had to try it on. “How does it look?” I asked him. The waiter, standing a few feet away, actually scoffed, rolled his eyes, and didn’t return to the table until the end of our meal.
Because treatment like this is likely to be somewhat common, you may find yourself gravitating towards Islamic-owned restaurants, stores and centers. This is fairly normal and one of the reasons Islam gets a reputation for being somewhat reclusive. Because it is simply easier to eat in a place where you know you’ll get great service. To shop in a store where you know the saleswoman won’t make rude jokes once she thinks you’re out of earshot. There is no reason to feel badly about wanting to give your money to people who treat you well. However, please remember that eschewing your otherwise regular hangouts means a certain level of social concession. It is up to you to decide if that’s something you’re willing to give up but I would encourage you not to.
Some People Will be Curious
If you’ve just put on the hijab, prepare yourself. You are about to get a bevy of questions as though you’d been appointed official ambassador to ladies, Islam, and fabric everywhere. The questions will no doubt range from sweet to surprised to downright disrespectful. It is up to you to decide how much you feel like humoring these strangers. For some people (like me!), I try to use it as a teachable moment. Even when the questions stray into clearly rude territory, I have a thick enough skin that it doesn’t really get to me. However, that’s just my personality and I would never advocate that others put themselves in that same position unless they felt it was right for them.
Remember that it is neither your responsibility or moral obligation to spell out facts to strangers who could easily access a Google search. But, if you do decide direct conversation works for you, some of the more common questions you’ll get are, “Is it hot?”, “Is it uncomfortable?”, “How does it stay on?”, “Are you being forced to wear it?”, “Why do you have to wear it?” and, “Why don’t you want to look like an American?”
Other (friendlier) people may want to hear your story or even try one on. In all reality, I’ve rarely met a women who didn’t want to know how she looked in a hijab. All my friends, at one point or another, have asked me to fold a “real one” on their heads. Oftentimes they strut it around a bit, enjoying the thrill of going undercover in this secret world and the shock of other’s reactions. As long as these people are your friends, or at least kind to you, then this can be a fantastic learning experience for them.
Some People Will be Surprised
It’s just one of those things you will have to get used to. People’s eyes will widen, then they will look away, fidget and pretend really hard that everything is normal. Elevators are a prime location for these types of behaviors. Strap on your favorite hijab, press the button, and watch the expressions when the metal doors slide open. Suppress your natural urge to laugh or mock grown men who get a case of the sweats over a swath of fabric.
One of my friends, Bahija, likes to cut through tension swiftly with a quick, “Boo!” This has led to a lot of hilarious situations where people are able to laugh at themselves and even make a new friend. But, it has also led to complaints being filed against her at her place of work (a university library). For many the hijab is a mysterious and strange symbol that belongs anywhere else but right in their face. Which is shame considering just how beautiful and worthy of appreciation many are.
Some People Will be Scared
There are a group of people that fly past the level of uncomfortable and go straight into panic. They see a hijab on a bus and they assume you’re on some sort of suicide mission. You sit next to them in the theatre and their reaction goes far beyond simply shifting uncomfortably. These situations can be especially dangerous for hijabis because fear can breed violence. Please use caution when you see something like this spiraling out of control.
If, however, the situation in manageable do what you can assuage those fears. Make a joke, laugh, be your normal human self. It might take a moment for the person who is afraid to make the connection between this normal, funny human being speaking and the exotic thing they had fabricated in their head, but they’ll eventually get it.
One of my hijabi friends sat down next to a man on a flight and immediately noticed he was turning into a nervous wreck. This wasn’t airplane anxiety, this was about her. He asked to change seats but it wasn’t possible. Finally, in exasperation she told him, “On 9/11, hijackers wore polo shirts and chinos. They wanted to appear normal. You know I’m safe because no terrorist in her right mind would draw attention to herself with this thing.” The man laughed nervously at first but slowly opened up. Eventually he asked her some questions, she answered them patiently, and in the end she was able to give him a proper tutorial in the fine art of folding a shayla.
In the End
It’s up to you to decide just how much interaction you chose to have with the world regarding your hijab. You can go the route of ignoring all who question, deride, or stare at you because of it. Or you can try to inform and interact with this segment of the population. Whatever it is that you think is best for you, know that there is not one correct mindset. Not everybody can discuss sensitive issues like hijab without getting flustered. Similarly, some simply cannot keep silent in the face of blatant discrimination. Just remember that it is your choice and you never need to feel bad for it.
Hijabs are beautiful, and quite frankly, I think they enhance features rather than take away from them. If you decide to put one on, remember that there are lots of people out there silently supporting you. Plenty understand that this is the way you connect to the universe around you and that should be honored and respected. Sadly, in American and European society today it is an act of courage that takes self assurance and a strong convictions. I applaud hijabis because I think they embody exactly what Islamic culture was intended to be: a brave, social movement that demands equal treatment for all. Deciding to veil is not all fun and games, but it can be incredibly rewarding for many. And hey, if you don’t like it, relief is only a few pins away.
Image credit by indonesia_aventura on Flickr