So You’ve Decided to Wear Hijab: What To Expect

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

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

11 replies on “So You’ve Decided to Wear Hijab: What To Expect”

Thanks for posting this. I really wish, as a sort of WASPy New Yorker, that I understood more about Islam and the hijab. In general, I wish I knew more about cultural fashion.

I volunteered in an ESL summer school program for a month a few years ago, and I saw these beautiful girls every day from far flung corners of the world– Ethiopia, Morocco, China, Guatemala, to name a few. They became friends and helped each other, and were among the friendliest, most upbeat, courageous kids I’ve ever met (and the selection I can chose from is pretty wide.) I loved my time with them because every day these girls came to school looking proud and beautiful, and were so open and understanding both with each other and their American classmates and instructors.

I wish we saw more adults who were this open, and felt this safe at work, out in public, or in school. I think articles like this are the first step to a more open, adult dialogue. So, thanks, and I hope you do more.

This was a really interesting read, thanks for posting it! I live in a city with a large Muslim population (and a country where 1/16th of the population is Muslim), so I’m very much used to seeing women wearing hijab around. In fact, when I lived in the US in an area with hardly any Muslims, I missed seeing them around.
There’s been a big cultural shift here in the last 10 years or so. When I worked at a department store in the late 90’s, all the girls who usually wore hijab would go unveiled at work, not because of a company directive but because everyone did it. Now, it seems like they all wear it at work. I say seems, because obviously I can’t tell if the women without hijabs don’t usually wear it.
I don’t care either way, really. It’s just something I’ve noticed. I see many more veiled women around, perhaps as defiance to the rampant Islamophobia as well.

Thanks for another great post about hijab. I have to admit, I think it’s really awesome when I see women wearing them in my city, which has a growing Arab community but has been traditionally mostly Catholic for a very long time. I am always so impressed by them, that their desire to do what they want, adhere to their beliefs trumps the weird looks that they get on the bus and walking down the street or whatever. I always make a point to smile at them if we happen to catch each other’s eye. I mean, not in a staring, creeper kind of way, but a small stranger-smile instead of just looking away. When I’m in a situation where I practice my religion socially, like not getting bacon with my breakfast combo, it’s a private thing that no one much notices. (Not to mention that there’s not exactly widespread hate for the Jews.) Wearing a hijab is a pretty big sign to the whole world of a part of yourself that people just love to be judgey about.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of things that I’m so impressed by women who wear hijab here. It should just be something that someone else wears that’s none of my business. And of course it’s NOT any of my business! But the fact that it’s a conscious decision to visually announce yourself as a Muslim is unfortunately a big deal. I hope some day it’s not.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a white atheist who absolutely loves hijabs. I think most of them are *gorgeous*. I was part of a very Muslim-heavy group in college, and lots of my friends wore hijab almost daily, so I’m very comfortable with them, but I still would never wear one, no matter how pretty they are or how much I love them, because of that whole pesky cultural appropriation thing. And I always feel guilty for liking them purely for their appearance, because I know that completely ignores the spiritual purpose of them–I used to be a dedicated Catholic, and several times I had people comment on how pretty my rosary beads were, and why didn’t I wear them like a necklace instead of just playing around with them in my hands? I know that’s barely comparable to the harassment that Muslim women in hijab can get, but it keeps me reminded that hijabs are not just pretty scarves.

I am one of the non-Muslim women who really wonders what I’d look like in a hijab. I think they’re beautiful. There’s pretty much no Muslim population in my town, so I’d stick out something fierce. Plus I worry about the cultural appropriation part of things.

Is it appropriate to tell someone that you like their hijab? I mean, like how you could tell a stranger “Those are great shoes”?

i worry about the same thing. at my university, there’s a lot of muslim women who wear hijabs and quite often i see one which is so gorgeous i can’t stop staring at it. sometimes they see me staring and i want to clarify why i’m looking at them, but then, as queenjulie said, i don’t want to insult (?) them by just reducing it to its aesthetic value. quandary.

It is totally appropriate to tell someone you like their hijab. As long as it’s meant to be admired (i.e. not plain black or strictly religious) it always feels good to get a compliment.

And on cultural appropriation it’s important to remember that the use of hijab spans every culture. It’s an ideology rather than a purely cultural institution. There is culture in it, don’t get me wrong. But these days that informs how you wear it rather than if you wear it.Seeing a white woman wear a hijab isn’t jarring. I simply assume she’s a Muslim.

I’m not a Muslim, but I do wear a headscarf in hijab styles quite a lot, especially in winter. I live in a very multicultural city in England, so all that’s happened is that I have been honked at more from people in cars, which was a bit strange. Sometimes if I wear one in front of people who know me e.g teachers they deliberately don’t mention it in case they offend me, despite the fact that yesterday I had a ponytail and today I have a bright pink scarf, but they are just being careful about political correctness. I don’t think I’d know how to react if greeted as a fellow Muslim, since I only wear it because my ears are cold, although people wearing hijabs are so commonplace where I live that it’s never happened. It’s usually just assumed that I’m a Muslim lady, but I just think they’re beautiful and it’s useful because I can bring a scarf out and if my head gets cold, my scarf adapts.

I have a friend who does just that! I’ll often wrap my scarf around in a non-traditional hijab style, but the most comments I’ve ever had are from mates saying I look like a “Russian grandmother”.

I think it’s kind of sad that the ‘headscarf’ in all its forms is coming to be seen by the majority of the population as a strictly religious, Muslim, female attire. Plenty of people in plenty of cultures wear loose or tight fabric wrapped or draped around their head and neck – from Indian women to Saudi men to my White, Buddhist grandma. And she’s not even Russian.

Leave a Reply