On March 1, 1997, I made a decision that ultimately changed the course of the rest of my life. I started wearing the hijab.
I was a freshman in high school, and nothing could have prepared me for what was to become the defining characteristic in my being. I’ll admit; high school wasn’t easy. I endured a lot of snickering and pointing fingers. I had rumors made up about me. I lost friends. None of that mattered to me though because I had my Muslim friends outside of school who supported me. I was involved in my mosque and had a lot to be thankful for.
Then I started college. This was a whole new world for me. I was exposed to so many new experiences. I joined the usual activity groups like the Arab Student Union and Muslim Student Association. But then I was invited to join Student Government, and once I was in, the doors were flying open. I was so involved on campus that people knew me by name. My social circle expanded beyond the typical. I was now friends with many non-Muslims, and so things shifted a bit. I now had people asking me questions about Islam and my hijab. However, throughout all these inquiries, I remained myself. I acted as who I was, and never hid or altered my true being.
Truthfully, it was those from my similar background who judged me more than anyone else. They felt I was being “too liberal.” Just because I didn’t fit into the mold they expected me to fit in I was cast as a pariah. Looking back, I know now that those people didn’t know any better. Or maybe I’m just giving them the benefit of the doubt.
When 9-11 happened, I really thought my reign as campus queen would be over. I thought for sure the students on campus would turn the other way and hide under their ignorance. But I will never forget my first day back on campus after it all happened. I was in the Student Government office and one of my friends told me that she had been so worried about me and my family. And then she said something that has always been something I carry inside me. She said, “I don’t even notice the scarf on you anymore. At first it was something I saw, but now it’s just become a part of you that I don’t even see it anymore.”
I remember my eyes brimming with tears and my heart swelling with gratitude that I had found such an honest and compassionate person. It wasn’t just her though; the entire Student Government members echoed her sentiment. That was the day when I realized I could rule the world as a hijabi.
Since college, I have been afforded so many wonderful opportunities. I have never interviewed for a job and been denied for wearing the hijab. I have never been singled out in a crowd, or felt uncomfortable walking into a room. Yes, people stare at me at the mall. Yes, I have had some people make unnecessary comments to me. But hey, everyone gets stared at for some reason or another. People make derogatory comments to anyone, not just hijabis.
So, with all that being said, this is what I want to discuss: should Muslim women in America wait to wear the hijab until a much later age to avoid the perceived complications it may administer? Yes, wearing the hijab makes you stand out in society. Yes, Muslims have a negative image thanks to the media and extremists actions of a few. Is it fair to say though that hijab should be pushed aside until society is “more accepting?” I have heard some women say lately that they have a good standing with their childrens’ school, parents of their friends, and teammates. Meaning, that they feel they are giving a good image of Muslims, showing how modern and non-threatening we are. To them, wearing the hijab would make them seem “extreme.” They think that if they “win” these people over with their “normalcy” then 20 years down the road put on the hijab, these people will be more accepting. Also, they don’t feel that it is fair for their kids to have to explain to people why their mother “wears that thing on her head.”
I have to disagree.
I think that you can still present a positive image of Muslims as a woman who wears hijab. So what if your kids have to explain why you wear hijab? Are you ashamed to have them do that? Why is it such a big deal? It seems to me that although you feel you are being a modern Muslim, you are hiding what Islam really is. Hijab can be a beautiful thing, even “modern” as you so like to emulate.
It seems to me that what people want to do is “win” people over with their personality and then wear the hijab once they are confident that they will be accepted. However, no one ever said that wearing hijab was easy. You stick out like a sore thumb in society, especially here in the US. So there is a bit of a struggle, but that is to be expected. My job requires me to speak in front of 40 strangers every week and get them to trust and respect me enough to learn things that will help them become more successful at work. It may sound like it is hard, especially for a hijabi training mostly in the midwest, but it honestly is not.
I never feel uncomfortable or uneasy walking into a room. I’m not wondering if people are judging me or calling me a terrorist under their breath. If anyone has ever had any reservation about who I am, I have never heard it. What I HAVE heard, however, are people saying that they give me credit for wearing hijab in such an unforgiving society. I have girls who come up to me, grateful to see a minority female in corporate America. My hijab has given me more power and confidence than could have ever been thought imaginable.
So to all those women out there who don’t want to wear hijab because it will draw attention to them, I say this:
It’s best you don’t wear it until you are 100% invested. Even then, you will still have doubts. What you need to remember is that in our society, people will judge you no matter what. If it’s not for your hijab, it’s for your name. If not for your name, for your skin color. If not for that, then the color of your hair. You can choose to not wear hijab, but if you are seeking to live without judgement, you will never find that.
When I first got this job, I was in Chicago at dinner with my boss. Over our appetizers, he confided in me that he was worried about me training employees. I was confused as I asked him why. He told me he was afraid of how people would react to me. I personally had not thought of that, as those things never cross my mind. I almost laughed at him but I saw how serious he looked. He told me that when I walked into my interview, he instantly got nervous. Not because I was Muslim, but because he wasn’t sure how people would perceive me.
However, he said, by the end of the interview he no longer saw the scarf. All he saw was a great candidate for a trainer position. And that was when he knew that I would be okay.
This is my point, people. You CAN be viewed as just a normal person in society. Whether you have a hijab, a different skin color, an accent, or a non-traditional name, you can still be YOU. It may take a little longer for people to push past all that, but once they do they will see an amazing person. If they choose not to, well, then….that’s just their loss.