Growing up, I had seen my mother go from not wearing a hijab to wearing one. I was ten years old when she chose to cover her hair and we had just been to Hajj. At sixteen, I decided that one day, when I am ready, I will wear the hijab...but not now.
One would think that in a country like USA, where there are about 2.6 million Muslims and growing, it should be easy to take up the scarf, shawl or ‘hijab.’ With the peer pressure of pop culture, feeling the need to ‘look cool’ and the urge to ‘fit in,’ it is not easy for any Muslim girl. Even though I was in the Muslim Students Association at William Paterson University where some of the girls wore hijabs and some, like myself, did not, I could not bring myself to cover up.
I mean, the whole concept of picking up a piece of cloth or shawl and wrapping it around my head seems easy enough! What is not so easy is going out in public, covered up.
I was not ashamed of being a Muslim or embarrassed that I would not fit in with the ’in-crowd of USA’ if I wore a hijab. I was, rather...afraid of being misjudged and not quite sure if I could do justice to the meaning of the hijab.
Living in a world where the normal human being’s mentality is to stereotype and judge on a regular basis, verbally and/or mentally, the last thing I dared to do was to wear the hijab.
Wearing the hijab meant stares and whispers. It meant an instant judgment from someone who would relate it to 9/11. It meant that someone would look at my hijab and feel sorry for me instead of asking me whether or not it was really my choice to wear it.
Even more, wearing the hijab meant understanding and accepting the reasons behind it. Was I ready? Should I have just known when I was ready? Did I know Islam well enough to cover up? Could I do justice to the meaning of the hijab? Wearing a hijab is a huge decision in a Muslim girl’s life because once it is on, it is meant to stay on in the presence of men with the exception as follows:
Tell the believing women not to reveal their adornments except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons...old male servants who lack vigor, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex (Al NUR 31).
Misconception about Islam was a topic I gave a lot of coverage to throughout my years of working for the University newspaper, The Beacon Newspaper. Misconception of Islam was a highlighted topic in my speech competitions, written works and high schoolnewspaper throughout my youth. I thought that Islam needed to be clarified or purified in the eyes of those who did not ask and therefore, did not come to know.
Ask and you will know. Contrary to popular belief, Muslims love being asked questions about their religion. I know I loved it when someone wanted to know more about Islam or my hijab! It was my opportunity to say, I am a Muslim and I am a normal person just like you.
I chose to wear the hijab in 2008 when I lived in London. It took a lot of courage to accept that I was ready for it and could walk outside of the house, covered up. The hijab is big fashion in London so I felt more comfortable than ever to take it up there. You could call me a coward for needing the reassurance of a large assembly of covered women in one city in order for me to publicly wear the hijab. But, you cannot call me a ‘coward’ after knowing the amount of courage I had to build up to accept my readiness to cover up and stay covered the rest of my life. Wearing the hijab is a huge commitment. I consider myself dilligent for keeping it on. Now, it is like another part of my body!
I remember the first time I walked down Times Square, Manhattan, in my hijab, in 2009. I got a lot of stares, was seen as a tourist and only spotted one other woman in a hijab whowas a tourist! The response was interesting and it did not bother me. It did not phase me that different people saw me through different eyes. I felt special and proud to be seen as someone unusual.
Today, I am an English teacher at a high school in Stockholm, Sweden. I teach at a school where there are only two hijabi girls...one who is my student. She is in the eighth grade and has come from Afghanistan. A fellow colleague of mine told me that she had eaten lunch with this covered student.
Following her lunch, this colleague said to me, in Swedish, ‘You have no idea how happy this student is to have you as her teacher! She enjoys your class very much and likes the fact that you wear a hijab, just like her.’
I smiled and replied, in Swedish, ’I am glad to hear it.’ Instantaneously, I realized what an effect my hijab had on someone. It is not only a visible symbol of me, as a Muslim, but also an inspiration for others. By my wearing the hijab, I had made someone else feel comfortable and wanting to work harder in class.
That brought me back to a memory:
In 2012, I had an interview at another school in Stockholm. The majority of students were Muslim (covered and non-covered alike). This majority came from troubled homes and backgrounds. They were growing up with the mentality that they could not be anything more than average. I hoped that my being visibly-Muslim could give them hope. I wanted them to see me and think, I can be much more than average.
During my interview, the assistant principal (or...Deputy Head as they say in UK), asked me a question I was completely taken aback by-’Do you always cover your head? You never take it off?’
I thought to myself, Oh no, here we go. Discrimination. I’ve lost my chance at the job already! ’ And it was funny because this was my first job interview in Sweden and I went in with the preconceived notion that my hijab might be seen as a problem. How horrible of me to think that way, I know! How judgmental I had been of my interviewers before even meeting them! In fact, as it is custom to put your photographs on your CV/Resume in Sweden, I delibertely choose not to because of I am still afraid of being ‘misjudged.’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ’I always wear a scarf on my head. I never take it off.’
‘It’s not a problem for us,’ she said. Oh wonderful! I thought.
Oh great (sarcasm).... I thought to myself.
‘It’s just that we should tell you that we do not have halal food or prayer rooms in this school,’ she said. ‘It’s just that a lot of Muslims have posed that question to us so we thought we should just clarify that.’
‘I understand,’ I replied, still unsure of what this all meant for the outcome.
I explained what my hijab represented for me and what it could potentially represent for the children, majority of whom are Muslim.
I got the job! But, I left for other reasons and am now teaching at another school in Stockholm. I still do not put my photograph on the CV/Resume and it is no longer about being ‘misjudged,’ rather, I see no point in putting a face to the CV. I believe that the interviewers should meet me first, talk to me and put my personality to my CV instead of my face!
Looking back at my journey, I can see an evolution of meaningfulness in my wearing the hijab. At first, I struggled with the questions of whether I was ready or not and whether others would understand me or not. Once having worn the hijab privately as well as publicly, my self-consciousness quickly transformed into a natural feeling. The hijab felt like a physical part of my body, I no longer notice it is on my head when I go out. Finally, I have come to the advanced stage of my hijab evolution...accepting the hijab as much more than just a visible symbol of Islam, a conquering of my fear and a sign of modesty-my hijab is a sign of hope for the Muslim youth.
Published in Hayati Magazine 2014