Editor’s Note: All views presented in this article are the writer’s based on her experience.
On April 21, 2011, I donned hijab as a participant in International Scarves in Solidarity Day, an event organised both in response to legislation banning various forms of Islamic clothing, as well as in support of women’s right to dress as they deem appropriate, whatever their faith or philosophy. These are a few of my reflections on a unique and eye-opening experience.
Recently, I made an observation. I had just stumbled across some of the hijabi fashion blogs on the internet, and was feeling a curious mix of admiration and jealousy. In the photos and articles, I saw some of the most outstandingly beautiful women ever–not “beautiful” in the fake, ostentatious way we usually see on TV and in magazines, but because of their unique air of intelligence, respectability and femininity. Of course, this impression did not come just from reading a few blogs, but from my relationships with my Muslim friends, who have yet to strike me as anything less than all-around awesome. And this realisation was really nothing special, but it had never struck me quite in the way it did that night, nor had it ever caused me to think as critically about my own reality.
Being a woman in today’s culture makes for a lot of unwanted attention, and I say this from personal experience: like most women, I have endured years of cat-calls, obscene propositions, lewd comments, and demeaning stares from countless men. I always want to pull these men aside and tell them there’s a lot more to me than the way I look, but there’s very little I can actually do about it. Though I try to brush it off and not let it make me feel like a piece of meat, it still does. Thus, as I leafed through the blogs, I found myself feeling a little jealous that these women are part of a faith and community that allows and encourages them to express themselves in a way that is beautiful and expressive, while also commanding the respect of others based on their true merits.
So naturally, when the opportunity to participate in International Scarves in Solidarity Day arose, I leaped at the chance to show my support for my Muslim friends–and (admittedly) the excuse to wear hijab for a day as a kind of personal/social experiment. On Thursday, April 21, around 9 a.m., I fished a colorful scarf out of my closet and started putting it on my head. Doing my best to approximate one of the hijab styles I had seen, I draped it around my hair, wrapped it under my chin, and pinned it in the back. It’s hard to explain quite how I felt about it. I felt…good. Happy. Pretty. A Muslim friend once told me, “The real beauty of hijab is that everyone looks good in it.” This comment gave me tremendous encouragement throughout the day.
Reactions to my headscarf generally ranged from nothing at all, to polite (if slightly bemused) curiosity, to tremendous appreciation. I enjoyed the random smiles and assalaamu aleikums I got from the Muslims I saw on the street, which I enthusiastically returned with wa aleikum assalaams (thank you, Arabic class). I was extremely moved by the gratitude expressed to me by many of my Muslim friends, who were heartened by this bold display of support by a non-Muslim–an uncommon thing in this day and place. And I very nearly laughed out loud at the visible confusion of the 7/11 clerk as he tried to make sense of the corn-fed, blue-eyed, collegiate hijabi he was selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to.
Unfortunately, I also received a little taste of the Islamophobia that is so rampant in our society. Most of these instances are impossible to quantify, and can really only be felt: the scornful glances from people who would normally smile back at you on the sidewalk, the exasperated sighs and rude tones of voice. These are the kinds of petty things you can usually chalk up to something else, but that still serve to make you feel like an outsider, unwelcome. But when one of my classes was moved to a room in my Christian university’s seminary building that I couldn’t find, I encountered one woman who was even more outwardly displeased to see me. When I stumbled upon a speaker giving some kind of sermon in our usual meeting place, she actually stopped him mid-sentence, sneered at me, and sarcastically asked, “What, you wanna hear him preach?”
I was already running quite late, so instead of answering her rhetorical question, I calmly asked where to find my class, and was sent on my way. I wish I’d had the time and place to actually engage her in a conversation, but it just wasn’t in the cards that day. Still, my heart breaks for those fellow members of my human family who endure such rudeness and belittlement on a daily basis–or worse, who face actual threats to their well-being simply because of who they are or how they look.
It’s moments like this that I really remember why I am so driven to do intercultural and interfaith work: because Muslims are our neighbors and our friends, and they deserve just as much respect as any of the rest of us. It’s ridiculous that I should even feel the need to clarify this, but in a world with a multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry, I suppose that’s just the sad reality. Throughout history, there’s always some group facing some ignorant prejudice or unjustified hatred, or some identity that society doesn’t like or understand, so it gets labeled as too “other” to be fully accepted. Today, statistically speaking, it happens to include Muslims, along with homosexuals and atheists–but tomorrow, it could just as easily be me. Thus, I feel a strong conviction to speak up against such baseless hatred wherever I see it, even if it’s not directed at me.
But back to the hijab. It occurred to me at some point during my day as a hijabi that sometimes being free (and perhaps implicitly expected) to dress in ever-more-provocative Western styles can be just as oppressive of women as so many people say of the hijab. The irritation of never finding a cute dress that was actually a dress and not a top, the embarrassment of a poorly cut neckline causing a wardrobe malfunction, the weeks and months I used to starve myself for the sake of an unattainable standard…all these things suddenly seemed less burdensome as a temporary hijabi. There was a certain je ne sais quoi that I somehow felt I had achieved in the 30 seconds it took to “hijabify” myself. It’s remarkable what an open mind, a few pins, and a simple piece of cloth can do.
At any rate, this small act of solidarity taught me something very important about hijab, something that some of my fellow non-Muslims would do well to remember: sometimes, hijab makes a woman feel more herself, not less. It’s not just about being modest around men–because when it comes to sexual harassment, no short hemline, stiletto heel or decolleté top gives anyone an excuse to act like an animal. And it’s not just about covering, because that implies that a human body is a shameful thing, and it’s not. Any of the Muslim women I know will tell you that “hijab” means a lot more than simply “headscarf.” It’s not just about “modesty” in a superficial sense. It’s deeper than that. It conveys a message that someone’s physical appearance is second to their true identity, their convictions and ideas and feelings. It sends a signal that, not only do I expect to be listened to instead of looked at, but I will return that favor to anyone with whom I interact. In short, I felt I was, quite literally, wearing respect on my head: respect towards myself, towards God, and towards other people.
This is not to say that covering one’s hair is the only way to show respect or dress modestly, or that women who wear hijab are never harassed or objectified. Nor am I asserting that people’s interactions with one another would automatically become more genuine if they only covered their heads. But it seems ironic to me that something that can be so empowering and woman-affirming can also be so hated by those who claim to be feminist. How one chooses to present oneself is both highly complex and intensely personal; feminism is not a one-size garment, and ultimately has very little to do with what a woman wears or doesn’t wear on her head. Whether she chooses a bikini, a burqa, or anything in between, what’s most important is her own freedom to make that choice. Thus, women should feel as free to dress modestly, whatever their faith or philosophy, as they are to dress in any other way.
So even though I don’t currently have plans to adopt the hijab as a regular style, I don’t think I’ll soon forget my first encounter with wearing it. No matter what, I know I will continue to admire and be inspired by the intellect, dignity and beauty of my hijabi sisters.
Erin Elisabeth Smith is a recent graduate of North Park University in Chicago, Illinois. She currently serves as a community ambassador with the Inter-Faith Youth Core, and she plans to continue graduate work in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.