Subjugated, oppressed, subservient, inferior, and submissive, are adjectives I have frequently heard used to describe Muslim women who cover their heads by wearing hijab.
After wearing hijab in public while running errands around Cedar City, Utah for the day, I would be remiss not to add a few applicable adjectives to the list: stereotyped, misunderstood, friendly, humble, strong, empowered and brave.
When I first began this journey, I had no idea what to expect. However, based on the stories I had heard from Muslim women I had talked to, I knew that there would be some challenges.
I decided to spend a day in hijab after writing a preview story about a local World Hijab Day event. World Hijab Day took place for the second annual year Feb. 1.
According to www.facebook.com/WorldHijabDay, the global holiday was created by New York resident Nazma Khan as a way to build bridges between cultures and raise awareness about what hijab truly means by inviting non-hijabi Muslims and non-Muslim women to wear hijab for one day in a single act of solidarity.
Southern Utah University students with the Muslim Student Association planned a day of support on Feb. 4, because the actual holiday was on a Saturday when school was out. The MSA set up a booth in the SUU Sharwan Smith hallway and taught non-Muslim women how to wrap a hijab, and took pictures for their website to promote awareness about their plight.
After speaking to these open, articulate women, it occurred to me, that I was completely oblivious to the discrimination they endured on a day-to-day basis. I do not wear hijab, and so I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult it might be to do something as simple as run daily errands in a tiny town post 9/11 in the U.S.
In my mind, I imagined that it might have been something like trying to relate to the discrimination black men and women endured during the Jim Crow era of “separate, but equal” rights – a discrimination that many black Americans still live with today.
As a young white girl growing up in a south Jersey town in the late 80’s/early 90’s I had experienced my fair share of reverse discrimination, and had a hard time understanding why.
My father taught me, “We all bleed red”, so when school kids called me names like cracker, and honkey, I found it difficult to wrap my brain around all of the hostility. I was too young to understand that the intentional integration that took place between the two elementary schools in my district was strange in any way.
As I grew older and began to understand the complexities of what was happening in Paulsboro, New Jersey when I was a child. I remember thinking that if I could spend a day as a black woman – maybe then; I could better understand the discrimination that they still live with every day.
Obviously, that was an impossible endeavor, but adopting the Muslim tradition of wearing hijab and covering my body and head for a day was an attainable goal that would offer an opportunity for personal growth at the same time.
Since I had a lot of errands to take care of Feb. 4, I knew it would be a good day to participate. That morning, I showed up to the MSA table at SUU with my scarf in hand to learn how to wrap the hijab for the first time.
Preparing to wear hijab was more difficult than I had anticipated. A deep search through my available apparel indicated that I owned very few clothing items that would cover my body as completely as it should have been. Either the sleeves were too short, or my collar was low cut; but I was determined to make my wardrobe work, and eventually I found something that worked. The women who helped me to wrap my hijab were easy to talk to and welcomed me warmly.
The foreign women told me not to expect too much “action,” because of wearing hijab, because Cedar City was one of the most accepting communities that they had lived in since moving to the United States. Considering their advice, I left SUU with a smile, and a feeling of confidence that followed me throughout the day.
While running my errands for the day I was surprised to find that most of the acquaintances I interacted with on a regular basis did a double take when they saw me wearing a hijab, but didn’t bother to ask any questions about it.
The few that did applauded my bravery, which I found to be odd. The Muslim women who wear hijab every day display an identifying visual marker of a religion that evokes considerable emotion with Americans since the fateful flights of 2001– I wondered if they considered themselves brave.
As the day wore on, I started to notice a difference in the way women would react to me as opposed to men. Older, white men seemed more perturbed by my presence than younger men of any ethnicity – a few of them even scoffed loudly, before creating a greater distance of space between them and me. Women on the other hand tended to make eye contact, hold open doors, and smile more often.
It appeared I would make it through the day unscathed by the preconceived notion of blatant discrimination that I had prepared myself to encounter that day. Then I opened my Facebook profile where I had posted a picture of myself in hijab earlier that day.
To my amazement, and horrifying disgust – someone who labels themselves as open-minded, and touts taking the time to research before presenting uninformed opinions as an inherent value of integrity – asked me when I planned to get my “(female) circumcision”. Though he later said it was a joke, there was nothing funny about it, and the words stung like a swift kick to the gut.
My grandmother often used a word when I was a little girl that it appears many have forgotten. It’s a shame too, because it would serve some people quite well to rediscover it. The word is couth, and it means to show manners, or display an air of sophistication.
I can’t help, but sometimes wonder how such “civilized” people could devolve so profoundly when it comes to the simplest concepts of polite society.
One thing I have learned through the years is that hate is a product of a lack of understanding maintained through fear, and stereotypes are the product of perpetuating misinformation by repeating it as though it is irrefutable fact.
I liked wearing the hijab. My head was warm on a cold day, and I didn’t have to mess with my hair that morning. It made me feel beautiful, dignified and a little like a princess.
More than that, not one Muslim woman I spoke to behaved as though they were in any way repressed, or inhibited, but rather modest and humble. Each of these beautiful women was educated, spoke two or more languages, had goals, and was very unafraid to express their opinions about all sorts of topics.
As a spiritual person, I have shied away from labels, but spent ample amounts of time putting my beliefs into a practice that produces a physical manifestation of my belief system. I can’t help, but have respect and admiration for other women who do the same, regardless of the path they have chosen.
I was raised Catholic, and the nun’s in both of my family’s churches wore habits every day as a way of honoring god by covering up. Covering one’s head to honor their god is not a new concept by any means; instead, it’s an age-old practice that spans a global population of men and women who come from varied backgrounds. Muslim women did not invent this concept, but they do bear the burden of the discrimination that comes along with carrying on the traditions of their culture should they choose to do so.
My day in hijab was liberating. It taught me that hanging on to misconceptions closes doors and locks away opportunities to grow and better understand the world in which we all live; and while I may not choose to wear hijab every day, I will definitely be showing my support again next year come Feb. 1.