When Nazma Khan steps up to the podium, the crowded room grows quiet. Her exquisite face is framed by a brightly patterned silk scarf wrapped around her head and neck. We all lean in closer to hear her soft yet vibrant voice. She begins the story of her journey to the United States from Bangladesh at age eleven and how she was the only person in her Bronx school to wear the hijab—the veil or scarf that is worn to cover the head and chest of many post-pubescent Muslim women. Her peers in the Bronx tormented her throughout her time in middle school and high school, spitting at her, calling her names, and incessantly questioning why she wore the hijab. Her ordeal peaked when she began her studies at City College of New York after 9/11. At a time when some in New York City were wary of Muslims, her hijab made her a target for ridicule and suspicion.
“I was made to feel like a criminal,” she says, “as if I was responsible for 9/11 and owed an apology to everyone.” True to her religious beliefs, Khan shrugged off the cruel comments and hateful looks and kept wearing the hijab.
Now thirty, Khan is speaking to a group of students at a meeting of the Queensborough Community College Student Muslim Association. The room is filled, primarily with Muslim students, and many wear the hijab. Sympathetic nods can be seen as she speaks. The students, many immigrants themselves, have all experienced the same judgmental stares and hurtful comments. There is shared pain, but also a shared sense of pride. When she finishes speaking, the room bursts into applause.
Many non-Muslims have long associated this religious head covering with oppression and sexism. So why do Muslim women wear the hijab? Often described as a means to aid in modesty, proper conduct, and dignity, the wearing of a veil has an ancient history; the 2,700-year-old Middle Assyrian Laws reference a prostitute or slave girl who was found wearing a veil improperly and ordered to be punished. It is also described in texts from the Byzantine and Greco-Roman empires.
Khan first began wearing the hijab at age eleven. She was eager to be covered and to look as “feminine” as her mother, aunts and other women around her. “When I don the hijab, I am not judged for my exterior beauty, but rather my character and intellect,” says Khan. “This is true liberation. Thus, to me this is feminine.”
Khan asserts that donning the hijab was completely her choice. “Though many women in my family wore the hijab, there were many more who did not. So it came as a choice for me,” she says. “No one told me to wear it.”
The first time she tried one on, “I didn’t tell my mother anything. I just put it on. All I remember is wrapping it myself. As time wore on, I realized its true value as not only a piece of cloth but a way of life.”
However, like many Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries, Khan realized that people around her had difficulty accepting her unique appearance.
“In middle school I was called ninja or Batman,” she reveals with obvious pain. “They would put gum in my hijab.” She struggled during those awkward preteen years, a difficult time for even the most willing conformist. And while she held true to her beliefs, her younger sister could no longer deal with the peer pressure. “She stopped wearing the hijab for two years,” Khan says. She understood and respected her sister’s decision. As for her parents, “At first they were a bit disappointed, but later on they let her live her life. They loved and supported her regardless. Nothing changed.” One day Khan decided that perhaps she too should no longer wear the hijab. “I took it off for one day; I felt naked.” It was going without wearing it for that single day that she realized she truly wanted to wear the hijab.
“When I wear it I feel whole. I feel at peace,” she says. “Wearing hijab makes me feel protected, respected, and unique. It makes me feel peace at heart knowing that I’m obeying the command of my creator. In my opinion, peace can be only found in obeying the commands of the one who created me.” Ultimately her sister also returned to the hijab of her own accord.
After graduating from City College, where she studied biology and pre-med, Khan decided to go a different route with her career. In 2010, she launched an online business selling custom-designed hijab, called Stunning Hijab, Corp., with a motto of “Concealed. Content. Confident.” Her hijabs come in modern, bright colors, contemporary prints and lightweight fabrics—a far cry from the traditional dark-colored heavyweight materials many people tend to associate with the hijab. She also has goals that go far beyond sales numbers: A portion of every sale is donated to a local Muslim organization. “I donated to the Bronx Muslim Center,” says Khan. “With the support of everyone, I helped the mosque from going into foreclosure.” She shrugs off this noble gesture with, “You don’t lose anything by giving away.”
Accompanying the available merchandise on her website, she added a section on hijab education, with articles entitled “Fashion vs. Modesty,” “We Are Not Submissive to Men” and “Health Benefits of the Hijab,” which discusses protection from harmful UV rays that could lead to cancer, heat exposure, protection from cold weather conditions and covering hair for hygienic purposes. As her business began to grow, she started receiving emails from other hijabi (women who wear the hijab), who shared their individual experiences of judgment or hate, and who expressed concerns about not being able to get jobs due to their appearance. This fear is not an idle one. Among the most notable U.S. cases, in 2010 a Muslim girl named Hani Khan was fired from a Hollister clothing store in San Mateo, Calif., for refusing to remove her hijab while working. A judge recently found the company guilty of workplace discrimination. Other women in the U.S. have reported losing their jobs over the hijab, and in some countries it is banned in the workplace, schools or government offices.
Khan felt she needed to do something else to help support these women. So in 2011, she began crafting a way for non-Muslim women to get a taste of what it was actually like to wear the hijab. She designated a day where women around the world were invited to cover up and experience it for themselves. On February 1, 2013, the first World Hijab Day was held.
“I thought if those who do not understand my decision to wear hijab can walk in my shoes just for one day, perhaps they’ll have a better understanding of my choice,” says Khan. “Thus, next time they see someone wearing the hijab, they won’t be judgmental toward them.”
Although Khan was hopeful, she was bowled over by the success of her first World Hijab Day, pulled off after only a few weeks of planning. She had 11,000 Facebook participants from sixty-seven countries. Khan was contacted by non-Muslim women all over the world who posted photos of themselves wearing the hijab. These women shared their newfound respect for the hijabi and felt they now better understood. Women were eager to share why they wanted to wear the hijab for a day:
“To have a better understanding of the hijab and a deeper
respect for those who wear them…I live in Utah and it’s predominately Mormon faith and I think it would be refreshing to not only me but others around me to know the truth instead of hearsay.”
Laura, USA, Mormon
“I hope to have the opportunity to explain to at least one
person that there are many women who choose to wear the hijab and that not all Muslims are extremists/terrorists.”
Esther, USA, Christian
“It was the best time in my life,” says Khan. “I’ve never been happy like that,” adding that it made her even more determined to spread cultural awareness about the hijab. “Before I die I want to leave this legacy. I don’t want to be known—I want February 1 to be known.”
So for February 1, 2014, Khan has set the lofty goal of having one million participants in the second World Hijab Day, and I plan on being one of them. I am not Muslim and I have never worn any type of religious head covering. I am not a particularly modest dresser, and I have attracted a second glance with my cleavage at times. But working at a college that enrolls numerous Muslim students, many of whom wear the hijab, I feel that I have a responsibility as an educator to have a better understanding of all cultures.
I like the idea that the hijab creates an image of modesty, and I find it to be incredibly beautiful on some women, especially those like Khan, who effortlessly make the hijab seem like a glamorous wardrobe accessory. At the same time, as someone who was raised by a Jewish father and Catholic mother, with equal attachments to both of those faiths but no religious adornment of my own, it is difficult to imagine myself wearing the hijab. Going into this event, I find myself slightly nervous. I know I will be stared at, and I know that I will be silently judged. I don’t know how my family and friends will react, or if they will see me differently. I wonder if I could actually be in any danger from intolerant people on the streets who don’t know my reason for wearing the hijab on this particular day.
I also worry about trivial details, like how to wear my makeup since the scarf will frame my face. My long brown hair is a shield and I definitely hide behind it at times. A few years ago, I cut off about twelve inches and donated it to Locks of Love. As I sat in the chair, my stylist poised with scissors, I began to hyperventilate. It seemed like too much of a change, too quickly. But the snip came and I left the salon with a bag of my hair tied by a rubber band. Suddenly without my long hair I felt liberated and light. Would I feel the same with my hair completely covered?
To prepare myself I looked to an article on the Stunning Hijab website entitled “Support/Tips for Wearing Hijab,” comprised of posts from the Facebook page. It was nice to see how happy it made wearers, after they were able to get over their initial discomfort. Many comments were clearly from young girls who were trying to support one another:
“A Muslim woman in Hijab is dignified, not dishonoured, noble, not degraded,” wrote ‘Shiraz,’ …“Liberated, not subjugated, purified, not sullied, independent, not a slave, protected, not exposed, respected, not laughed at, confident, not insecure, obedient, not a sinner, a guarded pearl, not a prostitute…”
If Shiraz and all these other women posting on the site felt compelled to send these words of support to those considering wearing the hijab, then clearly they had suffered in some way. In turn, I felt that if these women could endure so much to wear something that brought them closer to their faith everyday, I could surely make it through a few hours.
I called Khan and set up a time to meet with her weeks before World Hijab Day so that I could learn more about the hijab and how to properly wear it. When I arrived at her home on Long Island, she immediately made me feel welcome. She insisted on making some traditional chai tea and served it with a delicious sweet cashew fudge called kaju burfi. I sat on her colorfully patterned bed while she prepared to cover me. I was nervous so I positioned myself away from the mirror. While she bustled around the room, gathering pieces of fabric and pins, I found myself sitting demurely, ankles crossed and hands in my lap. I felt like a child about to be dressed by her mother.
After deciding which scarf to use—a royal blue heavyweight silk—she laid all of the materials out on the bed. Khan had me pull my hair up into a high bun, and then she put a small white piece of fabric over my hair and tied it at the nape of my neck like a kerchief. This fabric keeps the hair in place and prevents the outer scarf from sliding. She then placed the scarf over my head, longer on one side, and pinned the fabric together at the back of my neck. She took the longer side of fabric and brought it under my chin, around my head, and pinned the end on the opposite side of my face. She pulled the extra fabric forward, covering my neck and chest. I had tried to wear something with minimal cleavage, but as she pulled the fabric around me she said, “And remember, modesty isn’t just about covering our hair.”
When she finished, she stepped back to admire her work. “You look like a doll!” I shyly stepped over to the mirror. I don’t know what I expected to see, but I was shocked by my reflection—I looked so different. The first image that came to mind was that of a nun. Without my hair showing, I thought I looked much older, that my face somehow looked altered.
While Khan excitedly buzzed around me, I found myself standing straighter. I seemed to naturally position myself more modestly, with my weight balanced between two feet instead of leaning into one hip. I was confused about what I should do with my arms so I kept them hanging straight down at my sides. Although the scarf was not actually constricting my movements, I was definitely stiff. With my head wrapped I felt safe, like I was in a protective cocoon. It was a perfect day to be covered up since it was freezing and snowy outside; it was as if I was wearing a warm scarf and earmuffs. The soft fabric around me brought a comfort like that of a child tucked into a warm bed. Now that I was finally wearing the hijab, I began to wonder why this simple scarf has become so controversial.
* * *
Muslim women are not alone in their practice of covering the hair for religious purposes. Orthodox Jewish law requires that the hair of a married woman must be covered in public. This may be done through the wearing of a wig, a scarf, or a snood—a medieval-style hairdressing that resembles a fitted hood worn over the back of the head and encapsulates the hair. Christianity has a long tradition of women covering their head during public worship in church. This has been done through elaborate veils, scarves, or even with a hat. The New Testament contains a reference to head coverings: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head” (Corinthians 11:2-16). While this was long a customary practice, by the twentieth century many churches dropped this requirement, although a head covering much like that of the hijab is still worn today by Roman Catholic nuns.
In the United States, up until the late 1950s, most men and women wore hats anytime they were outside. This was not due to religious practices but rather as proper social etiquette. It was considered improper to have an uncovered head in public—is that really so much different from the hijab?
Of course, many people who object to the hijab bring up the issue of gender equality. Muslim women are required by Islamic law to cover their hair when they are in the presence of adult men who are not part of their immediate family. It is intended to separate the private self from the public self. And, in fact, the Arabic translation of the word hijab is “partition.” While both men and women are required to dress and act modestly, it is the woman who is being asked to cover her beauty. Many non-Muslims look at the hijab as a way for men to control women, to take away their freedom, and to repress their sexuality.
Before I learned more about the hijab I did feel sadness and pity when I saw a woman covered, thinking that she had no choice. But I reconsidered when I read quotes from hijabis like this one on the World Hijab Day Facebook page:
“I wear my Hijab because I choose to; it’s a reflection of my identity, a simple act of modesty. If one can choose what to show I can choose what and how to cover up.”
Khan, like many Muslim women, does not like to have her photograph taken—it’s another aspect of women upholding their religious requirement for modesty and seeking to be judged by their words, not their looks. When I spoke with her before our meeting I asked if she would mind being photographed while helping me put on the hijab. She was reluctant. However, when I arrived at her house for my mini-hijab day I was surprised and delighted that she had changed her mind. As she helped me put on the hijab, I could sense how pleased she was to see me wearing this simple fabric and how much it meant to her that I was doing it to form a better understanding of her culture.
When I left Khan and headed back to my office in Queens, I kept the hijab on during my long drive. It had felt strange wearing the hijab with Khan in her home, but it felt absolutely bizarre doing so in a familiar space like my car. I couldn’t help but wonder what the people around me might be thinking when they saw me. But honestly, no one appeared to notice. On my way to work I stopped in downtown Flushing, the Chinatown of Queens, to grab lunch. Here there were no other women in the hijab; I was clearly distinctive from the mostly East Asian pedestrians. It was at that moment that I briefly grasped the discomfort of the hijabi experience. It was a feeling of being different, of feeling that you don’t belong. Was it in my head or were people avoiding eye contact? I wondered what they thought when they saw a white girl covering her hair. Did they find it strange?
As I pulled into the parking lot of my college, I wondered what would happen if I walked onto campus wearing the hijab. I would get quizzical looks from those who knew me, but the majority of people would probably not think twice about any of my clothing.
Once I parked I took out the pins and pulled off the scarf. I looked at the royal blue fabric crumpled on the passenger seat of my car. Wearing the hijab for a few hours did not change who I am or how I feel about myself, or make me contemplate the way I present myself to the world. However, I did learn that the hijab is just a scarf. Although it represents something significant to its wearer, it doesn’t have to mean anything to me for me to respect the person wearing it. Now when I see students on campus wearing the hijab, or a yarmulke, or a cross, or even a sweater vest, I am reminded to look past how they choose to adorn their bodies to the person underneath.
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Marisa L. Berman is a New York historian and author who is working on her second book, to be released in early 2015. It will document the amusement parks of Long Island – —from Coney Island to Montauk Point. She currently serves as assistant director at the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.