February 1, 2013 marked the first World Hijab Day, a day organized by New Yorker Nazma Khan to allow women to experience the hijab firsthand. Citing discrimination from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, she conceived of the idea so that those who have never worn hijab themselves could walk in the shoes of women who have.
As a hijabi (one who wears hijab) myself, I had mixed feelings when I first heard about the event. After all, hijab symbolizes a variety of things to those who don it, and there is no one lesson to be gleaned from or experience to be had by wearing the headscarf.
For many women who cover themselves, their hijab is a visible projection of their inner feelings—love, obedience and duty—towards God. In many parts of the Western world, women often wear hijab as a marker of their Muslim identity, proudly declaring their faith in their largely non-Muslim societies. On the other hand, some females in the Middle East wrap their headscarves before leaving the house each morning because the law requires it. For others still, the hijab is a form of protection from leering eyes and lustful minds. So, I thought, what could be the point of asking someone to wear the hijab for just one day? Can one day change a lifetime of perceptions?
When I considered the issue some more, however, I understood the philosophy behind World Hijab Day a little better. Perhaps it wasn’t a way to enable people to understand the concept of modesty and gender relations within Islam– because let’s face it, fully appreciating the whys and wherefores of hijab and its place in the Islamic faith can take months or even years. But by wearing the hijab for one day, non-Muslim women could better empathize with their Muslim counterparts – walk a few miles in their shoes, so to speak. As Khan explains, “Growing up in the Bronx, in NYC, I experienced a great deal of discrimination due to my hijab. In middle school I was ‘Batman’ or ‘ninja’. When I moved on to college it was just after 9/11, so they would call me Osama bin Laden or terrorist. It was awful. I figured the only way to end discrimination is if we ask our fellow sisters to experience hijab themselves.”
Hmm, what a novel idea: If you object to my doing something because of your own preconceived notions of what that something symbolizes, have the courage to try that behavior yourself for just one day. Would it work? What would these accidental hijabis discover about Muslim women and themselves when they donned their headscarves? According to the World Hijab Day website and other online resources, non-Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab got a real shocker: they felt inconspicuous to the point of being invisible—and for many Western women being ignored is the ultimate insult. Interestingly enough, for most Muslim women who wear the hijab, the low profile this garment lends you is the entire point behind the headscarf. They describe feeling safe and comfortable because men aren’t ogling at them, admiring or criticizing them for their superficial qualities. Apart from feeling strangely unobtrusive, hijabis for a day also learned that discrimination is alive and well in the United States. Some were called demeaning names by passerbyes, while others felt that the glances of those who looked their way belied pity for the perceived subjugation by a father or husband who had presumably forced these poor young girls to cover themselves.
I myself have had a third, most beautiful, type of experience. As a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair each day, I have found that almost everyone who I come into contact with treats me with an innocent curiosity—a genuine desire to understand who I am and why I dress the way I do. Their questions have provided me with an opportunity to explain my religion and my love for it to countless people, allowed me to teach at a respected university where students and faculty appreciate me for my brain and not my body, and raised my confidence in my intellect and my skills as a communicator to no end. These aren’t the sorts of benefits you can reap in one day of wearing the hijab, but the experiment is worthwhile nonetheless, because it does give an “outsider” a glimpse into my world, even only for a moment.
Saadia Faruqi is a nonprofit consultant and author, interfaith liaison for the women’s auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. She also writes for the Houston community newspapers, Tikkun Daily and Religious Freedom USA.
Image Credit: Nona Fara