By Misbah Awan in The Soul of Gender
“Towel-Head. Tablecloth. Batman. Ninja. Oppressed. Raghead. Terrorist. Do you have Cancer? Do you have hair? Do you shower with it on? Oh, you can think? Don’t you feel hot in the summer? Do you wear it to sleep? Did your dad force you to wear it? Well, okay, fine… did your mom?” mimicked the Muslim girls, who sat in chairs in a loose version of a circle, their faces red, drained with anger and shock.
People tend to judge those wearing a cloth covering their head, without a second thought of whether those comments or questions are considerate.
It’s a natural instinct to be curious, but comments on the hijab are often born of ignorance. After September 11th, 2001, there was a pronounced stereotyping of the headscarf. American citizens, specifically, put their guards go up and became more closed off to strangers. This only pushed Muslims to further seek ways to lend a hand to those who suffered due to the attacks on the Twin Towers. Not only did they want to show that they were unlike the group of people who crashed into the World Trade Center, they genuinely cared and ached to help. But this didn’t stop people from quickly judging.
Many have portrayed the hijab as an ostracizing and anti-feminist sign of oppression, when in reality, its purpose is to de-objectify women and stand as a symbol of pride in one’s religion. A friend of mine claims that people tend to look away from their iPods and phones and look up silently while she walks by. I have not encountered this, but once on a visit to Washington, D.C., a woman in a car sank her back into her seat and stared wide-eyed at me. She honestly seemed scared and I felt really bad about myself after that. I wish I had said hello or smiled at her, but all I did was glance at her and simply crossed the road. I now wonder if it’s because of my hijab. If I hadn’t worn it, would she have been relaxed and doing something else or had her focus on anyone other than me? Did she think I was a terrorist? Did she think I was oppressed?
I was three when I came to America and still a toddler. I had no way of knowing what terrorism was, or that planes could crash into buildings, or even what a bomb was.
Everything eventually did cool down, even though the lives of many weren’t exactly “normal” afterward. September 11th intensified the judgments some individuals held against Muslims. The easiest Muslims to identify are the ones who wear the hijab and they use this symbolic physical thing, his headscarf, as a way to point fingers and call Muslims terrorists. I want to talk about why I wear the hijab and how it has become a part of me.
Although we associate the term “hijab” with Muslims, this form of modesty did not originate in Islam. Women in ancient Mesopotamia wore a cloth over their heads to differentiate between “respectable” women from those who of a different class, or who were single. It usually showed rank, lifestyle, and class in the Assyrian community.
During the time of the Muslim conquest at around 640 C.E., invasions led to a gradual turn toward a conception of head covering in Greek, Persian, and Mesopotamian societies. The practice of wearing a head covering spread to other countries as an expression of modesty and piety. Although Muslims believe Jesus (peace be upon him*) was another prophet in Islam, they do not believe he is the “Son of God.” However, Muslims do have a strong connection to the Virgin Mary. In Christianity, the Virgin Mary is usually shown with a head covering. In fact, depictions of the Virgin Mary with a cloth covering her head may conjure images of Muslim women.
The hijab is a veil that covers the head and chest area, and is translated as “curtain” or “screen” from the Arabic language. To those who wear it, the hijab symbolizes purity, dignity, courage, and self-respect, as it reveals the character of a woman to society. Most Muslim girls begin to wear the hijab when they reach puberty — the time when young people question everything and everyone. Women traditionally wear the hijab in front of non-related adult males. A woman can take off the veil in front of those she is related to, whether by blood or marriage. Despite this, the hijab is a commitment to oneself and to Allah (literally meaning “the God” in Arabic) because it shows you are following the steps required for you to become a better Muslim. In some cultures, however, it is not even acceptable to uncover in front of in-laws.
Many individuals around the world believe that the scarf is just for physical protection, but it serves to present one’s self to the world by honoring one’s faith and character — who he or she is as an individual — and contributing knowledge and understanding to society. In Islam, it is believed that the modesty of wearing a hijab not only helps women, but also helps most men to lower their gaze to prevent the sexual objectification of women. It practically forces people to see a woman’s inner beauty, rather than the style of her hair and earrings she’s wearing, or if her body is the ideal and “perfect” size. Fariha, who is 14, commented, “It hides your physical beauty and allows your inner beauty to show.” Men will be able to look away and not entertain themselves with a thought about the woman’s physical qualities, and instead will be given a chance to explore her personality. On the other hand, the older generations tend to tell the younger generations that the hijab should be worn because it helps prevent rape. Sure, it helps to not be immediately sexualized, but the fact that some people think clothing provokes a rapist to “target” a person is completely ludicrous. The idea of a hijab preventing you from rape is a myth.
Muslim men share a similar physical modesty in clothing. Most Muslim men wear loose, long robes, traditionally, in the Middle East. They aren’t expected to wear a veil or any other kind of cloth on their face. Those living in more “modern” countries have adapted to the custom of wearing a Western button-down shirt and pants. They are still covered and do not wear anything tight. Both men and women are charged with the duty to present themselves to the world in a modest way that shows their character and morals.
There is a great deal of personal choice associated with wearing a veil, which one can see in the different variations of the hijab. There are hijab tutorials all over YouTube with a devoted and enthusiastic following. The commitment of some to making videos about wearing the hijab is a form of “dawah,” often spelled “Da’awah,” a term which means the preaching of Islam. They are targeting Muslims and non-Muslims alike, especially youth, in order to share the history and fashion of the hijab.
This form of dawah can be instructive — not just to Muslims, but to those outside the religion. These videos help others relate better to Muslims and contrast with the negative stereotypes about Islam and the veil that are often in the media. It helps to avoid linking Muslims with 9/11 and terrorism. It provides a way of bringing light and warm-hearted thoughts into young minds, so that people realize the guy next door with a beard or the girl with the scarf isn’t going on a bombing spree.
In fact, these videos not only stand as a symbol of Islamic pride, they show the uniqueness behind a variety of hijab styles. We live in a world where we tend to follow what’s “in” and shed our sense of self to fit in, when in reality, we were made to stand out. There are a variety of hijabs that help show our individuality. Wearing the hijab can vary from a plain black scarf to a braided turban or a layered scarf, for a stylish and fashionable look. However, all of these variations of the scarf cover what is mandatory to cover: your hair to your chest. It is a sign of modesty, privacy, and morality, but that doesn’t mean Muslims don’t know how to have fun and “halal-ify” (“halal” means “permissible”) their outfits!
Unfortunately, some girls are forced to wear the hijab. In my experience this is often because the person is not very knowledgeable about the hijab or was often told as a child that they must wear it. This sort of misinformation gets passed to the next generation and affects how one views wearing the hijab. Moreover, everyone comes from different places, with different morals and cultures. In some countries, religion is fused with culture differently than here in the United States and may create situations where women are forced to wear a hijab.
If you ever see a female child wearing a hijab who clearly hasn’t reached puberty — and therefore hasn’t made the choice for herself about whether to wear the veil — it may be because her parents want her to grow up in a home where her beliefs and identity are of primary importance. By instilling cultural background and lifelong lessons, they hope their children will be able to grow up and develop into individuals with strong moral character. As a girl gets older, however, she may feel forced to wear the hijab. My best friend, Eman, age 14, says, “I wore it at a very young age, being raised in a religious family. I did see it as the act of my parents making me do it. As I grew older, I came to realize that all they used was conviction and truth, and I automatically accepted that. It was hard in the beginning, the looks, stares, snickers, sneers, names. It was all very tempting to make me take it off.” She felt like she was forced to wear the hijab by her parents initially, but soon began to accept it as a part of her by understanding it a little more.
I know many Muslims who do not wear the hijab. Most of them do not think about it seriously yet, but there are still some who believe they’ll wear it after marriage — once they have a man with whom they can uncover in front of, and find no need to impress the opposite sex anymore. Hanane, age 15, a sophomore at my school, says, “I don’t wear the hijab because I’m not ready. But I do things that a Muslim female is supposed to do.” She is not ready to make a commitment to the hijab, but the fact that she acts in a way that brings her closer to Allah (God) is still an important virtue. Just because someone wears the scarf does not necessarily mean that they truly follow the religion or are any more knowledgeable about it than a person who doesn’t. To be a true Muslim — to be a good person, period — one’s words and actions count the most.
Another one of my friends named Zenab declares, “I don’t feel as if I am strong enough with my faith to represent myself like that. I’m not the type of person to go half/half. If I were to ever wear the hijab, I would never take it off. To me it’s a life choice, not something you should just put on and take off.” To me, her argument is perfectly valid because it seems that she takes the hijab seriously and believes that this is not just a piece of clothing, but a responsibility. The hijab is a beautiful thing, but it’s not so pretty if a person is forced to wear it, because neither the intention nor the sincerity is there.
Aysha, age 14, is a freshman at my school and she doesn’t wear the hijab because she feels as though she doesn’t want to wear something that she’s not yet ready for. She says, “I won’t be who I really am.” Another hard part of the process of deciding whether to wear the hijab is getting over the idea of being scared of getting dirty looks from strangers. But people are going to judge, no matter who you are or what you’ve done in life — wearing the hijab won’t change who you are on the inside.
I think it’s important that Muslim females be given the choice to wear the hijab. It is ultimately the girl or woman who should know that it is their choice and only their choice to wear the veil.
"Reported by Salim (RA) on the authority of his father that the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) heard a man instruct his brother about modesty. Upon this the Prophet (peace be upon him) remarked: Modesty is an ingredient of Iman (faith)."
In the quote above, the last prophet in Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him), is basically saying that by being modest, your Iman (faith) will grow. I’ve grown up with Islam. I went to Saturday and Sunday school for eight and a half years to learn Arabic and try to understand the Qur’an by reading it. I was taught similar hadiths such as the one above, like washing your hands and saying “bismillah” (in the name of God) before you eat. Family and friends passed down stories of other prophets of Islam. I was brought up in a household where wearing tight and short clothing wasn’t very attractive, but unmannerly, which I don’t entirely agree with, but it has shaped my comfort with long and loose clothing and pushed me to explore other perspectives. As I began questioning everyone and everything around me, I was trying to understand, and this led my Iman to grow.
The hijab still causes many to give me strange looks, but it’s completely fine because there will always be people out there who disagree with me and my beliefs. Today, I am still growing. I am 15 years old and my face absolutely becomes drained with pain and shock whenever I hear misconceptions about the wonderful hijab and Islam. The hijab cannot be taken away from me because, although it is a physical thing on my head, it has become more of a spirit. It is alive.
And it has become a part of me.
* “Peace be upon him” (PBUH) is a kind gesture towards the beloved Prophet since he was a highly respected man. The Muslim Ummah (brotherhood) should say this since this little action is, among others, another promise for Muslims to enter Heaven.
Misbah Awan is the product of the late '90s and is the older sister of three younger brothers. When she wrote this piece, she was a sophomore at The Young Women Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS of Astoria), in New York City, with an interest in Literature and U.S. History.