Gender, Love, Life Stories, Social Justice

I am more than my hijab

We judge a society by how the women are dressed.

I made the decision to wear the hijab at the age of twelve. While over the years I had experienced minor instances of discrimination due to my hijab, I didn’t feel like I was forced to critically think about how people perceived hijab until I was much older.

I would say that it hit me in the face like a brick when I spent summer 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey.

In Turkey, the headscarf is a very contentious political issue, as more liberal Turks see it as a threat to the secular Turkish state. As a foreigner who wore hijab and was on her own, it was overwhelming for me to be thrown into that tense mix. 

To those looking in from the outside, it appears initially that there is no problem with the hijab in Turkey, as there are many women wearing the hijab. However, the actuality is that the problems surrounding the hijab in Turkey run surprisingly deep.

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I slowly came to understand after talking to many women who lived there and after spending time there, that institutionalized discrimination existed against hijabis. Women under no circumstances are allowed to wear hijab in K-12 school, regardless of whether the institution is public or private and only very recently was there a huge political debate as to whether women could wear the hijab at the university level. 

Hijabis are not allowed to enter many state buildings and many employers specifically do not hire women who wear hijab. All in the name of “secularism.” 

I was shocked.

My experiences there really got me thinking critically about hijab in general and what it means to wear hijab. I wondered because, at the end of the day, it is just a piece of cloth that Muslim women wear on their heads. 

Why do people make such a big deal out of it? If a woman wore a scarf around her neck out of modesty, instead of on her head, why does that not have a religious connotation?

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Similarly, if a woman only wore long sleeves out religious modesty, why do we not classify her as a “long-sleeves-wearer” and have certain expectations for them and what they are like and how they “should” be? I realized that perhaps the reason for such a religious connotation with the headscarf, in particular, is because it is one article of modest clothing that Muslim women wear that most people do not wear on a regular basis. I still do not believe that this gives people the right to politicize it so much and apply so many labels and stereotypes to this one article of clothing.

We are always defining women by their wardrobe choices. We judge a society by how the women are dressed. Mini skirts, burqas, hijabis, sluts. Yes, we live in a superficial society where we just want to size people up in one glance. 

But I’ve realized it especially occurs to women. 

Why do we just reduce women to their wardrobe choices? What are we telling ourselves when we focus so much on outward appearances, that our bodies, not our minds, are what define us?

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I also started to realize how even on the personal level, people use hijab to define people. That there is a common idea of what it means to be a “hijabi.” This one outward visual representation of faith is associated with all these ideas. 

That this veiled woman is pure, pious, and religious. Perhaps prudish, conservative, fundamentalist and extreme as well. 

While many of these traits are not necessarily negative, like any stereotype, it can put an unrealistic and often unfair projection onto someone.

After I came back to the States from Turkey, I became more aware of these projections, from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While it is often subtle, and people are often not aware of it, it is still frustrating to feel like someone expects you to be a certain way because of your headscarf. 

Thanks for getting to know me!

I encourage people to critically reflect on their own biases and perceptions of women who wear hijab. While I love wearing hijab and believe that is has been an important part of my spiritual development, I would prefer to be defined by my overall faith as a Muslimah as opposed to one visible act of faith.