Many years ago, I was walking down a bustling downtown sidewalk in the southern United States. Wearing an uncharacteristic long black skirt in place of the usual jeans, I pulled my jacket against the brisk spring breeze, and tucked my white hijab tighter underneath my chin to keep it from flapping in the wind. Looking up, I saw two lumbering, tattooed trucker-types approaching me on the sidewalk from the opposite direction, talking to each other in loud, angry, expletive-laden voices. “Great.” I thought. I kept my eyes downcast, my muscles tense, my step brisk. I was entering Muslim-in-the-West fight or flight mode, and my instincts were telling me this was going to get ugly.
When we were almost upon each other, the first man elbowed the other and whispered sharply. The second man looked up quickly, his head snapping into place as his eyes sought and found mine. His face reddened. “I’m sorry sister. I didn’t mean to curse.” Our eyes remained locked as my mind raced to find the right way to explain that I wasn’t a nun. But instead, in that fraction of a second that we had left before our steps sent us in different directions, I solemnly touched my forehead and nodded acceptance of his apology with what I hoped was an air of wisdom and mercy, and continued down the sidewalk without breaking my stride.
I have never stopped thinking about that incident, not only because I still feel kinda guilty for impersonating a nun, but also because of the fact that in that moment, we were each working with assumptions that were way off- stereotypes based on appearances that turned out to be completely false.
But that’s the funny thing about stereotypes: they tend to be extremely stereotypical. I should know—my every waking moment spent in the public sphere has been lived through the prism of a socially constructed hijab identity. There is perhaps no other visual expression of spiritual discipline that evokes such an immediate and visceral reaction in others. Coffee shops, malls, doctors offices… it can happen anywhere. Responses run the gamut from wide-eyed sidelong glances to full on “interventions”, where well-meaning but woefully misinformed citizens find it necessary to say “You don’t have to wear that here. This is AMERICA.”
Really, café customer? You’re going to inform me that you sense I’m “living in an oppressive culture” as I serve you a double skinny latte? This is the best time for this conversation? Because we can talk about your response to oppressive Western cultural norms of the feminine physical ideal as represented in your order of a fat free beverage sweetened with potentially cancer-causing sugar substitute, if you want to go that route. I’m game. And as your friend noted, I “talk English real good”, though she clearly struggles with the language.
Even a task as innocuous as jogging results in confused looks, slack-jawed stares, and in some cases, concerned turns of the head to see who’s chasing me. I’ve considered having my running shirts screen-printed with “I’m not running FROM patriarchal oppression, but TOWARD good health”, but then again, that may create more problems than it solves.
I’m always nice. I patiently explain what hijab is, what it isn’t, and why they may have gotten the wrong idea (cue Not Without My Daughter reference).
I’m always nice. I patiently explain what hijab is, what it isn’t, and why they may have gotten the wrong idea (cue Not Without My Daughter reference). I actually enjoy answering the questions of the brave and the curious-the dialogue almost always teaches both sides a little more about the other.
It must be said that these struggles are not the majority of hijab-stories. I will never forget the kindness of a neighbor in the States who knocked on the door for the first time, and told us she would be wearing a scarf to work for the entire day in solidarity with us following the criminal backlash against the Muslim community in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. I have been blessed with friends from different religious traditions and ethnicities who all placed my hijab in the same general department as a cross or a yarmulke—an act of spiritual discipline. It is simply the case that for every difficult interaction, there have been fifty positive ones, and that is what I always remember.
I’m now raising a young daughter, and it is my hope that she will make the choice to wear hijab when she’s older—not as a stand-alone litmus test for her piety, not in order to fulfill socially defined expectations of a “good” Arab woman—but as a single element in that multi-faceted worldview known as “Islam”. And if she doesn’t, I will respect her decision. But she can at least go jogging with me, so people will stop trying to see who’s in pursuit.
* Hend Amry is a Libyan-American Communications Adviser living in Qatar. She tweets as @LibyaLiberty