Report:A Hijabi In America

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.

hijab west large
Photo by InSapphoWeTrust (licenced under Creative Commons)"That’s the funny thing about stereotypes: they tend to be extremely stereotypical..."  

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

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#16 Sara 2013-09-19 04:55
Thank you for sharing your perspective, Hend! Regarding your comment in reply #10 about maintaining hijab guidelines for modesty, it seems an onerous act of piety to me and (even if unintentionally ) absolves men from responsibility for their own perceptions and reactions (and some women from judgment of other women, too).

I mean no disrespect to you and would defend to the ends of the earth your *right* to cover your head if you want. I just see this more as a gender suppression issue than a religious one.

Back in the day, the glimpse of a woman's ankle was considered immodest and oh-so-scandalou s in the US, so we've been there to some degree ourselves. I'm not advocating women go all Miley Cyrus in their dress and comportment, but surely there are better, less male-centric means of practicing piety than to hide our heads and hair from view.

Besides, I live in the Southern US myself -- I know what the hot, humid summers are like. I couldn't survive a walk to the mailbox and back in a hijab unless it had a little A/C action going on underneath. ;)
#15 Hend Amry 2013-03-29 19:40
Dear #14, Thank you for taking the time to write out your comments. Yes, yes, and yes, your clothes are a declaration of your identity to society. Yes, yes, yes, hijab can be a social statement, a political one, and/or a spiritual one. Hair has long been a political space, and not just in Islam, but maybe we're the most 'famous' for it. There is simply no single statement that will capture the story of hijab-you have to break it down into segments:what does religious doctrine say about it, what does regional history say about it, how is it worn today, how is enforcement or pressure to wear it today play a social or political role-it's truly a big conversation. And the story about sweetener was to show that many times, one is able to see another's life choices as being dictated by social or religious or political pressures, but one does not realize or can identify these pressures so readily in oneself.
#14 فلان 2013-03-29 15:16
The clothes you wear are a declaration of your identity to society. This is true in every society, from the first day of school until your funeral. You can't escape it. And I'm sorry, but I disagree that the hijab, cross, yarmulke, or a long beard and zabiba on the forehead is only about spiritual discipline. Every Christian in the Middle East wears a cross around their neck and it is not just for spiritual reasons. It is so they can identify each other. Religion is a very loud thing in the Middle East and it is part of one's social identity. Really I don't like it when people wear crosses in the US. I feel like it's injecting a divisive issue into my everyday life. I agree that ordering a latte at the cafe is not the appropriate venue for a discussion of religion. You can keep your cross hidden under your clothing please.

You state that your friends view your hijab as "an act of spiritual discipline", but most of the world doesn't see it that way, including many of your fellow Muslims. Because the hijab has social meaning both in America and in Muslim countries. In Egypt the average Muslim woman wears the hijab and the niqab is a conservative statement and no head covering is a liberal statement. In Saudi Arabia the average Muslim woman wears a niqab and wearing only the hijab is a liberal statement. Why did Huda Shaarawi remove her veil? To make a social statement.

And often the veil means nothing, or rather it is merely the traditional clothing of Muslim societies and Muslim women wear the hijab or niqab just to fit in to Muslim societies. I once witnessed a woman in Egypt put on a headscarf in the taxi to her home and then again when she left the house and later removed it just so her neighbors would see her wearing the hijab. And I've seen women in Arabia wear the niqab on the street and when they arrive to work flip it back and freely work with men. It's like wearing blue jeans in America. I don't do it for any reason except that it makes me look normal.

I am for everyone wearing whatever they want to wear and the more diversity the freer we all are to wear what we want, but I feel like you're being a bit unfair to Americans. Creating stereotypes is the way the human brain works and it's the way the world works and has always worked. And consciously or not we all dress according to how we want those around us to judge us.

The thing about stereotypes is that they are always true to some degree.

PS: Artificial sweetners do not cause cancer and whatever minute risk there may be, they are infinitely healthier than the caloric alternative.
#13 Hend Amry 2013-03-29 01:51
Dear "anyone" who wrote "I usually like Free Arab stuff :-(
What do you answer when people ask why they can't wear what they want in muslim countries (head uncovered, mini skirt, bare arms, bathing suits etc) ? Do you say truthfully 'oh but that's different, those countries aren't tolerant like the west' ? Very two faced i think." I am not writing about the Muslim world, or an Arab country, or even about Islam per se, but about my experiences as a Muslim who wears the hijab, while living in America. As for the hijab in the 'Muslim' world, it's different in different countries, some are respectful of a woman's right to wear whatever she wants, others are not, and my answers would reflect that reality.
#12 Hend Amry 2013-03-28 22:25
Dear "anyone",
You are absolutely correct. Countries that self-identify as "Muslim" are plagued with gender inequality, as is most of the world, to one degree or another. You are also completely correct in saying that "everyone interpretes [sic] 'holy' books as they like". Thank you for reading, and sharing your thoughts.