When the “A Day in Her Hijab” invitation appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, I just knew that I had to participate. I have never worn a hijab in my life, but I am surrounded by hijabi women on a daily basis, so this event was especially significant and meaningful to me. If you read my post about my experience as a non-Muslim teacher at an Islamic School, you may recall that I have kept my workplace on the down-low for the past five years, so I may be the last person that you would expect to post a picture of myself donning a headscarf for the world to see.
As a non-Muslim woman at an Islamic School, I would be lying if I said that the thought of wearing a hijab has never crossed my mind before – not because I’ve ever felt pressured to wear one or have considered converting to Islam, but because I have actually just been curious. Although there have been days in my five years at my school that I have wished I could sport a headscarf for convenience (such as having a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning or to conceal my bad hair days), I have never actually had the balls to experiment with covering. When I envisioned myself in a hijab, I had this ridiculous fear that it would drastically alter my appearance so much that I would not be able to recognize my own reflection and I would be traumatized. I know that this may sound dramatic, but whenever I visualized myself in a hijab I would associate it with seeing myself bald for the very first time – my hair is such a huge part of my identity.
I have always assumed that wearing a hijab would be offensive (even if I had the right intentions), so I consulted with the Islamic Studies teacher at my school just to confirm that my participation in the event wouldn’t be an insult to the Muslim community. When I shared my news with my 5th and 6th grade students, their jaws fell to the floor. Some even cheered. They asked me if I had ever worn a hijab before or if I even knew how to wrap one. I explained to the class the purpose of the “A Day in Her Hijab” event and why I was participating. I invited my students to write down their initial thoughts and encouraged them to honestly state their opinions. I assured them that I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t agree with my decision. Here are a few responses from my amazing 5th graders:
“I’ll be astonished to see a non-Muslim wear a hijab. I like the idea to show that you don’t hate Muslims and that’ll make the person closer to Islam. Also, I like people just wearing the hijab and not showing their hair, or then everyone will talk about her hair, especially if it’s fancy” – Male student
“I am in favor and I feel very happy because usually I don’t see you wearing a hijab… it makes me feel like you are a Muslim.” – Female student
“It is good that you are going to put on a hijab. I was really amazed. I like it because I can imagine you with the hijab on and you are going to look even prettier. Thank you for standing with the Muslims.” – Female student
“It means you are showing solidarity. Also, you will know how the people who wear a hijab feel.” – Male student
“I think it’s a good idea [to wear a hijab] because it will give you a feeling about how girls feel when wearing a hijab. Even though it’s good, it just has one problem: Hijab is either something you do all of the time or something you don’t do. Otherwise, it’s a good idea, and it also shows respect to Islam.” – My Arabic tutor’s younger brother (they’re both wise beyond their years)
After receiving the green light from the matriarch of our school and the encouragement of my students, I went straight to Pinterest for some hijab inspiration. I shared my desired look with a few of my colleagues and my 7th grade Arabic tutor. Update: I am struggling BIG time – but I have learned 6 letters. The ladies gave me a lesson on how to wrap the scarf and our lovely school secretary even let me borrow one of her best scarves and pins for my big day. They also made sure I knew that I had to cover my entire body as well. There was something about finally putting on the headscarf in the presence of my Muslim friends that put my mind at ease. When I looked at my reflection in the mirror for the first time, it wasn’t at all scary or traumatizing. In fact, it was quite empowering. In that moment, I felt like I was part of a sisterhood.
When I shared my plan to wear a hijab for the day with my family, my husband and my twelve-year-old daughter supported my decision entirely, while my eight-year-old son was on the verge of tears. He was honest about his concerns about me wearing the headscarf in public: “The reason why I don’t want you to wear ‘TheJob’ is because I see all these Muslims dying on TV, and I just don’t want you to die.”
My daughter was appalled by her little brother’s response, so she called him out for being “racist.” I reassured her that her brother was not racist, just concerned. He is eight years-old after all, and he is still learning about the world. This is the same kid who believed that our new Yorkshire terrier puppy with dark brown fur was “African-American,” and asked if the books that I would buy for him at my school’s Scholastic Book Fair would be “in American” because he doesn’t “read Spanish or Asian.” For the record, I have told my son on a few occasions that Arabic is commonly spoken at my school, but obviously keeping track of foreign languages and ethnic groups are not his strong suit.
In that moment, I felt like I was part of a sisterhood.
Since my students would not be able to see me on the actual day of the hijab event, I felt that it was important to give them a sneak peak of me wearing a hijab – after all, they were my motivation. So, the day before “A Day in Her Hijab,” I decided to surprise them, and practically the entire school, by donning a headscarf when I picked them up from Jummah. Their eyes lit up and the look on their faces was priceless – legitimate fascination and astonishment. I will never forget the way those innocent, pure eyes gazed into mine like we were meeting for the very first time. My students immediately embraced me and my new look. When we arrived back to our classroom, there was this sense of comfort and peace as I was finally “one of them.” When I asked one of my 5th grade girls if I looked different, she exclaimed, “No, you look beautiful!” Her genuine response made my heart smile and reminded me exactly why I did this in the first place. This same girl came to my rescue whenever my scarf would begin to slip off my head and my hair and ears were exposed.
Let me make clear that my motive for participating in “A Day in Her Hijab” was not to “prove” that Islamophobia is real or that covering would automatically increase my understanding of what life is like as a hijabi woman. This event was more than just some gimmicky social experiment or having a break from doing my hair for the day – this was an opportunity for me, as a Christian, to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community, the people whom I have grown to love, respect, and admire over the past five years. I participated in this event with intention: to raise awareness and to show my support during a time when there is such a pervasive anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and beyond. I also understand that the hijab is so much more than simply a piece of cloth or a fashion statement – I respect and appreciate the Islamic values behind the hijab, so I will not be using this platform to devalue the voices of Muslim women or detract from any of their experiences. That is not my story to tell.
On the actual day of the “A Day in her Hijab” event, a Muslim friend of mine wondered if I would feel any discomfort when wearing the hijab in public. Confidently, I expressed to her that I had been mentally preparing myself for this day for the past few weeks (perhaps, a little too much). My first stop in my headscarf was to the clothing store, Forever 21, with my daughter who was looking for a bathing suit. As soon as we entered Forever 21, I inadvertently asked the sales associate, “Do you have any hijabs… I mean bathing suits?” I was completely mortified. Clearly, in that moment, my nerves and my over-thinking got the best of me.
Responses to my hijab were subtle or nonexistent and, unlike I initially anticipated, I did not feel isolated or judged; however, I was aware of some double-takes that people made throughout the day. The biggest challenge for me was trying to keep my headscarf from slipping and keeping those damn pins in place – I literally poked myself about a dozen times. My son was fine with seeing me in the headscarf, by the way. As we sat together in the stands at his big sister’s basketball game, he proudly informed me that the hijab didn’t make me look “Asian” (there he goes again confusing “Arabic” with Asian – remember, he’s only eight).
Although I had the opportunity of observing the reactions of others, wearing a hijab temporarily could never amount to the full experience and daily struggles of a hijabi woman. It would be impossible for me to relate to her journey in my one day’s worth of experience. I’ve encountered my fair share of discrimination in my life as a person of color, but it cannot compare to the experiences of a Muslim living in America today.
I never once believed that the short-term modification of my appearance would cause me to have this profound understanding of the life of a hijabi woman. Wearing a headscarf in public only confirmed my deep respect and admiration for the women who choose to cover. It will be through my continued dialogue and building relationships with my Muslim colleagues, students, and friends that I will gain more insight into the life of a hijabi woman and knowledge and appreciation of Islam – I hope to bridge that understanding for others. InshAllah (God willing), I have already begun with my son.
I am grateful to have walked a day in a hijabi woman’s shoes, but for me, the most powerful thing that resulted from “A Day in Her Hijab” was that I finally went public with my workplace on social media. This may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it was major. After five years of beating around the bush about teaching at an Islamic School, my secret is officially out in the universe. It wasn’t so much about posting a picture of me wearing a headscarf for the world to see that made me proud; it’s the fact that I have now opened the door for my friends, family members, or even strangers to have an interfaith conversation. Now, whenever someone wonders about my place of employment, I will proudly share that I teach at an Islamic School, and I will welcome any questions that they may have about my teaching experience or about Islam. In fact, I will most likely share Jenan Matari’s brilliant piece about the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. They may be surprised to learn just how alike the two religions truly are – I know that I was!
I’ve come a long way over the past four months since writing my original piece on teaching at an Islamic School: I rocked a hijab in public, I finally went public about where I teach, I’m learning Arabic, and I’m writing for an online Muslim magazine. Who woulda thought? Now, all I need is my tattoo in Arabic. As one of my very religious Christian friends commented below my hijab photo and official announcement:
“Being brave and honest looks beautiful on you! Keep shining your light, Sister.”
She’s right – the power was in the hijab, after all!