April 28, 2012

Dear loved ones, I'm wearing hijab

When I started job hunting after trying to freelance full time for a few months, I decided that I didn’t want to start a new job without wearing hijab. I wanted the protection and the constant remembrance of God that come with hijab. I wanted it as an act of worship. And… I admit this a little sheepishly: I wanted the identity.

This analogy just occurred to me, so bear with me… In gender studies, we talk about gender as performative. That is, we perform the socially coded roles of men and women. Gender, in this way, is an activity. Our gender identity (usually man or woman) is communicated by the many decisions and behaviors we accomplish. For example, the decision to wear clothing that is marketed as appropriate for women is just one of the many ways that I communicate my identification as a woman. So, in my case, I both identify with the gender woman, and because of my appearance and behavior, other people can also identify me as a woman.

In the same fundamental way that I identify as a woman, I now identify as a Muslim. And I imagine this sounds really weird, but at my last job, I always felt like people were missing something fundamental about me in my interactions. They couldn’t tell that I was a Muslim, and that was alarming to me. I imagine that misunderstood feeling also arose from some dissonance between how I behaved and how I felt I should behave as a Muslim. Maybe I wasn’t as patient as I could have been, or maybe I didn’t look for the best in the person I had just worked with—didn’t quite grasp their humanity and our sameness.

In the time I’ve been wearing hijab, since I’ve imposed this identifiable Muslim-ness on myself, I’ve been more Muslim. I’ve been kinder. I’ve made an effort to smile more. I’ve felt more myself; more sincere. This seems a little contradictory. I don’t love talking to strangers. I just have to at my job. My face isn’t used to smiling all the time. So how is this more sincere? Well, these efforts are part of my spiritual practice. Muslims are supposed to be catalysts for peace, and connecting with the people around me, even in small ways, is working toward that. I have to admit, I’m also politically motivated to try to represent Islam well. If Islam were not under attack in the American media, I don’t think this would be an issue. But as it stands, I want to do my part to project a positive image of American Muslims.

Just like my conversion to Islam, the decision to wear hijab came gradually. Jason and I were apprehensive about whether wearing hijab was safe here. At least one hijabi in Austin has been attacked. The guy beat her up and ripped her scarf off. A couple days after I wore hijab to the interview for my current job, Shaima Alawadi was murdered in San Diego. May God give her jennah and her family peace and strength.

For the time being though, I feel very safe and the spiritual benefits of hijab outweigh any misgivings. Every time I start to think my hijab has triggered something bad, I’m blessed with something beautiful. When I arrived at my job interview, a woman walked into the building, looked back at me and squinted and frowned. Great, I thought. This white lady’s been watching too much Fox News. She kept walking, but then she turned around, walked straight up to me, and started speaking in Arabic. SubhanAllah. I was so sad that I couldn’t answer her! But it made my whole day. I couldn’t stop smiling and thinking about how I’d mistaken that lady for a conservative white Texan.

Wearing hijab has made it much easier to pray at work, which is really important to me. It makes it easier to explain that I’m a Muslim. People expect Muslim women to wear hijab, and fulfilling that expectation can be convenient. I’ve been blessed with an amazing manager who goes out of her way to schedule my breaks at prayer times. She filled out paperwork so I could pray in a private office instead of a public fitting room.

I hope this helps my family and friends understand why I’ve decided to wear hijab. My decision definitely has a lot to do with the ideas in my “Too Many Clothes” blog as well. It would be awesome if everyone could kind of let their guard down and ask any questions they have about hijab and why I’m wearing it. I guess I should start that conversation by explaining that hijab isn’t just a headscarf. Hijab is the Islamic code of modesty. Basically, it says that women should only show their faces and hands in public, and some schools of thought say feet can stick out too. I still wear flip flops. Muslims generally interpret modesty as wearing loose clothes.

Of course, leave it to patriarchy to make it seem like Islam only requires women to cover themselves. Men are supposed to be just as modest, although this isn’t something totalitarian regimes have found it necessary to enforce. Likewise, it’s not a personal choice many men take seriously, and the consequences for not dressing modestly are different for men. Just like in the broader American culture, if a woman at the mosque isn’t meeting the dress code, those who judge her are probably going to say that she’s flaunting her sexuality and may actually be promiscuous.

For men, I think the judgment is more about their faith. A man who dresses with overt Islamic modesty is seen as a pious man. Men who wear tighter clothes or shorts and short sleeves are judged as not being serious about their religion, and moreover, disrespectful to the mosque if that’s where they are. And to me, this critique makes a degree of sense. Modesty is a religious obligation for us, and if you’re not striving toward it, that’s between you and God.  But for women, their immodesty is seen as having a direct community impact; it’s automatically about sexuality, and it’s an affront.

I’ve gotten off track, but I want to make the point that modesty is not supposed to be just for women in Islam. Hijab is not an inherently sexist practice. I see my hijab as part of my personal feminist politics. I will start the Q&A here, and I’ll make another Q&A post if I get questions in the comments—which I hope I do!

Q: Do I wear hijab at home?
A: No, I wear hijab in public. I don’t wear it with my family or with lady friends I trust.

Q: How many hijabs do I have? Do I try to match them to my outfits?
A: I have six scarves that I wear on a regular basis. I try really hard to match them.

…Which reminds me… From late elementary school through high school I was super self-conscious about clothes and awkward about constructing my wardrobe. Sometimes I had rules for my wardrobe to make it easier. For a while in high school I only wore ironic polo shirts. In college, I almost exclusively wore tight, low-cut shirts. It’s pretty amazing to me that I now have logical, spiritually and emotionally and socially beneficial guidelines for creating a wardrobe. It just makes so much sense to me. And even though I don’t have the cash to build my wardrobe exactly how I want right now, it’s really comforting that I can buy clothes with a purpose. I feel like what I’m doing is good, as opposed to arbitrary.

Finally, you should read this beautiful essay written from the perspective of an American parent. http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Choosing-to-Wear-the-Muslim-Headscarf/1


  1. Hi! Read ur blog and glad that u choose Islam...i myself born as Islam but only recently started to wear a Hijab. And yes, naturally it comes and changed us to be a better person...InsyaAllah...

  2. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Really glad to read your post - I'm trying to decide about wearing my hijab for an interview for the first time. Thank you for sharing :) InshaAllah I will be as strong as you!