The first person I told about my decision to start wearing the hijab, the Islamic religious headscarf, was a Lutheran. She was my best friend since middle school and the slightest hesitation, discouragement, or worry from her would have made me reconsider. She paused, clearly caught off guard by my announcement. “Do they make Mickey Mouse headscarves?” she joked. Then she told me: “Whatever you want to do, I will support it.”
Growing up in a small town in southern Iowa, diversity consisted of my Muslim family and the local Amish community. The Amish women covered their hair, despite the stares and negative comments they were subjected to by others. I admired their grace and composure. I envied their strong faith and confidence.
As my religious study and practice increased, I knew that the hijab was a part of my Muslim faith. I respected Mary, mother of Jesus, and the piety and strength that she embodied. I wanted to emulate her. The decision to start wearing the hijab felt right to me, yet I struggled with it. As much as I tried to justify reasons for not wearing it, I realized my real fear: how others would perceive me.
“Someone who looks like me walks past you in the street. Do you think they're a mother, a refugee or a victim of oppression? Or do you think they're a cardiologist, a barrister or maybe your local politician? Do you look me up and down, wondering how hot I must get or if my husband has forced me to wear this outfit? What if I wore my scarf like this? I can walk down the street in the exact same outfit and what the world expects of me and the way I'm treated depends on the arrangement of this piece of cloth. But this isn't going to be another monologue about the hijab because Lord knows, Muslim women are so much more than the piece of cloth they choose, or not, to wrap their head in. This is about looking beyond your bias.”
While other countries are banning the hijab and dictating women’s dress, our Supreme Court just voted 8-1 to defend religious freedom. The recent landmark decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. increases protections against religious bias in employment. It reaffirms our nation’s values and upholds a Muslim woman’s right to wear the hijab in the workplace.
Other recent headlines highlight wins for the hijab and feature trailblazers. A Muslim lawyer in New York refused to choose between her career and hijab. Girls in Minneapolis worked with the university to design their own hijab-friendly basketball uniforms. The St. Paul Police Department hired its first Muslim woman police officer -- and created a hijab to go with her uniform. There’s even a hijabi contestant on America’s Masterchef for the first time.
I know there will come a day when Americans will see beyond the stereotypes. The hijab -- as well as the yarmulke, turban, kufi and other religious headwear -- will become a part of America’s diverse culture. The hijabi trailblazers are going to make that happen.
Minnesota Muslim women share hijab experiences
From left, Ardo Mohamed and Memoona Ghani.
“Sometimes people say the cutest and most unexpected things ever. An elderly couple in my neighborhood saw me walking, approached me and complimented me on my hijab. They told me that it looks nice and the color I was wearing brings out my face. Other times, people just don’t know anything about it and ask strange questions like if I wear it in the shower.” – Ardo Mohamed
“I first began to see the way people perceived me differently when I went shopping with my non-Muslim friend. We were walking around the mall, casual as ever, when she shouted, ‘STOP LOOKING AT MY FRIEND!’ at a man whose eyes began to narrow as our paths were about to cross. At the time, I laughed and told her I didn’t care, that this man’s unwavering and hateful gaze didn’t bother me. Later, when a woman pulled her child closer as I walked past her, I was hurt. I realized that I was no longer the ‘safe’ or ‘non-threatening’ Muslim to people I was when I didn’t wear hijab. I could no longer get away with being the somewhat racially ambiguous brown girl. I was reminded, ‘Halloween was last month,’ by a man walking past me at Target. Over the years, I’ve become almost impervious to overt expressions of Islamophobia. I think this comes from the realization that my presence as a hijabi in Minnesota is revolutionary, and that by being present wherever I can be, I am causing a revolution within this state. I have realized that I am surrounded by people that trust me to advocate for myself and are ready to stand with me when I need them to. But more than anything, I’ve come to realize that these Minnesotan allies are much stronger than the Islamophobes.” – Asma Mohammed Nizami
“Most people have reacted with a genuine curiosity as to why I am wearing the hijab. The fact that I am Caucasian and wearing what many perceive to be "foreign" dress is confusing. People will ask if I am wearing it for a religious reason, or if I am just having a bad hair day (I do admit it comes in handy for the latter). One of the most negative reactions I had was from a patient. I walked into his room at the beginning of the shift to introduce myself and the first words out of his mouth were ‘are you Muslim?’ I replied that I was. His reply was ‘well I'm American; I hope that doesn't offend you.’ I replied that I too am American and have lived in Minnesota all my life; and that Islam is a religion, not a nationality. As we talked throughout the shift, I came to learn that he was a teacher. It scares me that someone who is so influential in shaping future generations can have that lack of knowledge and open hostility towards someone who is different than him.” – Christina Ferdous
From left, Samiyah Ahmed and Fedwa Wazwaz.
“I have noticed both positive and negative reactions. The negative plays out as adult bullying in the form of spiteful behavior, comments and other forms of micro-aggressions. I've had cashiers actually throw receipts at me in acts of quiet hostility. I have been stared-down and glared at in more places than I can count, harassed on the road and the list goes on and on. On the positive side, I have been fortunate to encounter people who have shown me a great deal of mutual respect and friendship. There have been some very kind and empathetic individuals of various faiths and belief systems that have gone out of their way to develop friendship with me. Those acts of friendship have really helped to counterbalance the negative. It makes me hopeful that people are capable of respecting people's differences, acknowledging that all people have the potential to make positive contributions, not judging, and empowering others on their life journey even if it is different from their own. What I've learned from wearing the hijab is that, you can't build a healthy society by expecting people to assimilate and be the same, nor by punishing those who are different from ‘mainstream.’ You build a healthy society by creating a societal culture that values differences where people's respect isn't one-sided, where everyone is respected and encouraged to contribute, where there is patience, sensitivity and empathy.” – Corey Habbas
“I started wearing hijab when I started college. My friends just laughed and said ‘we know what your hair looks like.’ After 9-11, a few people were hostile and would make comments, like ‘Aren't you hot?’ And I would reply that ‘Yes, it is 95 degrees outside. Aren't you hot as well?’ Many would just smile respectfully and a relative few would open discussions on why I wear it. I had a few cancer patients stop me and ask me on how they can purchase it and wear it. After a few years, I really didn't feel like I am different for wearing it or worry about it. I just see it as another piece of clothing that you adapt to. I learned by wearing it to just accept who I am and know myself more.” – Fedwa Wazwaz
“My experience in hijab is that it takes a while for people to really see you. Often they see a scarf first. I've had new jobs and have seen the ‘ah ha’ moment when people see that you are funny or interesting or anything other than just a scarf. I see this as a general human problem, not just a hijab issue. We humans have a tendency to prejudge, whether it's Black first, female first, Muslim first. It's a tendency we have to resist.” - Hope Sweeney
From left, Christina Ferdous and Hope Sweeney.
“Most people have accepted and shown respect for my religious beliefs. Some have even gone an extra mile to accommodate (I guess knowledge is power). I really love when people, knowing me as a Muslim woman, give me fashion tips in keeping my modest attire. However, sometimes I do experience that some people assume that I can’t communicate in English or I can’t think analytically or I don’t know how to do certain things. I take people by surprise by breaking down all their stereotypes and assumptions one by one.” – Memoona Ghani
“I had a bad experience wearing hijab in St. Cloud. I came out of my apartment building and was attacked by two women. They pulled my hijab and the pin that holds my hijab cut my neck. I was so scared for my life. They told me, ‘You do not belong here!’ and ‘Go back to where you are from!’ They asked, ‘Are you wearing a bomb on your head?’ I kept saying, “Pain too much, pain, please my neck, please my neck, Oh Allah help me.' Someone had called the police but they didn’t do anything and told the women to go home. I went home and cried. I will never forget this experience and the many more that happened because of my choice to wear the hijab. Going through these tough times, I have never thought about stop wearing my hijab. I believe it shouldn't be a problem at all because religious freedom matters to America and the rest of the world.” – Meyran Omar
From left, Tamara Gray, Corey Habbas, Meyran Omar, and Asma Mohammed Nizami.
“I didn't have any bad experiences wearing hijab. It has gone really smoothly for me. People are sometimes curious and ask questions about it, but I don’t mind. Some people have never met a Muslim so I understand they just want to learn and educate themselves. The only funny thing is that I was asked if it's waterproof. I said, 'Maybe, yes' and laughed." – Samiyah Ahmed
“Four hijabi sisters and one non-Muslim walked in the Grand Old Days parade -- we were greeted with waves, smiles, and 6 rounds of applause. When we opened Daybreak [global bookshop], we got a lot of people who came in and thanked us for being there -- smiling, breaking down barriers. I'm getting my doctorate and my classmates, professors have all been very friendly. I’ve never felt anything other than the regular shared human respect we all look for. This is not to say that wearing hijab is a norm here, but ‘Minnesota nice’ helps us live in an environment of respect even if it's not always reflective of deeper feelings.” – Tamara Gray