There is no article of clothing as disputed across the globe than the hijab. It is an established part of the Islamic faith, but there has been turbulence with its acceptance in the western world.
Although society has undergone some major changes in thought, there is still controversy regarding the hijab’s place in western society. In April of 2011, France issued a policy banning the head covering in public, which included a ban on face veils and burqas. Canada opened up a similar and controversial debate, banning women from wearing face veils during citizenship ceremonies.
As part of a series of events for Islamic Awareness Week, the Muslim Students’ Association encouraged women to “take the hijab challenge.” On Thursday Jan. 24, women across campus were invited to spend the day wearing the hijab, as a way to experience life from a Muslim woman’s point of view.
Mona Aboudheir, a member of the Muslim Students’ Association, explained the significance of the hijab.
“The hijab, first off, is part of the religion of Islam. It’s the duty of males and females both to be modest. The men and women both have a dress code, and a code of conduct. To wear the hijab is part of that modesty. Also, it’s just one of those guidelines in a religion to be followed,” she explained.
All Thursday, Muslim women in the Riddell Centre dressed students in hijabs, one of these students was myself. I had decided a few days before that I would take on the challenge.
When I woke up on Thursday morning, my first thought was “today is hijab day.” I had mixed feelings. I was nervous about the way my friends, my classmates, and strangers would react to a white girl walking around wearing a hijab. However, I was excited to spend the day experiencing life from the perspective of a culture I was so curious about.
I decided to focus on the positives. I considered the various stereotypes I had heard, and thought about how I might have unconsciously assumed some of those beliefs. Vainly, I found myself wearing a little more make-up than usual, since my face would be the only thing visible.
When I arrived at the univeristy, I walked through the Riddell Centre, but I didn’t stop at the table right away. I was nervous. The Muslim girls had always seemed so different from me. They spoke in another language to one another, and they all had different customs. I was afraid to offend them, and even more afraid to make a fool of myself by showing my lack of knowledge.
I stopped at my locker and took a few breaths before I returned to the table. When I finally got the courage to ask the girls to help me put a hijab on, I found their reactions to be the opposite of what I had been expecting. The girls were welcoming, warm, and just as excited as I was.
As she helped me put on the hijab, Aboudhier explained a little about the challenge.
“To give girls the feeling to walk on campus and wear such a distinct piece of clothing, it kind of gives a sense of relation between the Muslim girls on campus, and the rest of the students,” she said.
I had imagined that the Muslim girls would have no interest in me, for I was a white girl who had no knowledge about their religion or culture. Instead, I was greeted with warmth.
“It is a very personal thing. If you are not ready to wear it, then you don’t wear the hijab.” – Mona Aboudheir
Aboudhier and I posed for a picture together, I took a look at myself, and then I was released from the safe space of the table, and into the rest of the university. As I walked to class, I felt different. Mostly, my head felt much warmer, and I was uncomfortable wearing a hijab so tightly around my chin. Halfway through my class, I began to feel normal again. I had adjusted. However, my comfort was not reflected in my peers.
While I experienced no prejudice from my classmates, they could not hide their expressions when first seeing me. They were confused with my sudden change in attire. I could not help but notice how many people were accepting, yet nervous, of my head covering throughout the day.
I heard things like, “so, why are you wearing that … thing?” and “you’re wearing a … head scarf today, huh?” It was like the word hijab was a curse word. When one classmate was brave enough to comment, using the correct terminology, the words hung in the air.
“Wearing a hijab today, Sophie?” she said.
I usually pay no attention to my appearance once I leave the house in the morning, but I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being scrutinized by my peers while wearing the head covering.
The day passed as it usually does, and while I had no problem with walking around campus alone, I found myself seeking a partner once or twice. I feared what other Muslim students may say to my wearing the hijab. Were they all as accepting as Aboudheir was?
At the end of the day, my personal experiment felt incomplete. I felt as though I had been conducting a false experiment, safe in the walls of the univeristy. If anyone asked why I was wearing a hijab, I could explain that it was a challenge, as part of Islam Awareness week.
When I got home, my parents reacted as I expected.
“Why are you wearing that stupid thing on your head?” one of them asked.
I’ve found my generation to be much more accepting of other religions and cultures. It was the only outright ignorance I experienced all day.
But, as I took the hijab off at the end of the day, something still felt wrong. I realized that while wearing the hijab showed me a different side of life, it was an incomplete experience. I had worn the hijab to see how it felt, but I had worn it without its religious significance. I had dressed as a Muslim woman for a day, but I had not lived as a Muslim woman for a day.
Over the following days, I considered my incomplete experience, and I was drawn back to Aboudheir’s words on Thursday morning.
“It is a very personal thing. If you are not ready to wear it, then you don’t wear the hijab,” she said.
Despite the social misconceptions that people have about the hijab, I had found that wearing the head covering was a choice. Women are not forced into wearing hijabs, and they do not lose their identity by wearing one.
However, I also learnt that to really experience the hijab, it had to have personal significance for the one wearing it.
Photo by Taouba Khelifa