A Day In Her Hijab: A Lesson In Invisibility And Self-Importance
36 Penn State students and I took part in Women’s Studies organization TRIOTA and the Muslim Student Association‘s “A Day In Her Hijab” on Friday. Participants were urged to wear a Hijab as they went about their daily lives in order to combat the stereotype of oppressed Muslim women.
As Muslim Student Association President May Ayad handed me a teal Hijab, I started to doubt myself. I felt comfortable with participating in the Day In Her Hijab experiment up until she helped me dawn the veil. She was careful not to poke me, finalizing my day’s mentally and physically uncomfortable fate with a sharp pin.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t expecting her smile to be so inviting. I never outright thought she’d be closed-off or shy, but stereotypes have a devious way of seeping into the subconscious. Ayad’s friendliness was the first of many preconceived notions my day unraveled. She let me borrow her Hijab, after all — a tangible piece of her religion, her personal experiences, and herself. She seemed like someone I’d want to hang out with regardless of the setting, and it made me wonder how many great people I’ve missed out on based on cultural comfort.
Before the experiment I fancied myself a wholly tolerant person, but I was about to learn a lot. It turns out my calls for social justice come mounted on a very high horse.
Last semester, a student in one of my classes broke down crying about how a man told her to “go back home” because she was wearing a Hijab. I expected my day to be full of this, and prepared myself for the storm of fury I’d feel. Nothing was that straightforward. The quiet invisibility lingering around stung more than an ignorant comment ever could.
As my brother Vinny bluntly noted, I’m a pale blonde with blue eyes. There’s no way I could begin to understand how a Muslim woman feels every day. I didn’t exactly look the part, but still, my experience offered immediate perspective. I noticed people would rather not acknowledge me than face their own discomfort. Walking down College Ave., the head nods and smiles I was so used to receiving turned into averted eye contact and faster walking paces. I don’t know if it stemmed from ignorance, hate, or fear, but my peers made me feel like my mere existence was an elephant in the room and on the sidewalk.
The day progressed and my Hijab felt heavier on my head and in my brain. The headdress was supposed to hide certain physical features, but I can’t remember the last time I felt more exposed. Every time people looked at me and quickly darted their eyes, it felt like a statement about what they felt my religious beliefs entail and who I am. I wondered if it ever gets easier for Muslim women who wrap their most personal principles around their heads for the world to see each day. It takes a silent bravery I quickly realized don’t have.
My day was characterized by a misplaced guilt and a constant need to explain myself to strangers. The twisted thought crossed my mind: I’m not one of ‘those’ Muslims. Most days, I’m bold to a fault. This day, every word out of my mouth was calculated and self-censored. I was representing something much larger than myself, I didn’t want people to think all Muslims were inherently evil based on some stupid interaction with me. This thought process sent me to an uncomfortable realization: Sometimes I have the tendency to view people of my culture as individuals and people whose backgrounds I’m unfamiliar with as representing a larger group. It was hard to swallow.
A few days later, I’m still grappling with it. I had this idea of myself as an infallibly accepting and open person and I watched it disintegrate in a matter of hours. And I’m so glad it did. Without facing uncomfortable self-truths, I would’ve continued to live my life blissfully ignorant to how burdensome physically wearing your intimate opinions is.
While I can’t promise perfection like I naïvely thought I could before the experiment, I promise a conversation. Next time I see a person wearing a Hijab, I am not going to steal a quick glance and proceed with my day. Rather, I’ll remember how I wanted to feel and exactly how I didn’t feel while wearing one: accepted, an individual, normal. I’m going to say hello, smile, and wave. The battle for cultural acceptance isn’t won with polite, comfortable ignorance. Refusal to acknowledge a problem disguised as acceptance of that problem just won’t cut it.