What’s that thing on your head?

Amena

Amena and Shereen 4  Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Being a hijabi brings an element of unfamiliarity to my outward appearance that prompts a lot of questions. However trivial some may seem, I make an effort to answer all questions to the best of my ability and decided to dedicate a blog post to a few of the questions I’ve received over the past year and a half.

  • What’s that thing on your head?

This is the most basic question I receive, and also the one that I’m asked most often. The hijab as an article is just a head cover, but it represents an entire lifestyle. Women wear the hijab to project an image of modesty and self-respect, as well as to identify as Muslim everywhere they go. The hijab is a constant reminder of one’s commitment to Islam. Although the hijab is sometimes seen and depicted by non-Muslims as a tool of oppression, in reality it is the opposite. The hijab empowers women to embrace their faith, and even serves as a tool for feminism by encouraging people to focus on a woman’s character, personality, and words before noticing her appearance.

  • How many of hijabs do you have?

I usually respond to this question with a question. How many shirts do you have? See, you’ve probably never counted. The hijab is another article of clothing, and like any article of clothing, you accumulate more over time.  However, if you’d really like to know, I’d say I have somewhere in the 30’s.

  • If you shaved your head bald, would you still have to wear it?

Covering just your hair is not the most significant element of the hijab. It’s the part that stands out the most, but there’s more to the hijab than just a scarf.  The hijab is about conveying the idea that one’s personal image isn’t up for judgment. You can’t see my hair, but you also shouldn’t be able to tell whether I’m fat or skinny, if I have nice legs, or whether I’ve gained weight recently. I don’t want to be reduced to just “pretty,” I want people to recognize that I have thoughts and ideas worth sharing, and that the things I say are more important than the way I look.

  • Do you shower with it on?

No, I do not wear my hijab in the shower. That would be uncomfortable, soggy, and just all-around unnecessary. There’s really not much else to say.

  • Do you ever get tired of wearing it?

Honestly, yes. Whenever I’m having a good hair day, or on the days when I just got a haircut and want nothing more than to show off my new layers to the world, I have to remind myself that it’s all about priorities. Does my desire to get a couple of compliments outweigh my desire to maintain this image? Almost always, the answer is no.

  • Wait, so you can never take it off?

There are two ways to answer this question. If you’re asking about this hijab specifically, then my answer is probably going to come across as a little sarcastic. You saw me yesterday, wearing a scarf of a completely different color. Utilizing basic critical thinking, you should be able to realize that I would have to take that one off in order to put on a different one, but ignoring that minor detail, yes. I can take it off around girls and members of my immediate family. Basically, anyone that I can’t get married to religiously can see my hair. However, if you’re asking whether I can ever stop wearing the hijab altogether, the answer is also yes. I can choose to stop wearing it if I no longer see the value in it. Much like putting on the hijab, taking it off is a personal choice.

Shereen

Amena and Shereen and Aisha

“What does your appearance signify?”  A question that could have as many answers as the times it is asked.  Over the past 36 years, I have responded to numerous inquiries about the way I dress, first in Egypt then in America since moving here in 1993.  As I think of my experience, I am intrigued by how my perception of my Muslim attire has evolved over the years.

December of 1979 stands out in my memory as the point when I decided to follow the Islamic guidelines for women’s dress.  I was fourteen, and had developed an interest in understanding the Quran and practicing the religion for a little over a year at that time.  It is truly fortunate that my teachers and mentors have all understood and explained Islam for what it really is, a way of life.  The Quran is consistently referenced as the constitution for our lives, and the details of Islamic practices are given as much attention as the major principles.

Dressing in the Muslim attire was not a big decision, and it was not separate from several other choices that I made at that time such as timely performance of the five daily prayers and active involvement in charity organizations in my area.  These were personal decisions that paid little or no attention to how others would perceive or react to them.  The Quran painted for me a beautiful and detailed picture of what a purposeful and rewarding life is like, and the appearance represented a small piece of a puzzle that may not do much by itself, but without which the picture remains incomplete.

As I grew up, I started to realize how many people around me viewed Islamic practices only as part of social customs and cultural traditions.  Religious sermons were necessary introductions to formal marriage proceedings, and Quran recitations were more associated with funeral services than anything else.  I hoped for my appearance to serve as a reminder of the comprehensive, structured, and consistent lifestyle of the practicing Muslim.  Motivated by love and care, I set out to gain religious information, then find ways to highlight deep evocative perceptions of beliefs and practices.

The move to America brought about the duties of a teacher and the responsibilities of a change agent.  My Muslim dress led to a sense of representation, and before long, my look put me face-to-face with my role as an ambassador who is dedicated to asserting the admirable role and the honorable status of women in Islam.  In my opinion, appearance guidelines in Islam place more responsibility and set higher expectations of confidence and courage for females than their male counterparts.  After all, Muslim women are the ones constantly demonstrating their identity, even at the risk of possible negativity or criticism.

Then came 9/11, which put me, and many others, on the defensive as the whole religious tradition fell victim to blind generalizations and baseless claims.  Curiosity was no longer the main reason for people to ask questions and engage in discussions.  In some situations, the Islamic attire seems to raise suspicions, aggravate ignorance, provoke animosity, or even instigate aggression.  I started to feel responsible to speak for my faith tradition in the best way that I can, broadening my knowledge base and diversifying the ways in which I present it as I answer questions and refute false claims.

A deep sense of responsibility made it impossible to get scared, step back, or even feel offended.  Islam is worthy of accurate representation, and my community is worthy of learning the truth.  In approaching people and situations, my face as they see it symbolizes the mind and senses that are ready to engage in constructive efforts, and my hands symbolize all my faculties as they are available to build, serve, and collaborate.

My Islamic attire is a lot more than a scarf or a head cover; it represents who I am and clearly states the focus of my life.  Not unlike a loyal sports fan or students proud of their alma mater, my dress signifies a connection of love, commitment, gratitude, and a lasting bond that shapes my perceptions and plans.

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