For much of my life, I never fully understood why women regularly wore the hijab or Islamic headscarf. I understood that as a sign of respect, the hijab is required to be worn while praying and in religious sites, but is it really necessary to wear it all the time? “Poor girls,” I thought. “They must have had no other choice.”
When I was younger, someone very close to me was forced to wear the hijab and was abused whenever she refused to put it on. This is why she flew to the States and developed such a strong resentment toward the hijab. I guess you could say I grew up to have a similarly negative perception. I could not comprehend why a woman would ever willingly subject herself to such an obvious form of oppression. I am Muslim and I have relatives who wear the hijab; yet this makes me even more confused: “Why this double standard? Why must women cover up, but not men?”
A few weeks ago, the girls of Muslim Student Union announced that they would be hosting a “Hijab Day Challenge.” They would provide free headscarves and challenge UCI students to wear the hijab for one full day. I didn’t see the purpose. Get people to wear the hijab so they can see what it feels like to be oppressed? To feel like you are constantly being looked down upon, like you’ve been stripped of all human rights? I would have no part in this. I already feel sympathy for those girls, so what is the point in subjecting myself to the same sense of domination?
It was not until the morning of the challenge, last Thursday, that for some inexplicable reason, I decided to go ahead and take the challenge. I signed a contract promising to keep it on in public, to refrain from physical contact with members of the opposite sex, and to behave and dress in a conservative manner.
It seemed easy enough, but I had to admit, I was nervous. What would people think of me? Would I get laughed at? Should I even try speaking up in class, or should I just try to keep as quiet as possible? But once the scarf was on and secured with a pin, all insecurities quickly diminished. I didn’t feel any different, but I did notice the awkward stares and the occasional person who would look down as if he or she did not notice my presence. Instead of taking this personally and feeling embarrassed, I used this as a perfect opportunity, an opportunity to participate more in class and be more outgoing than usual. I wanted to see how people would react? And what I noticed was that as long as I spoke up, it seemed like people cared more about what I had to say.
I felt a sense of empowerment. That I was not being judged by the way I dressed or the way I did my hair, but the ideas that I had, for the person I was on the inside. I realized the true purpose behind this day: that the hijab was not a symbol of oppression, but was just the opposite, a form of respect and women empowerment. It seems that the issue many people have with the headscarf is that it doesn’t conform well to modern American culture. Many believe that if a woman wears the hijab she is not free. But have we been so naïve to think that covering one’s hair and dressing conservatively is really depriving a woman of her rights to freedom? Nowadays, Muslim women choose to wear the hijab and feel it to be the best way to express what they value most: their faith. Instead of being degraded by this scarf, they feel just the opposite, by exposing only their face and hands as demanded in the Qur’an, the religious book of Islam, they feel free from most pressures and insecurities that most women are forced to deal with everyday: the pressure to be excessively thin, beautiful and sexy. With the scarf, one is no longer thought of as just a sexual object and one’s level of success is measured not on how she looks, but what she accomplishes. Does this seem like oppression? After taking this challenge, I can finally say that I understand. Not only do I understand the purpose of the hijab, but I have also developed a strong positive view and respect for those who continue to wear it.
Nesma Tawil is a third-year political science major. She can be reached at email@example.com.