UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) organized its second Hijab Day Challenge as part of Islam Awareness Month on Thursday, Feb. 17, with over 100 participants in chairs and against the walls of the crowded Dr. White Room in the Cross Cultural Center.
The club has been working to put together their second Hijab Day Challenge to raise awareness about wearing hijabs — a cloth that is used to cover hair as a sign of modesty — and to empower women to feel confident about who they are. MSU challenged all female students to try wearing a hijab for all of Thursday.
The objective was to adopt a new perspective on appearances as students had the chance to walk in a Muslim’s shoes for a day.
Guest speaker Maryam Amir-Ebrahimi talked about her experiences of wearing a hijab. Amir-Ebrahimi graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in child and adolescent development as well as research emphasis on equity in education. While at SJSU, Amir-Ebrahimi served as the president of Muslim Student Association and worked as an AmeriCorps member and interned at the Council of American-Islamic Relations. Amir-Ebrahimi moved to Cairo to study Arabic and the Qur’an. Currently, she is happily married and pursuing a master’s degree in education at UCLA.
Amir-Ebrahimi told the audience her personal story dealing with religious identity and faith. Born into a Muslim practicing family, she discussed how she acknowledged spirituality, but was not at all interested in the technical aspect of religion that included laws and doctrines that she was unfamiliar with. It was not until she was a young teenager when she had made the decision to wear a hijab for the first time to impress her older cousins who were coming to visit her. Amir-Ebrahimi described how she very enthusiastically announced her decision to wear a hijab. However, more interested in meeting her cousins than anything, Amir-Ebrahimi explained how she did not realize the weight of the commitment at the time. Once her cousins had left, her reason to wear the hijab in the first place was gone as well.
Her story was a relatable one to many of the men and women in the audience. She emphasized how she really began to question religion. As a teenager, her friends were accepting of her image, but she realized that not everyone shared the same view.
“How many people remember the most popular girl in school as the smartest kid in class? No one?” she asked the audience. “How many people remember the most popular girl being the prettiest, best-looking girl in school?” Almost every hand was raised and Amir-Ebrahimi went onto her next point of how her lack of interest in religion during her youth stemmed from the way that social norm defined popularity based on appearance — a standard that even presides in our society today.
It was not until ninth grade that Amir-Ebrahimi’s perspective changed. Her family made a pilgrimage to Mecca — regarded as the holiest city in Islam and a journey that many Muslims make in their lifetime. Amir-Ebrahimi described how she was changing internally and inviting more respect. However, what was most important to her at the time, and still is today, were women’s rights in Muslim religion. She read through the Qur’an on her way home from Mecca and found that much of the language used to describe women is, contrary to popular belief, actually respectful and empowering.
“It is a struggle both externally and internally, but we are honored to do it,” Amir-Ebrahimi said. She explained to the audience how wearing a hijab is something women struggle with, as she had struggled in her youth.
Following Amir-Ebrahimi’s speech, students from MSU performed spoken-word and original poetry. Natasha Zubair, a second-year student who hopes to be a teacher someday, performed a powerful spoken-word written by Boonaa Mohammed.
“So maybe she’s right, maybe she does deserve respect,” Zubair said. “Maybe she walks around feeling like a superhero with that scarf dangling from her neck. Maybe nobody is forcing her to wear it. Maybe she would never leave home without it. And maybe she doesn’t care what people think, cause most opinions aren’t even valid.”
The audience was moved by Zubair’s words about the beauty of a modest woman as hearty applause followed. Following Zubair was Suleyman Kazmi, a UCI alumnus, who performed his original poem at the first Hijab Day Challenge event held last year. Dina Elkinawy, a second-year who is studying to be a chemical engineer, was inspired by popular songs from the radio to write and recite a poem about the media’s perceived beauty. Other performers included Rayan Fakhro and Aminah Galal.
Audience members were then invited to speak at an open microphone about their day’s occurrences of wearing a hijab. A mother of four came up to the microphone first to express her gratitude for MSU’s continuous endeavors to educate the public. A graduate from CSU Fullerton, she spoke of how many people in the early ’90s never discussed hijabs and how now seeing a group of students of all races come together to discuss it brings tears to her eyes.
“We were a generation back then fighting to wear miniskirts and now there’s a generation fighting to wear hijabs and cover.”
Several male students stepped up as well to talk about their challenge to look past exterior appearances and like women for their incredible intellect, and not merely their appearance.