By Tasmiha Khan
Every morning before I go out, my routine features the same ritual: I scan through my headscarf collection and coordinate which one would be best to wear with my outfit for the day. I’m careful about the material I choose: cotton is usually my go-to since it sits so well with little to no adjustment. The texture has to be just right. I want to ensure I get a smooth and round finish as I place it on my head, and I avoid any pretzel-like folds with a single straight pin to hold the contents in place without poking me. Observing hijab like this for nearly two decades means I have a sea of options, and while I never have a bad hair day, having a bad hijab day isn’t an option for me. Throughout all of this, I reflect how hijab is a part of me.
Hijab means more than a headscarf alone though. Though commonly understood by non-Muslims as the wearing of a headscarf by Muslim women, hijab is rather a decree; the term applies to both men and women, and involves how one carries him or herself. The physical appearance is just one part of it. Given the caustic times, it’s important to understand the underpinnings of what hijab really is: not a form of oppression but a means of freedom for the soul for Muslims.
Hijab simplifies matters for me, as I’m reminded that my speech, mannerisms, and the way I conduct myself should be under the guise of modesty as ordained by God. My own observation extends past the cloth many people associate with hijab, too: I will rarely ever wear heavy makeup in public; if I do, for a festive event where there will only be other girls, I cover my face as well. Throughout my observation of hijab, I’ve found the moralistic divine decree I abide by through the Quran — being able to decide what and when others see of me physically — is liberating.
Currently, there are around 3.45 million Muslim people in the United States, or an estimated 1.1 percent of the population. While not all Muslim women observe hijab, those who do can often be made to feel alienated by non-Muslims, usually regardless of whether they were born and raised in the States.
Those outsiders to my religion often exhibit an everyday kind of hatred, one that has been normalized in a specifically terrifying way. An attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 49 Muslim people were killed during prayer, may feel like an outlying, extraordinary event, but the fact of the matter is, unfortunately it’s not. Muslim people are targeted by anti-Muslim sentiment every single day, and those of us who are visibly Muslim are that much more susceptible to overt xenophobia and normalized other-ization alike.
Yet if you were to ask someone who wasn’t Muslim to describe a hijab, chances are they might not think of the word “freeing.” And it’s not a misperception specific to the alt-right, who have a long and storied history of expressing bigoted, anti-Muslim beliefs and sentiments openly and to much applause. (Look no further than Jeanine Pirro’s willfully obtuse remarks about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab, which were so myopic, Fox News actually took a stance against them.) There are many left-leaning spaces that also breed negativity; non-observant Democrats, independent liberals, and progressives alike have also shown that they have little understanding about what hijab means. A recent study shows that there's no significant difference between the misperception among liberals and conservatives that Muslims have "outdated views of women," a stereotype that naturally finds its target in visibly Muslim women — women who wear hijab.
Tarmim, a recent college graduate, tells MTV News that observing hijab has impacted her job search in ways she did not previously anticipate. “I can’t apply to every field, and as I go through the job search process, I have to be careful,” she says. “And while I get interviews for jobs that face clients, I have to be realistic. People will see me with my hijab and automatically make assumptions and they won’t come back.” She feels frustrated with how she is perceived simply because she wears a headscarf, and she isn’t alone.
If you observe hijab, you’re more likely to find yourself on the receiving end of vitriol from bigoted people. And it’s clear that people don’t want to learn: After a Muslim call center in Dallas advertised on a billboard earlier this month, people with Islamophobic views flooded the lines with hate. A Canadian politician even claimed that hijab is a “symbol of oppression;” corresponding legislature by the Coalition Avenir Quebec wants to push people who wear religious symbols out of public-facing jobs. And in the U.S., Rep. Ilhan Omar had to work to overturn a ban on headwear in the Chamber of Congress so that she could wear her hijab once she was sworn into office.
Omar also been open about correcting the misconceptions people have about hijab. In November 2018, she tweeted, “No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice – one protected by the First Amendment. And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.” For many people, however, the misunderstanding of hijab boils down to the belief that it is a form of oppression, in spite of the fact that coercion goes against the teachings of Islam to begin with. This stereotype is further rooted in the fact that many non-Muslims don’t make the effort to get to know Muslims, and is reinforced by the lack of representation of hijabi women in major professional circles — and the misperceptions that others in those circles carry.
Munzareen, a hijabi pediatrician from New York, recounts being on the receiving end of comments from colleagues about how she “looked foreign, or how religious people didn't go into medicine.” When she worked for a month in a rural area in Maine, the nurses admitted that Munzareen was one of the few people of color that they had ever worked with. As job opportunities came up in areas without a lot of diversity, she tended to not apply, though she feels that having “many visually identifiable Muslim women” is an asset to her profession because it not only brings comfort and understanding but allows for enhanced cultural and religious competency.
"I wish I could do my job the way I was taught how to without assumptions about my intentions or constant surprise that I as a Muslim hijabi woman [needing] to have broken a nonexistent societal norm by being educated," adds Rabia, a hijabi doctor who lives in Michigan.
The issue isn’t, of course, relegated to the medical field alone. Aneesa, a hijabi executive who works in manufacturing, found that people began to treat her differently after she began wearing a head covering in her late twenties. “I initially did not wear the scarf until age 29,” she tells MTV News. After she wore the headscarf, she remembers that “employees were afraid that they weren’t going to get more work. At times, there would be customers who would meet with me in person, [and after seeing me in hijab] there would be crickets.”
All three women live in relatively progressive locations next to major metropolitan areas and the discrimination they face has the same throughline. The fact that they proudly wear their hijab means they are visibly appearing as Muslim women, which opens them up to being misunderstood by acquaintances and strangers alike.
According to the Council on American-Islam Relations, the number of hate crimes against Muslim people rose by 67 percent in 2015, and the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked at least 100 anti-Muslim hate groups that were active in the U.S. in 2018. Yet someone does not necessarily need to actively identify as a member of those groups to espouse anti-Muslim rhetoric. After the mosque attacks in New Zealand, President Donald Trump tweeted his “warmest sympathies” to the Muslim community, even after he tried to enforce three separate iterations of a travel ban against a number of countries with a majority Muslim population.
The hatred against visibly Muslim women has become so frequent that many don’t report incidents after they happen, as The Guardian noted after the British and pro-Brexit politician Boris Johnson issued a number of ignorant comments about Muslim coverings in August 2018. And we can't examine Western discrimination against hijabi women without acknowledging that such prejudice takes place in a society that broadly privileges whiteness, perceived American-ness, and Christianity — and often demonizes anything that appears to oppose those ideas.
The fear of the “other” is real, and the lack of representation of Muslim women wearing hijab inherently casts hijabi women as a false “other,” which is xenophobic on its face. That a bill specifically condemning bigotry and violence towards Muslim people died in Congress in 2015 is telling about where we are as a society. (A 2017 resolution later broadly condemned hate crimes, including those against Muslim people, and a 2019 resolution condemned both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric.) The simple fact that it has taken more than 181 years to allow for head coverings on the House floor is alarming. That the ban was overturned is a sign of progress, but it begs the question: Why did it take almost two hundred years for that progress to be made to begin with?
While there have been significant strides in representation of Muslim American women observing hijab in different spaces, the presence of one individual that fits the bill isn’t necessarily a sign that the problem is “fixed,” and the immediate denunciation of an extremist attack by white nationalists doesn’t eradicate the everyday supremacy that allowed that hatred to fester in the first place.
For that to happen, we need to have dialogue and push for policy changes that would be both welcoming and accommodating for Muslims specifically, not least of all because the hate that targets us is specific in nature, too.
Tasmiha Khan is an M.A. candidate in Social Impact at Claremont Lincoln University an 2018-2019 AAUW Career Development Awardee. Follow Khan @CraftOurStory to learn more.