I was sitting on the steps of the New Building of John Jay when he walked over to where I sat and looked at the empty space next to me as if he contemplated whether it was okay to sit next to me. He seemed hesitant at first, but sat on the step beside me anyway, looked over at me and said, “Hey, I see you around all the time and I was wondering what can I do if I wanted to talk to a Muslim girl?”
Confused and irritated by his question, I turned to look at him and wanted to reply, “Here’s what not to do, what you just did.” I wanted to explain to him that I’m not an alien – that I’m human. That it’s not exactly graceful to make others feel like pariahs. I wanted to tell him that I’m human and I love Starbucks, and movies, and fashion, and social gatherings just like everyone else. And tell him how much I hate judgments, criticisms, and arguments. I wanted to let him know that what sets me aside from the world are my personality traits. I wanted him to know that I’m not a walking statement for people to make assumptions about; that people can’t tell from my hijab that I strive to work hard, that I over-worry about everything, that I get anxious when I over-analyze things, that I’m forgetful, that I love my sister, that I’m obsessed with caramel lattes, and that I’m sensitive, and always want to make sure people are okay. I wanted to tell him that next time he wanted to approach a Muslim girl — or any girl for that matter — not to ask such a question. I wanted to tell him that my hijab is just one part of my character.
I didn’t, though. I failed to say a word of the aforementioned to him. Instead, I stuttered for a moment, taken aback by his question. I looked at him skeptically, and got up to walk away.
As I started heading towards the newsroom for our editor’s meeting, I began to wonder why I just walked away without replying. I remembered the other stereotypical questions posed by random strangers during times I waited for the A train in NYC’s subway station: “Hey, are you allowed to talk to men?” “So are ‘your kind’ forced into arranged marriages?” “Does it mean that you’re married once you start wearing that?” I wondered where people derived these preconceived notions from, and if they were sincerely curious, why didn’t they do research? I wondered about our human nature to stare at anything or anyone that looks “out of the ordinary”, or at someone who doesn’t fully attend to the “dress code” or norms of their society. I wondered about what people’s first thoughts and assumptions are about hijabies (women who wear the veil to conceal their hair adopted this title). I mean how strange could I possibly come off to people who sincerely have no idea why I cover my hair? I could not help but continue to wonder if people stare at me with curiosity and wonder why? Why does she wear that thing on her head?
The reality is that there exist those undeniable stereotypes that come with wearing hijab because its concept is native to some people. Some think hijab is forced and some think it has been adopted by cultural norms.
Oftentimes, when we can’t reason why people do certain things, we tend to pass judgment and make assumptions. When it comes to hijab, Western society finds it difficult to accept that most hijabies wear their veil willingly—we make that choice for ourselves. Eleven years ago at camp, I remember staring back at my reflection in the little mirror that my friend held for me from the side as I struggled for the first time to wrap one side of the thin fabric around my head, taking the longer piece that dangled from the edge and wrapping it to the other side to secure it with a small pin—I had no idea that my hands would naturally get accustomed to this daily routine. I was ten years old and thought this process was just another addition to my routine for dress-up to go to out or to school. I remember my mom asking me “what made you decide to wear hijab?” and I looked up at her and said, “Mommy, I saw all the rest of the older girls wearing it at camp, and I want to be just like them.”
Those who assume that others force hijab upon women probably don’t know that if one identifies as a Muslim, then he/she is forbidden to force anyone to act against his/her will. That means even though it’s required to wear the headscarf by our faith, we have free will. And it is our choice to wear a hijab. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t understand how you could ever restrict yourself like that; I’d never.” I cannot fathom the reasoning behind such a remark. I could never see my hijab as a restriction, because it’s part of my identity. The same way that most people can’t go out nude in public, is the same way I cannot go out in public without my hijab. So no, I don’t wear it when I’m home, around family, relatives, or other females. And for the same reason that people wear the cross around their neck and the yamcha on their head, is the same reason I wear my hijab – to identity with my faith.
When I said earlier that hijab is just one factor of my character, I meant that hijab is one way that I express myself—modestly. But there is this whole other list of essential components that exist with hijab. It’s not as if once I put this “thing” on my head that suddenly I embody and define modesty. Hijab is not only a matter of the garments you wear, but also it’s a matter of manner – of how you present yourself, how you treat others, and how you speak to others. So really, this concept of hijab exists in all of humanity.
About the Author,
Aya Abdelmoamen migrated to the U.S 13 years ago and did not speak, read, or write English but she learned and has come a long way. She is a tutor at the Writing Center and she hopes in her coming years to teach and inspire other college students the way she was taught and inspired. She loves to write behind walls to escape into her own creations. She is a beauty junkie who is in love with fashion but doesn’t follow any trends. When she isn’t commuting, writing, or working, Aya researches unanswered questions that run through her mind.