Wrapped Attention

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"Are you all bald under there?" Laughter erupted in the room as various Muslim women shared funny questions asked by strangers about their Hijabs. "Do you have ears?" was one of the more ridiculous queries, though it sounds as if they've heard them all.

A Hijab is a cloth similar in size to a shawl or rebozo (a Mexican scarf), which Muslim women wear to cover their head, neck, and chest. They wear them as a statement of modesty, but the Hijab also symbolizes their faith. Women who wear them call themselves Hijabi.

Tuesday, for a total of seven and a half hours I experienced a little of what it's like to be a Hijabi.

Jennifer took the Hijab Day Challenge. - JOSEPH KILBOURN
  • Joseph Kilbourn
  • Jennifer took the Hijab Day Challenge.

I slept in more than I should have, and in a rush I grabbed the first clothes I saw -- skinny jeans and a fitted white shirt with a baggy red sweater. I headed over to IUPUI's Student Center, where I was greeted by Leena Basha, a Biology major and President of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). From the assortment of scarves she offered me, I chose one in leopard print done in maroon hues, and after listening to her instructions on how to wrap and tie it around my head, I positioned it on and then ran over to work -- officially late.

I was nervous and unsure about how to respond to the inevitably curious coworkers who see my head uncovered every day. "What happened to your head?" they asked. I was jokingly introduced to some new staff members as "Muslim-Mexican Jennifer."

After my coworkers got over it, I went about my day as usual; going to class, picking up coffee, and going out for lunch. Occasionally I forgot I was wearing it, but quickly remembered when I felt people's nonsexual stares. I also felt like the people who did not know me very well reevaluated who they thought I was. A classmate told me she liked how I looked in maroon, and I thanked her without offering any explanation.

To be honest, there was never a moment today when I felt hostility from others. I struggled the most with covering a part of myself I perceived as a component of my identity. A social tool I often rely on was suddenly missing.

Students from the Muslim Student Association participating in the Hijab Day Challenge.  - JOSEPH KILBOURN
  • Joseph Kilbourn
  • Students from the Muslim Student Association participating in the Hijab Day Challenge.

"Salam and welcome, all," Nadir Mitiche, special events coordinator for MSA, says, standing in front of a small group of students. His introduction feels kind as he says, "warm blessings." A group of covered women, including Basha, stand behind him smiling and proceed to introduce themselves.

The room was not packed. About fifteen women showed up early in the morning to be fitted with a Hijab. But only three of us show up at the end of the afternoon to discuss our experiences with the "Hijab Day Challenge."

"I started in 8th grade -- I never really thought about not wearing it," Basha explains. "The first day was hard, when I got home I went to the bathroom and started crying, but ever since then I love it more and more each year. People judge you by your personality and who you are, not by what your body looks like."

Hadya Sow, another student present at the discussion agrees. She recently transitioned from wearing a turban as a fashion statement to a Hijab. She says the compliments she receives have changed from "Girl, you're fine!" to "You have a beautiful face."

I ask the women in the room if they ever get catcalled. I was curious about the experiences of a Hijabi walking down the street. "I feel it happens less to covered women," Sow says.

The notion of modesty equating any form of sexual freedom confused me prior to this experience. Growing up Catholic, I, too, experienced the dictates of "moral standards" in relation to what I was and wasn't supposed to do with my body. But after I got over the fact that people's eyes were drawn to me, I also noticed that I did not detect anything sexual about the looks I received. It was as if I had ceased to be a sexual being in the public eye.

"But why do some Muslim women wear the Hijab with western clothing?" I asked, "It seems like a less committed version of the Burqa or the Niqab." This was a question many of the women in the room were eager to answer, as these are questions they have pondered for a long time. The consensus was that modesty is different for each woman. It all comes down to how women interpret what it means to cover their body, with the exception of face, hands and feet. They also all agreed that when forced to wear it, the Hijab is virtually meaningless, as the intention is what is most important. "Many women just take it off the first chance they get if they're forced," they tell us. 

Hijab Day Challenge reminded Jennifer of how women reclaim their bodies through nudity in art and in protest. - JOSEPH KILBOURN
  • Joseph Kilbourn
  • Hijab Day Challenge reminded Jennifer of how women reclaim their bodies through nudity in art and in protest.

They even bring up the male version of the Hijab, which is an internal philosophy of treating women with modesty, "A muslim man would never catcall because of his inner Hijab," Mitiche says. As the conversation left fashion and moved deeper into culture, morality and religion, I felt as though I was only scratching the surface of a much deeper concept. A feeling I am familiar with regarding my own culture.

I am reminded of how women reclaim their bodies through nudity in art and in protest. Women affirm themselves by exploring identity through body as opposed to the body being reduced to merely a sex object. To the surprise of many people, some Muslim women wear the Hijab with the same objective; in the words of writer Naheed Mustafa, "Young Muslim women are reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose -- to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies." In other words, they are asserting control over their own bodies, too.

A few hours of wearing a scarf by no means teaches me what it's like to walk in the shoes of a Muslim woman. I got stared at in new ways, and I didn't always know what to expect from people. I stood out wherever I went. More than anything, I learned that there is much more than one might assume or could even summarize about the philosophy, culture and fashion of the Hijabi.

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