Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

Hijab perceptions

The perception of the hijab as discussed here shows one important thing: society, those who judge and assume, make it harder to practice their own freedom.

Oct 1, 2016

Regardless of how each one of us views the hijab, women who wear hijabs are viewed in specific ways. If you do not wear the hijab, maybe you cannot fully grasp its meaning.
I spoke to six different women on campus, two of whom have recently decided to wear the hijab — NYU Abu Dhabi junior Aiman Khurram from Pakistan and NYU Shanghai student Sydney Bender from the U.S. — two of whom have been wearing the hijab for a considerable amount of time — NYUAD juniors Dana AlHosani and Tasnim Al Gergawi from the UAE — and two of whom have decided to take off the hijab — NYUAD junior Khairunnisa Mentari Semesta from Indonesia and an NYUAD sophomore from the UAE, who chose to remain anonymous out of respect for her family. We talked about their experience wearing the hijab as well as not wearing it.
These women share something important: they all used the agency of the hijab, regardless of its presence or absence, as a process of self-discovery. According to Khurram, the hijab didn’t transform her into a pious Muslim — she has always been one. Khurram mentioned a conversation she had had in her first semester of college with a fellow student.
“[We were] talking about me being a practicing Muslim … and moments later, he asked me if I wanted to grab a drink,” said Khurram.
For Khurram and the society she comes from, drinking alcohol is considered a sin — this incident left her baffled.
“It seemed then that everything I said about being a practicing Muslim went out of the window because I did not look like my faith,” commented Khurram.
Khurram spoke about her relationship with hijab at home.
“Back home, you don’t need to wear hijab to be considered Muslim,” said Khurram. “Given [that] it’s a predominantly Muslim society, [your faith is] not something that you need to assert.”
Khurram shared that at NYUAD, there are people from different backgrounds, and that no one would know where one is from unless it’s actually evident from the way one looks. This realization changed something within Khurram.
“I think hijab, in that sense, has helped me communicate to others what I believe in or stand for just by the way I dress — something I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of clearing up had I been back home,” said Khurram.
Bender, who is studying abroad in Abu Dhabi, has recently converted to Islam, despite coming from a predominantly Christian family. Similar to Khurram, for her, the hijab is an indication of Islam.
“It’s clear [that] I’m Muslim and therefore, I don’t have to awkwardly explain why I’m a white [U.S.] American who doesn’t drink or has an Adhan going off on her phone at prayer times,” commented Bender.
Semesta, who took off the hijab, spoke about her experience. She started to wear one when she was a child.
"I made the decision of wearing hijab when I was so young — maybe seven years old. It was a voluntary decision and it felt natural because I was surrounded by people who wore one,” said Semesta.
She felt proud to wear the hijab at such a young age, not because she thought she was making the right decision for herself, but because she thought she was fulfilling her family’s desires.
“I resent the society and the pressure that led me as a child to such a mature decision, but I do not resent the hijab,” commented Semesta.
She further talked about how hijab elicits reactions from people in social settings.
“I don't think it's right to exclude a person from belonging to the religion on the basis of hijab. Religion shouldn't push you away from seeking it. So even when my hijabless outfit at the mall meets a lot of staring eyes in the prayer room, I still push on knowing that I have the right to belong to the religion as much as everyone else in that room. Even if I don't wear the hijab anymore, I like to think that I'm still very much a Muslim,” said Semesta.
Similar to Semesta, the anonymous sophomore spoke of how culture enforced the idea of hijab.
“I wore the hijab because my uncles kept pressuring and insisting that I do. In my family, it was non-negotiable.”
Shifting to a campus setting, she shared an experience she had during Marhaba.
“I was having dinner with a girl who, like me, had decided to take off the hijab. A foreign male student was asking the other girl and me about hijab and why we chose to take it off, and as we were answering him, a local male called us out on losing ourselves and going astray when we came to college."
AlHosani spoke about how hijab impacts people's perceptions of her in classroom discussions.
"People look to see what the hijabi’s reaction to a clip of two girls kissing is or to a gay guy talking about an LGBT event or an out-of-wedlock commitment," said AlHosani.
AlHosani said that her hijab and identity do not dictate her views on gender, sexuality and other societal matters. Moreover, AlHosani said that she has male friends who visited her house during Ramadan. She goes scuba diving, horse-riding and skydiving.
These women pride themselves on being experimental, inquisitive and adventurous. There is no sense of oppression or closed-mindedness as discussed in articles in The New York Times and The Guardian. The stories that the women I interviewed shared showcase otherwise.
Semesta said that she heard stories about herself, based on the idea of a good girl gone bad. For her, not wearing the hijab means exactly that — not wearing it. Alternatively, AlHosani and Al Gergawi, both committed hijabis, discussed the pressure that society puts on them to be perfect Muslims, to make no mistakes. Even in conversations, they say that people find them unapproachable, that they can’t make certain jokes or discuss certain controversial topics. Al Gergawi spoke about a particular incident in her sophomore year of college.
“A few of the friends I met last semester mentioned how, when they first saw or met me, I seemed very reserved and they assumed it was me being uncomfortable,” said Al Gergawi. “One awkward thing that happens is when a male friend doesn’t know if he can give you a pat on the back. It always leaves this weird tension. Or if any topic regarding sex in any way comes up, there is always someone holding back for me when I do not even ask them to.”
AlHosani mentioned how in some conversations, people’s perceptions of the hijab force them to be constrained around her.
“When people come to approach me, the hijab becomes something that causes a boundary between me and that person; that is not something I necessarily want,” said AlHosani.
These women do not have it easy. These are decisions that can distance you from your old values but can bring you closer to your own new ideals. The perceptions of the hijab as discussed by these women show one important thing, i.e., societies make it harder for them to practice their own freedom and rights. And sometimes, it is precisely this pressure that leads people away from the hijab.
Noor Thyer is a contributing writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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