The Hijab Challenge
Students strive to eliminate Muslim misconceptions
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 23:11
“That’s the problem with journalism. You’ve got to keep the Muslims happy,” said a nail technician in the Gulf Coast Town Center the week before I took the Hijab Challenge. I fell silent at her comment. We had been discussing the journalism major I had chosen at Florida Gulf Coast University when her remark cut the conversation short.
There tend to be many misconceptions in the United States about Muslims and their culture. In a country that is supposed to be built on freedom from religious oppression, Muslim women in particular tend to feel the brunt of discrimination. Displays of modesty and devotion to principle are often mistaken as cultural oppression or extremism.
The manicurist’s comment ignited my determination to accomplish the Hijab Challenge at FGCU. The Hijab Challenge is a movement in the U.S. that asks women to engage in experiencing Islamic culture by wearing a traditional scarf for anywhere from one day to one week. Muslim women wear these traditional Islamic headscarves to cover their hair and neck. These veils, as they are referred to in the Quran, are worn in the presence of most non-related males.
According to the Muslim Women’s League, because there are regional differences in the Muslim religion, the proper term for the headscarf is “Hijab.” The Hijab can be tied in a variety of ways, depending upon the person and her interpretation of modesty as described in the Quran.
In Liana Harris’ family, the Hijab is a symbol of earned respect and admiration. Harris, a recent graduate of FAU and resident of Weston, Fla., does not wear the Hijab in her day-to-day life, but she does plan on wearing one when she becomes the family matriarch.
“I plan on wearing [a Hijab] when I get older. My grandmother never wore it until she was 50. My mom follows her, and I’ll do the same. We are still Muslim and believe in the religion but don’t wear Hijabs right now,” said Harris.
Harris has already begun trying on different types of scarves in preparation for the day it is her turn to wear the Hijab.
For my Hijab challenge I decided to tie my scarf in a “waterfall” style, completely covering my hair and neck. During the week of the experiment, I alternated between a pink Hijab and a purple Hijab. Before I knew it, I had begun accessorizing.
I found myself taking great pride in the way I looked. My hair, neck, and chest (all things I usually left exposed) disappeared beneath the folds of my scarf, and I began to find genuine appreciation in the simplicity of only seeing my face. My conservative clothing and Hijab were the polar opposite of my typical fashion sense, yet to my shock, I felt empowered.
Tiara Brown, a junior at FGCU who also performed the experiment and another Eagle News staff writer, had similar feelings of empowerment.
“So many people told me how beautiful I looked,” Brown said. “But I felt more beautiful, which I didn’t expect.”
As the week progressed, Brown and I though acting individually, shared many of the same experiences while wearing the Hijab.
On the first day of the experiment, I walked to a lecture on the FGCU campus and saw a student I had attended high school with. He and I are still friends and talk frequently. As I passed him in the hall, we locked eyes. He looked at me, and for a moment I felt confident he would walk up to me to say hello. But as we made eye contact, his face showed no recognition of who I was, and his eyes snaked away from mine as he walked by.
I couldn’t believe he didn’t recognize my face. After all, it was the only thing exposed.
On Brown’s second day wearing the Hijab, she experienced the same situation. FGCU junior Sam Robinson looked Brown in the eyes, and although they had met in the same spot countless times, Robinson did not recognize her.
“I asked [Robinson] why she didn’t recognize me. She just looked at me with a very serious look but also with a sheepish smile and said, ‘Racism. When you were walking by, I saw your headgear and didn’t see anything else…that’s who you were. That was your identity,’” Brown said. “When I walked up to her and she recognized me, I had a face. And only then did I become a person.”
As time went on, it seemed that Brown and I continued to share similar stories about wearing the Hijab. People were often more formal and respectful when responding to a question or serving us. We were often referred to as “ma’am” instead of “miss” or “guys.” In some instances Brown and I noticed people physically distancing themselves from us by moving away as we moved closer.
The most common reaction, however, was the staring.
Some people looked at us and smiled. Others looked at us straight faced long past the socially acceptable passing glance. A few even craned their neck as we walked by.
As the experiences added up, Brown and I consulted on the one unwavering feeling we both shared: pride. When our Hijabs were on, we felt like powerful, strong women. It was almost a divine feeling; one that has to be experienced to be fully comprehended.
With nothing but our faces and hands exposed, we had to rely on our natural beauty and intellect to shape how we presented ourselves. Showing nothing but my face, I felt sexier than if I was wearing a tank top and high heels. A common misconception in America is that the Hijab is a symbol of oppression, when in reality it is an expression of modesty.
According to the Muslim Women’s League website: “If you ask [Muslim women] if they are oppressed, they will tell you no, they feel protected and valued by covering themselves and that western women who uncover themselves and are sex objects are oppressed.”
The most nerve-racking day of the experiment was meeting 12 of my friends for lunch. With them having no knowledge that I would arrive wearing a Hijab, I walked boldly up to the table everyone was gathered at and waited for the barrage of comments.