Answering the Hijab Question
“Why do you wear that thing on your head?” “Thing” referring to hijab, the scarf that covers my hair and that is a practice of my faith, Islam. I think all Muslim ladies wearing hijab in a non-Muslim society have been asked this question repeatedly. It is a fair, usually sincere question. It is called “Thing” because the asker doesn’t know its name. The asker doesn’t know how many times I’ve been asked before, nor does she (or sometimes he) know that occasionally, when asked, the “Thing” is a word spouted out with disgust and the question as a whole is rhetorical, intended as insult. This time, it is simply a genuine question that is new to the questioner, and I don’t mind at all that it is asked – in fact, many times I see people who want to ask but don’t because they’re not sure it is okay, and I want them to know it is okay with me.
I would think that by now I would have a prepared answer ready for each time I am asked, but the reality is that every time I am asked I am somewhat taken aback. Why? For one, because I am so used to it and feel so normal in it that I forget that I might appear strange to someone else – especially when I’m mostly around people who’ve known me awhile. Secondly, because each time I am asked, I am not sure what kind of answer the questioner wants. Is it the short, “I wear it because I’m Muslim and it is part of our religion” answer? Many times, that is all people are really wanting – they don’t want a long philosophic discussion, they just want a simple way to categorize the scarf in their mind “Scarf=Muslim”. “Oh, ok, I know who you are now, I am happy.”
Or are they really asking about women in Islam? Are the thoughts behind the words “Why do you wear that thing on your head,” really something like, “Why does Islam ‘make’ women cover their hair? How are women really treated in Islam and why do you buy into it?” In which case, the answer I need to give will take more time. Or perhaps they’re asking what it really means to me to wear it. They are thinking, “What is your life like wearing that? How do you feel about it? Why do you do it?”
So, when I receive the question, I am tempted to ask, “What do you mean?” But, that doesn’t sound right – it seems to be telling the questioner that she is asking an absurd question. Instead, I pause, evaluating the person and the situation, trying to guess the right one. If the situation seems rushed, I might be tempted to try the first, the “Scarf=Muslim” answer and then if that is unsatisfactory move on to answers two and three. Answer one seems dismissive; too simplistic. But often it works for my students who ask as the bell is ringing to end class after we’ve already spent three months together. They forgot if I said anything about it at the beginning of the school year and now they just finally got up the courage to ask because their friend pushed them to, and they’re really wanting to know that I am Muslim and a little about what that is. Giving them a treatise on women’s rights in Islam as they walk out the door is inappropriate, as is telling them in detail my personal experiences.
Let’s say that I meet someone who is really asking question two, “Why does Islam ‘make’ women cover their hair? How are women really treated in Islam and why do you buy into it?” I want to be careful not to answer apologetically or defensively. Apologetic answers try too hard to win over the questioner and convince entirely about the beauty of Islam and in particular, women in Islam, in a few minutes. But instead of winning over, the effect is that you seem to be asking pardon for being a practicing Muslim woman and trying to minimize anything unique or different about you. Or you seem to be overly positive – which suggests to the listener that you are white-washing. Apologetism does not increase understanding.
And defensive answers are understood for what they are. I have read great poetry written by young Muslimahs who in heartfelt words complain against being viewed as if they have AK-47’s under their long coats (jilbabs) and who pit the Islamic view of women against scantily clad women on billboards. While this is a perfectly valid self-expression, it does not suffice as answer to a sincere questioner. It doesn’t work because it assumes a position of extremes. The average person who wonders about hijab doesn’t think you’re a terrorist and doesn’t think the Western view of women is that she is fodder for advertising campaigns, either. So if that is your primary ammunition, you will miss the target. One of the largest complaints I encounter from non-Muslims or new Muslims about Islamic literature about women is that when it mentions the role of women in the West, it stereotypes it into this media fodder stuff that, while not absent of truth entirely, is not what lies in the hearts of the readers as being true.
I think in this answer, it is appropriate to share the Qur’anic verses related to Islamic modest dress: (Yusuf Ali translation used here)
“And tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That
is purer for them. Lo! Allah is Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands….” (24:30-31)
"Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their outer garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest and God is One who sees and knows all things." (24:60)
"O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons when abroad that is convenient that they should be known and as such not molested. And God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." (33:59)
In a nutshell, isn’t the Islamic answer to why Muslim women wear hijab here in these verses? The first mention if for modesty in inter-gender relations, mentioned with commandments for both men and women. The second is similar, advising against wanton display of beauty, and the third is about being known as believing women and not harassed. So if someone is asking me the technical reasons rather than my personal reasons, this is what they need to hear. We believe in the Qur’an and this is what the Qur’an tells us.
Sometimes what happens next is that the asker questions the need for such extreme modesty on the part of women. It often seems unfair and oppressive to a non-Muslim. Given the time span allotted for most discussions when this question comes up, it usually comes across as either apologetic or defensive if you attempt to go into how the ‘awra ( or, what part of the bodies are adornment) for men and women are different, and how men and women are stimulated differently, and how hijab is a symbol of honor and an actual means of some protection – even in a society when it can also be an opening to an affront. These answers are all correct, but they are not quickly absorbed. If it is possible to think back to the first time you heard them, weren’t you skeptical and not readily convinced by them? To be convincing, they need to be supported with data – scientific, religious, and incidental evidence. After all, we do not expect someone to accept the existence of God without evidence and logic, why should we expect him to accept the need for Islamic modest dress without similar evidence and logic?
Instead, this is often an acceptable segway to answering question three, “What is your life like wearing that? How do you feel about it? Why do you do it?” There may not be time to adequately introduce all the evidence in favor of hijab in a truly convincing manner, but often, giving your own story of what it has meant for you will suffice for the purposes of this conversation. The tricky thing here is that you have to know the answer yourself, first. I’ve been asked so many times I assume I know the answer and then sometimes find that I don’t know what to say. I have accepted hijab as being right for me but haven’t necessarily taken the time to think through and verbalize the answer to this question. It’s a worthwhile exercise – not just so you can answer someone else, but also to learn about yourself and the role of your religion in your life.
Initially, I wore hijab only because after studying Qur’an and hadith and hearing lots of interpretations of these, I concluded that it was a requirement for a Muslim woman. It took me a year to conclude that much. I didn’t understand why, as I had yet to be convinced by all those ‘awra and protection and other miscellaneous arguments. I had simply been convinced that those verses in Qur’an mentioned earlier did indicate a woman should cover her hair. So I began doing so. This beginning was preceded by a lot of concern. I knew my family would be devastated, hurt and angry, and I worried about how friends, bosses, professors, and strangers I encountered would react. As is often the case, the worrying turned out to be worse than the reality, but there were some genuine difficulties with family. I had never before been in a position in which what I believed was the right thing to do was also something that made my mother cry for a week - because she loved me, was afraid for me, and because she didn’t understand why the way she raised me wasn’t good enough for me anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so difficult.
And yet, I still wear hijab. A decade or so later, my family has adapted and we are very close. And hijab is precious to me. It is a matter of dignity to me. If someone were to take it away from me, I would feel humiliated and devastated. I hope I am never in a situation like that of some Muslimahs in France, Turkey or Germany, in which I would have to choose for myself or for my daughters between hijab and education or other public activities we take as rights here. While the outside perception of hijab is that it is constraining, wearing it I feel liberated. I have trouble understanding the rare but existent thinking about hijab that it somehow offends or harms those who have to look upon it or that it is somehow less my American privilege to wear it than it is to wear, oh, say, the goth look.
Yes, sometimes I feel hot, but not as much as people who’ve never worn it might suppose. And yes, initially hijab was somewhat physically awkward, but now I feel like I move freely and can wear it all day without dying to take it off as soon as I get in the door so I can finally be comfortable. And I don’t feel like an outsider or that I’m being stared at all the time. I just feel like me.
When I was little, I had a pair of dark sunglasses that I loved to wear because of the privacy I felt – no one could tell which way I was looking. Now I enjoy a sense of privacy in hijab – a sense of control over how much of myself I share with others and how much I keep to myself. It gives me power in social interactions because I am the one setting the limits where I want them to be. I appreciate the opportunity given to me by wearing hijab to dispel some of the stereotypical notions people have about Islam and Muslims. They recognize me by my hijab and upon coming to know me, they have a more accurate picture of Islam and Muslims.
I’m easy to pick out in a crowd. At the beginning of every school year, there is a district-wide staff meeting - a few thousand of us in one of the high school gyms. Inevitably, months later someone will come up to me and say, “Don’t I know you? I saw you at the district meeting. You were in the bleachers on the opposite wall way down on the south side.” I enjoy the humor in that, but then I feel guilty for not knowing all the people who “know” me.
My co-workers, my students – they like my hijab, too. They know it as part of my identity and would view it as a loss if it were gone. They would even fight for my hijab if it were threatened. Yes, there have been some job interviews in which I knew they just didn’t know how to take me or how I might fit in with them, but there has also always been a place that’s been happy to have me just as I am.
I’ve received far more positive reactions from strangers than negative ones. Positive ones tend toward smiles, opening doors and the like. And more importantly, on the positive side, people interact with me on higher intellectual level than they did before, and I like that. Negative reactions are mostly just “the look”, and I don’t notice it much. I do try to dress for my environment, and that may make some difference. I don’t go fishing up in the hills in a black chador; it just seems impractical to me, and unnecessary. I say that only because I know some sisters who have had more trouble than I have and for some of them, it seems to be related to their adoption of a particular Islamic “uniform” no matter the weather, location, or circumstance. As for the occasional negative reactions, I feel I have learned from them. I have learned to understand what causes them, and I have learned to empathize with people who face them – particularly when it isn’t over something they chose, like a scarf, but is instead over something they didn’t – like where they were born or the color of their skin. I think I’ve also learned to be more tolerant of differences myself after experiencing being “different”.
It doesn’t bother me if some people never really understand why I wear hijab, and I admire their tolerance of something they don’t get or don’t agree with. And, I don’t think people who don’t wear it are all “bad”. I think my mom is one of the greatest people in the world, and she doesn’t wear hijab. My journey in life led me to Islam and as part of that, to hijab. I am grateful for the freedom to make my own journey and I honor that freedom for others, too, even if it leads in different directions.
So, that is my answer to question three. Maybe I won’t tell all of it to everyone every time, it is adaptable to suit the occasion. I think most Muslim women have a similar story to tell. If you haven’t thought about what your story is, maybe now is a good time.
 A teacher telling personal experiences can really creep students out – it crosses some invisible line in students’ minds, and must be dealt in small, carefully planned measure appropriate to the teacher’s role (meaning I can tell them stories about school stuff – a math course I had in college, for instance, or I can tell them benign stuff –like the species and names of pets or what kind of car I drive.) Teachers are also free to express some opinions, if done with humor.
 Similarly, they perceive the overly-positive depiction of Muslim women in such sources as being the white-washing I mentioned before. When a negative reality is mentioned, it is mentioned in half a sentence and is followed by, “but what true Islam says is…,” and frankly, that isn’t good enough.