Breaking the Silence On Hijab Stereotyping

We have all done it before, myself included. You are out somewhere, and you see someone who is different from you, and you do the double take. And then after than initial reaction, you make a quick mental decision–Do I look away and pretend I didn’t see them at all? Do I just nod or smile to acknowledge their presence? Do I stare at them and make them feel uncomfortable? Do I laugh at them? Do I show them so eloquently through just my facial expression that I don’t care for the fact that they are different from me?

I experienced a little bit of all of those things within the past twenty-four hours. It all started simply enough. I am your average 22 year old Caucasian American female. I have a job and friends and hobbies. Once a week I help teach English as a second language to a group of women. Some of them are from other countries, but the majority of them are from Somalia, and they are devout Muslims. I also have a very dear friend of mine, who I have known since I was born, and she converted to the Muslim faith a few years ago. I love all of these people that I have the privilege of getting to spend time with. I am not a Muslim, so obviously there are some differences between our lifestyles, but why does that have to be a bad thing?

Recently a Buzzfeed video was brought to my attention. In the video, four Buzzfeed employees sit down and learn the meaning behind the practice of wearing a hijab. They were also shown how to correctly wear one, and then they went about their normal business for the rest of the day to see how other people would react, look at them, or treat them based on that one addition to their usual clothing. It’s a short video, but very thought provoking. You can see it below.

That same video inspired me to conduct a similar cultural experiment. I see quite a few wonderful, lovely Muslim women who I regard as my friends every week. All of them wear hijabs, and I couldn’t help wondering what that is like, both mentally/emotionally, but also physically. So yesterday was a normal day to me. I got up in the morning and got ready to go out. The only difference was that I also wore a hijab. I wore it for the whole day…an interesting day.

The first time I got together with my childhood friend after she became a Muslim, we just decided to go out for coffee. That was a while ago now, but I can still remember sitting there across from this person I knew like the back of my hand, and she didn’t seem to notice a lot of the looks that people were throwing her way, but I did. On the one hand I couldn’t understand why it should matter to people that she was donning a hijab in this little coffee shop in the same town that we grew up in. But at the same time I felt very defensive of her and the fact that people were treating and looking at her differently.

After wearing a hijab for a day myself, I now know how it feels to be on the receiving end of all of those stares.

The most interesting place this educational trip of mine took me to was the lake, where I (along with many other people in the city) frequently go walking when the weather is nice. Traditionally, you might not see anyone you personally know when you go walking there, but everyone is friendly and smiling and social. That was the first time I have ever walked that route and felt like I didn’t belong there. Everyone I saw did a sort of double take. A lot of them decided to very pointedly look away, like I would think they hadn’t noticed me at all. Quite a few of them stared at me as we passed one another, in a non-aggressive yet still uncomfortable manner. A few of them actually stared at me with pure dislike etched on their faces. There were some people who walked in pairs, and I could hear them talking ahead, but once I came into sight they fell silent until I passed them. Interestingly enough, the only person there who actually smiled at me, waved, and said hello was a military man going for a jog.

Why do we do things like that? How can a piece of fabric wrapped around someone’s head make such a difference in how others perceive them? There are a lot of people who might react negatively to someone wearing a hijab out of fear. But they’re not afraid of the fabric. They’re afraid of the mere possibility that the person beneath it could be some radical extremist who wants to hurt them and everything they stand for. But do you have any idea how unlikely that is? And honestly, what I find even more disturbing is that in today’s society (and especially in my own generation), most people have a reaction like one of those mentioned above because they just don’t know any different. But either way, those are reactions based on uneducated and unfounded assumptions.

When I left the confines of my own house in the morning, I became nervous. I felt like I was doing something wrong. But I wasn’t. It isn’t wrong to dress according to your preferences or beliefs, whether that means wearing a speedo at the beach, or wearing electric blue eyeliner, or even wearing a hijab. And I think that it’s time that more people make an effort to educate themselves to save themselves and others from the danger of stereotypes and prejudices. Because the truth is that we are all just people. And no one person has the right to judge another based on their appearance alone. You know nothing about them until you take the time to get to know them.

I am grateful to Buzzfeed and their staff for making the video that encouraged me to do my own educational experiment. I think I learned a lot from it. Most importantly, I have a newfound respect for my personal friends and others who take the time to correctly put on their hijabs every day and wear them proudly because that is what they believe in. Also, on a more personal level, wearing a hijab for a day helped drive home one of the lessons that my mother has always tried to teach me–it doesn’t matter what other people think of you, especially as long as you are doing what you believe is right.

“Prejudices, it is well known, are the most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” -Charlotte Bronte

Women Wear Hijabs For A Day: