- Posted January 8, 2014 by
Fort Myers, Florida
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
The Hijab Challenge: Students strive to eliminate muslim stereotypes
"Displays of modesty and devotion to principle are often mistaken for cultural oppression or extremism," KalhanFR said. After wearing the hijab for five days, she was suprised to find that it made her feel empowered. "What was so empowering about the Hijab Challenge was the beauty I felt by only exposing my face. All the superficial features fell aside, and all anyone could see [was] my face," she said.
- Verybecoming, CNN iReport producer
“That’s the problem with journalism. You’ve got to keep the Muslims happy,” a nail technician at Gulf Coast Town Center said to me.
We had been discussing my major – journalism – when her remark cut the conversation short. It also sparked my determination to bring the Hijab Challenge to Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Hijab Challenge encourages U.S. women to experience Islamic culture by wearing a traditional scarf for one day to one week. Muslim women wear these headscarves to cover their hair and necks when in the presence of most males to whom they are not related.
There are 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 for cultural oppression or extremism.
According to the Muslim Women’s League, the proper term for the headscarf is hijab. It can be tied in a variety of ways, depending upon the woman and her interpretation of modesty as described in the Quran, the central religious text of Islam.
I chose to tie my scarf in a waterfall style that covered my hair and neck. During the week of the experiment, I alternated between pink and purple hijabs. Before I knew it, I began 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 appreciate the simplicity of leaving only my face visible. My conservative clothing and hijab were the polar opposite of my typical style. To my shock, I felt empowered.
Tiara Brown, an FGCU junior who also took part in the experiment, experienced 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 experiences while wearing the hijab.
On the first day of the experiment, I walked to a lecture on campus and saw a student with whom I had attended high school. We are still friends and talk frequently. As I passed him in the hall, we locked eyes. At first 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.
Brown had a similar experience on her second day. FGCU junior Sam Robinson looked her 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,” Brown said. “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.’ When I walked up to her and she recognized me, I had a face. And only then did I become a person.”
Brown and I shared a number of hijab moments. People were often more formal and respectful when responding to a question or serving us. We were frequently referred to as “ma’am” instead of “miss” or “guys.” In some instances, we noticed people physically distancing themselves from us as we moved closer.
The most common reaction, however, was 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 necks as we walked by.
As the experiences added up, Brown and I agreed on the one unwavering feeling we both shared: pride. With hijabs 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 Muslim women consider it 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 experience occurred when I met 12 friends after lunch. I hadn’t told them about the experiment. Clad in my hijab, I walked boldly up to the table and waited for the barrage of comments.
The first 10 minutes were a tidal wave of teasing. The comments ranged from shouts of “Allah Akbar!” (“God is great”) to “Hey, take off your Halloween costume!” My nerves burned quietly in my chest as the harassment continued.
Finally, once all the jokes and commentary had subsided, the real questions began.
“So why do Muslim women wear these things? Do they have to, or is it their choice?” asked Sean Donnelly, an Estero High alumnus.
The hijab opened up a dialogue among my peers not only about Muslim women but also about why it is important to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
While this encounter with my friends was one of the hardest moments of the challenge, I realized it had made the biggest impact. It had given 12 people the tools to be more open-minded, allaying misconceptions they had previously held.
On the final day of the experiment, Brown and I bought coffee at the Southwest Florida International Airport Starbucks. Looking at both of us in our hijabs, the barista asked us, “Where are you girls from?”
We glanced at each other.
“We’re from here,” Brown said.
“You’re Americans?” the barista asked, confused. “That’s weird.”
It was a bittersweet ending to an experiment that opened many doors and answered many questions.
Ignorance still rages in this country. That is why the Hijab Challenge is so important. The only way to cure ignorance is to learn, and learning sometimes requires being thrust into new and sometimes frightening situations. While this experiment teaches innumerable lessons about the Muslim culture, it is even more a journey of immense self-discovery.