It has been six years since I began wearing the hijab. I still remember fumbling with the sharp pins and struggling to get the folds just right.
I still remember that one time my grandmother saw me wearing it for the first time and asked in a strained voice, “But how will you get married?” And, although I now know her concern came with good intentions, at the time it was disheartening for me to hear.
I still remember the stares — some from my own family members, that bore into my back with every move I made. I still remember wanting to rip it off, and then regretting having entertained that thought at all. But most of all, I remember how it became a part of me that I have cherished immensely every day of my life since putting it on.
As someone who has made it through some challenging, and some rewarding times during the last six years, I’d like to share what I’ve come to know over the past few years. And, while I wouldn’t trade it for the world, here is a list of 5 things that I wish people warned me about before I began wearing the hijab:
You will be stared at. In an increasingly hazardous political climate where Muslims are walking reminders of September 11th, the Boston Bombings, and ISIS, you will be singled out in the crowd for reasons other than your aesthetic.
Sometimes you will feel like invisibility is a blessing and pretend that the intriguing floor is worth staring at more than anything else at that moment.
Instead, stare at the starers. They will eventually look away, maybe with a smile or an anxious question, and you will be one step closer to unveiling the strong woman hidden beneath any uncertainty. Today, the hijab is a political statement as much as it is a religious endeavor, and you should wear that statement with pride.
There will be questions. Some will be difficult to answer, others will be amusing.
When losing patience or struggling with an explanation, remember that these questions are asked out of genuine curiosity. Your answer has powerful influence.
It is always okay to admit that you do not have an answer to a particularly difficult question. No one expects you to magically know everything; but it is important to do your research and equip yourself early on in your journey. If anything, understanding your faith will make you stronger in your own conviction.
Some people will stereotype you. It is an inherent, and many times subconscious, bias that has formed overtime. Your peers will be shocked when you hum a song on the Top 20. Your professors will be overenthusiastic, and sometimes even surprised, when you excel at certain skills such as public speaking. Interviewing committees will be surprised to see the woman with the outstanding résumé wears a scarf on her head. Those same interviewing committee members may also make it exceptionally difficult to be hired as compared to non-hijabi Muslim women.
Don’t be shocked when judgment surfaces from your own Muslim community as well. Your sleeves will always be too short, your tank-top too tight, and your scarf too revealing.
These reactions are also challenging as they are irritating. Push yourself to be more confident, to walk with your shoulders up. Speak with a steady voice. There will be times when you will have to prove yourself, not just for you, but for an entire group of women who happen to share your faith. Remember, you are not a victim – you are a warrior.
It’s true that your beauty in the eyes of some men will diminish. My grandmother believed this phenomenon, and was the reason she was so worried about me finding a husband once I started wearing the hijab. (It is equally interesting to note that your beauty in the eyes of other men will increase because of your hijab.)
In the early years of my adolescence, I vied for the attention of my male classmates. After all, being attractive was synonymous with climbing the social ladder. Years later, I realized that my worth is not measured by the approval of men. I no longer console myself by thinking that my beauty lies “beyond my scarf” and “in my heart” because I know that both my external and internal beauty shine alongside my scarf.
If my grandmother asked me today how I will find a husband, I would tell her that the man worth marrying is not the one who belittles the beauty of my scarf, but the one who accepts, and even admires my choice to wear it.
Oh God, the shopping! Living in a society that idolizes curvy women in tight dresses, it becomes hard to reconcile your own choice of conservative clothing with the latest cover of Cosmopolitan. Sometimes it’s even harder to find conservative clothing, but it is not impossible.
I like to believe that I have mastered the art of hijab fashion improvisation over the years. My achievements include being able to place materials on a spectrum of warmest to coolest (wool and polyester for winter, cotton for summer) and knowing the most affordable stores with the best and most diverse clothing options: Gap, Old Navy, and TJ Maxx for clothes; H&M and Forever 21 for scarves.
Accustom yourself to innovation. Try the slip-on sleeves underneath transparent sleeve shirts. Wear jeans or tights underneath sundresses. Wear long necklaces instead of short ones (unless you tuck in your scarf). Don’t forget the light cardigans to go on top of tees. Have fun with it, and be creative!
Remember, you will feel good if you look good.
You donning the hijab is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life, and it comes with its own set of difficulties. You will face resistance from others and sometimes even from yourself before realizing that you are that much stronger for the commitment you’ve made.
Six years later, I still face these struggles wearing the hijab.
But, would I do it again? Absolutely.