World Hijab Day: Everyone’s Favourite Dress-Up Day

This post was written by guest contributor Shireen Ahmed. A version of this post was previously posted on her blog.

Every year there are a group of women who celebrate, support and participate in World Hijab Day. This year February 1, 2013 marked the day where women all over the world would be “invited” to wear a scarf on their head in solidarity with Muslim sisters across the globe.

This phenomenon has garnered much attention. It has exploded through social media and has been embraced by Muslim women and young girls who may see it as an opportunity to clarify, teach and share. Women have written about it and chronicled their feelings, their emotions and how it made them feel. Ironically, this was supposed to have them relate to and think about the Muslim covered woman facing challenges. Instead it has many of them not reflecting on their own feelings and how that should affect the world with regards to hijab.

Although some of these reflections may be respectful and have kind intentions, others are blatantly narcissistic . Some are from Muslim women just having a “go” at it while trying complete their daily routine – all covered up. How unfathomable! They all use clever taglines like “Under the veil”, “From beneath the veil”, and “Undercover”. They pose such groundbreaking questions as “How do people perceive me?” to the very insightful “How do I see myself?” and my personal favourite: “Am I more liberated and less oppressed by this hijab?”

As much as I am interested in sharing, dialogue and debate, as a hijab-clad woman, my concern is not, and will never be how other women “feel” about a hijab that they do not wear regularly. I shall elaborate.

I had a match on the eve of “World Hijab Day.” As usual I was the only woman of colour on the field and only woman in hijab. And much like my friends, my awesome teammates did the best thing EVER: nothing. Except rely on me as an equal, include me in play and try to win the game, of course. Which we did not. Tied 1-1.

My team doesn’t ask to try to wear a hijab. They are smarter and more respectful than that.

But, wearing a scarf while playing may give them COMPLETE INSIGHT into the lives of half a billion Muslim women. Right? RIGHT?!? *hijabdesk*.

My mates are also acutely aware that if they want to wear a head covering, they can get a scarf – yes, any random scarf – and put it on their head. No pixie dust, no blessing from an Ayatollah, no chanting or incense.

This is the part where I get to be thankful that my teammates don’t want to liberate me. They don’t insult and patronize me inquiring as to how my hijab “makes them feel”. It’s not exotic and interesting. It just is.

They respect me enough to know that how they “feel” about MY decision is bloody well irrelevant.

They don’t pelt the universe with ridiculous commentary such as “Shireen is confident in her decision to choose and to honour her tradition even if media thinks it is negative” or “So glad to see a person of your culture out here playing with that. I am OK with it 100%.”  Yes, someone has actually said that to me. As if I care or need their percentage of approval.

My teammates, God bless them, pass me the ball. They don’t press, stress or fixate on the issue. They offer me support, encouragement on the pitch and they push me hard and then harder.

They don’t care about my hijab and what it represents to them. They are not that shallow.

Because NEWSFLASH: I am more, way more than my hijab.

They have realized that I am a person whose identity lies, not in a piece of cloth, but in the way I believe, speak, act and play.
This exercise reduces a Muslim woman to one yard of material. It is not an action that one can adequately educate and put another woman in their position. It’s completely disingenuous  to think so.

Cartoon via: personofcolour “My comic re: tokenization of Muslim women, “Hijab Day.”

Will having my teammates wear a hijab for a one hour match allow them to understand a lifetime of stares, barriers, “No, sorry you can’t play with that on” decisions, struggles and then my own strength and confidence to embrace it and keep going?

No. No, it won’t.

Just like wearing a hijab for one day will not provide a woman will  contextual understanding of challenges and the realities that a woman in hijab may face: misogyny, cultural stresses, financial problems, prejudice, racism and even effects of war.

Does it realistically give people a glimpse of struggles faced by millions? Of a religion that is marred and scarred by stereotypes and assumptions, that is rife with misogynist practices? That has incredibly intrepid people working for the benefit of the world? That has kindness and millions of women who are Muslim who do not wear hijab?

Do we celebrate International Paghra Day with Sikhs? Or International Habit Day with Peruvian Nuns? International “Wear a Wig to Shul” Day with Orthodox Jews? Nope. Because that would be minimizing and politicizing their choice.

This dress-up activity is no more effective than having me wearing a firefighter outfit. I respect First Responders and love red. Does it give me full insight into their plight, intensity, committment, courage and years of training?

No. No, it doesn’t.

I can appreciate the attempt to provide change by support. But for me to think that I  am effecting change by wearing their firefighter gear is vain and selfish. It’s more curiosity on my part – not bridgebuilding.

One of the most offensive and vile commentaries I have ever read on a woman trying out a burka was non-informative and reeked heavily of bigotry. Clearly her attempt was not to teach nor empathize. It was to get attention.

Then why exactly, is this type of adventure toted as something that could be beneficial?

Already, there are very little positive images of Muslim women in media, with few exceptions.

By inviting commentary, Muslim women are taking the power away from themselves. If Muslim women want to be empowered, perhaps NOT asking other women their unwarranted, unnecessary opinion may be the place to start.

There have been many non-Muslim women (such as my teammates) who recognize their privilege, and instead of exploiting their power, they use it to support mine. Remember me? The woman who actually wears it full time?

Personally, I prefer solidarity in forms that aren’t reductive.

My squad sees me as a player, as a teammate.

I sincerely appreciate solidarity and respect of my choice. But these odd and creepy “let me try on your burka to see how it feels!” games are not helpful. To me. And they are not Progressive Feminism nor Islamic Feminism.

Last night a white woman tweeted to me “I once tried on a burka but all I could do was feel sorry for them”.  I thanked her for her sympathy. I assured her women would surely appreciate her feeling badly for them.  She promptly deleted her tweet.

Maybe these women could try something else: support, conversations, reaching out, opening minds and JUST ACCEPTING and not judging.

That works fine too.

Now, only when the rest of the privileged, white female “I-know-best” society will stop insisting that they can “sympathize” and “understand” (note: I DON’T NEED YOUR SYMPATHY OR UNDERSTANDING) with me after trying out a fashionable scarf, we will all be better off.

Just leave me and my hijab alone. Let me win my game.

  • luckyfatima

    This piece is just BRILLIANT! You said it all!

    • Shireen Ahmed

      Thank you very much.

  • Invictus

    You want to know WHO should be learning about what it feels like to have their noggins swathed in layers of polyester? Muslim MEN. The only people who should be trying out “World Hijab Day” are Muslim men. And have them do it in the summertime please, like, in August.

    I say this as a woman who wore hijab for 15 years. If Muslim men are going to open their mouths to speak on how a Muslim woman should dress…..let them feel it first. Worry about the rest of the world and their opinions later…..

    • Shireen Ahmed

      Thank you for your comment. Initially sounds like a good plan :) But giving Muslim men an opportunity to further comment on women’s attire is unnecessary. I’m not sure they would ever be able to fully comprehend or appreciate.

      • Stina

        I think the same could be said the non-Muslim men should wear the hijab, but I agree with Shireen. It would be just one more outlet for men to discuss women’s clothing.

  • GhurbaaMuslimat

    I find this article very narcissistic and “betterthanthou”. If women want to try the hijab and open their minds to something different, why the hell not? For some it may be a real eye-opener. Whose the author to say that this doesn’t change people? I know first hand, since I tried a similar thing with a niqab, it made me want to wear it. Is that not beneficial to the person? I say it is. I really dislike this “who do they think they are” attitude that some muslimahs have when a nonmuslim wants to try a hijab.

    • Shireen Ahmed

      Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you interpreted the article as narcissistic. Wearing hijab for a day, for the most part, does not change people. Most of the women who did write about their experience (I referenced in the piece) did not choose to adopt hijab or embrace Islam based on one day of “trying it out”. If people do perhaps they are influenced by community, a series of events and even the Faith itself. Hijab is only one aspect of religion. That being said I think the focus of understanding should be of the voices of Muslim women. The world needs to hear us- all of us- including covered and non covered sisters. We need to listen to ourselves as well. Not defer to non-Muslims about how we cover.
      Furthermore, if women REALLY want to try it out, it can be done whenever, wherever not only on one day a year. I am certainly in no position to bar anyone from wearing whatever they want. Nor is that my intention.

  • Calulu

    It is unfortunate that you feel that way as I’ve always felt that trying to walk a mile in the shoes of someone that you’re seeking to know more about isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need more understanding and love between various people groups if we’re all going to try and get along with each other.

    • Shireen Ahmed

      Thank you for your comment. I sincerely appreciate solidarity and support from open-minded people. “Walking a mile in someones shoes” is a metaphor for empathizing and showing solidarity. It isn’t necessary to actually wear their clothes. In this case, the “walking” bit extends far beyond simply wearing the headdress. It’s about fighting misogyny, racism and battling against systems that don’t work in favour of a woman of colour and often a Muslim woman. Standing with Muslim women, fighting against these obstacles is a far better way to achieve understanding and harmony. I agree we are stronger together than we are alone. I don’t have to have black skin or be a refugee (two things I will never be) to understand the issues and support those communities. I can and will work alongside them and offer my support.

  • Anna

    An interesting and obviously passionate comment on World Hijab Day, thank you for sharing your feelings and experiences with us.

    I was, however, turned off by these remarks; “Wearing a hijab for one day will not provide a woman will contextual understanding of challenges and the realities that a woman in hijab may face: misogyny, cultural stresses, financial problems, prejudice, racism and even effects of war.
    Does it realistically give people a glimpse of struggles faced by millions? Of a religion that is marred and scarred by stereotypes and assumptions, that is rife with misogynist practices? That has incredibly intrepid people working for the benefit of the world? That has kindness and millions of women who are Muslim who do not wear hijab?”

    Any woman from any religious or ethnic background would understand this, as it happens to ALL. You say that you appreciate solidarity, support and open mindedness. But your words here reject and belittle every woman who has shown curiosity about a different culture, or a wish to step outside their own norms.

    Maybe putting on a hijab one day a year is a negligible step. But I think you and I (and anyone reading this blog) would agree that even baby steps toward mutual understanding is better than none at all. Encouragement, and not criticism, is what we all need.

    BTW, I think it’s awesome that you play sports in hijab, and you are an inspiration to all women.

  • Shireen Ahmed

    Thank you for your comments. My comments weren’t primarily directed to other women of colour, ethnicity and religion. The women who had written were privileged, white women. I cited their writings in the piece.
    Bridgebuilding is just that. Listening to two different sides. Sharing an experience and offering to understand someone elses’ position. Media shouldn’t be encouraged to look to a non-Muslim woman who doesn’t wear for affirmation or approval.
    I am certainly not belittling women’s efforts to show solidarity. I just appreciate there are vast amounts of ways to do it. And this one, I think, serves the least purpose.
    If one is curious, asking questions, attending some functions, lectures, readings, gatherings and participating in an inclusive community is a fantastic start.
    As opposed to simply trying on a hijab, as a lot of the authors did, engaging and interacting with Muslim women (not just those who wear hijab) on a long-term basis with open-mindedness is far superior. And in my case, it has worked brilliantly. Far beyond me offering my scarf for the day.
    Thanks again for your comments on my participation in athletics while wearing hijab. Much appreciated.

  • acutee2

    As a white-privileged Muslim who converted and chose my religion; I dislike that you targeted my racial and economic group. I do understand that this event has many issues. I like the round table aspect of the event but I never participated in it, included the year prior to my conversion.

    Interest article. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • Ashtyn Marie

    Loved your opinion on this matter. I never thought of it that way before and I feel like my eyes have been opened a bit more. I see it from your perspective now and have changed my opinion on the whole event.