Confession: I’m Fascinated By Hijabs

Personally I don’t feel that me dressing like a Hindu, behaving like a Hindu, and generally living like a Hindu is at all appropriative. I am a Hindu, so I think it’s appropriate! Sure, there aren’t particular clothes that are labeled as Hindu, but there are clearly clothes in which you fit in during Hindu worship and clothes in which you do not.

I’ll tell you what is entirely inappropriate of me. I covet some of the religious expressions of religions that are not my own!

I’m reluctant to admit this, but I am fascinated by hijabs in a completely racist and insensitive way. Women who wear hijab look to me exotic, mysterious, beautiful, and interesting. I stare at them. I subconsciously think that they must be saintly and pure and perfect. I love to look at pictures of hijabi women. I know! It’s shocking, right?

I try to keep my racism in check by reminding myself that that’s what it is.

Strangely, I’ve always felt drawn to extremely restrictive religions. Before I realized that I was a Hindu and I always had been, I was searching for the right religion for my life. I kept finding myself leaning towards the most conservative versions of religions.

My best friend growing up was Jewish and I was attracted to Judaism as a religion, particularly for its community. Yet, when I spent time in Jewish groups and activities, somehow I always idolized the Orthodox.

I liked their head covering too.

(Funny story: I dressed very modestly in college and a lot of people assumed I was Orthodox Jewish since I also have the dark hair and light skin that could easily be taken to be Jewish. My close friend there, who was Jewish, and I decided to dress me up as Orthodox for Halloween. We thought it was hilarious. No one else got the joke. They all thought I was Orthodox).

I learned about branches of Christianity where women wore head covering full time and submitted to their husbands and didn’t date, but trusted God to bring them a man, who had huge families and wore ankle length skirts. I spent a lot of time reading about them and their stories. In a lot of ways they reminded me of home and the ankle length skirts we wore at SES, the misogyny that was rampant there, and the Victorian ideals we were held to.

We drove through Amish country when visiting my grandmother and I LOVED the Amish bonnets and dresses.

It was always in the clothes. I have this tendency to think that if I dress like a demur and saintly woman, that I will become it. As though what I wear is the only thing that matters or that it creates my behavior (Well, actually, it can a little bit. Just not as much as I give it credit for!)

Luckily I was self-aware enough to realize that what I liked in these other religions was their fashion and (duh) that’s ridiculously shallow. Not a reason to follow a religion. I don’t pick my religion based on which has the best clothes!

Okay, so I didn’t realize that immediately. I did briefly try covering my hair but I didn’t want to have to talk about it or explain it to my parents and so I did it as subtly as possible. Not subtle enough to fool my brother who really knows me very well and is sharp-eyed. He caught on to what I was doing and called me on it!

As a Hindu, I don’t cover my hair. I know in some regions women pull their pallu over their heads for worship, but that’s never been the practice in the Hindu communities I’ve been part of.

So yes, I believe that if I were to cover my hair in these ways, that would be cultural appropriation. I’d be doing something because it looked cool and made me feel special rather than because it was a religious calling and I’d be cheapening the behavior of women who do cover for religious reasons.

Another thing that I realized a while back is that all these restrictive religions have a lot of rules. Rules for dress, but also for food, speech, behavior, and most of those rules written hundreds of years ago in an entirely different society.

There is a huge temptation to join a religion where the rules of behavior are super important. Why? Because I feel like if I have rules to follow that are specific and really clear, then if I just follow those rules I’ll be okay. It’s so easy to slide into a comfort zone where you’re not thinking or questioning or striving for moksha, but rather doing what you’re supposed to be doing and thinking that’s all you have to do. Obey the rules, get into heaven, end of story.

I don’t believe that, but there’s a part of me that wants to. Because it’s easier. It doesn’t require any thought.

I chose a religion that requires me to challenge myself every day and to be always thinking and aware (Actually, it’s more like Hinduism chose me, but you know what I mean).  This is not to say that other religions aren’t about thinking and questioning and awareness, I just know for me that if I had a restrictive set of rules to follow that I would fixate on doing that and not progress beyond it!

So I don’t cover my hair, but man, I’m jealous sometimes of those gorgeous hijabs!

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Sabina

    Brave of you to share this- and props for owning that the fascination could be problematic. Also, I think this line was especially intriguing: “I feel like if I have rules to follow that are specific and really clear, then if I just follow those rules I’ll be okay.” I think that is the draw with restrictive lifestyles- religious or otherwise. In high school I was straightedge for a year and a half for that very reason!

    I also find hijabs to be beautiful. Actually I’ve taken to wrapping my head in pashminas in the winter, similarly to hijab, because it’s the most efficient and comfortable way for me to keep warm in the cold. (Hats give me headaches!) It started, though, because I thought it looked pretty. I have wondered if this is appropriative or problematic, too, because plenty of women keep their heads covered in this way for religious reasons and other reasons that I don’t share (I don’t agree with the concept of modesty, for example).

    I don’t know- I’d be interested in the responses on here.

    • Ambaa

      Having seen you in the winter with lovely shawls wrapped around your head, I would have to say that I never thought it looked like a hijab! To me your draping didn’t look religious in nature.

      • Sabina

        Oh ok! That’s a relief. =)

    • Andrea

      Last winter, all I used was shawls to protect from the cold. I don’t think it looked like a hijab and even if it did, my hair was flowing out the back anyway. It just looked like a shawl around my head. Last Christmas I got two very nice hats so have been wearing them… but the shawls were warmer! I will go back to that I think!

      (and will write an on-topic response later, ha ha)

      • Ambaa

        This whole week is about headcovering, so there’s a post on Thursday that’s more directly about when is head covering appropriation and when is it not!

  • Maya Resnikoff

    I also think that hijabs are frequently gorgeous. I’ve always like wrapped fabric… I guess I’m just lucky that I belong to a religion that has a head-covering practice of our own. So, for example, I can watch hijab tutorials and enjoy them as a way of looking for inspiration for my own practice, although exactly what I cover is not as extensive.

    But coming back to these issues of identity and identification- well, you’ve seen on my blog that I have similar issues and thoughts. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Agni Ashwin

    A possible signification of a past-life as a Muslim. ;-)

    • Ambaa

      Good point!

  • Andrea

    There’s a difference between covering one’s head/hair and hijab. Hijab actually refers to much more than a headscarf (which could be called an al-amira, shayla, dupatta, etc.) It is the general idea of modesty in Islam. Even men have ‘hijab’ but generally we only use it in Western culture to mean a headscarf. As in “She doesn’t just wear hijab, she wears niqab too” – I am not a Muslim so I can’t really comment on whether this is also de rigeur among Muslims but the concept of *hijab* is absolutely an Islamic one and includes the headscarf, but isn’t limited to it.

    Clothing does tell us a lot about people, but there are sartorial elements that stand on their own better than others (although this is dependent on the culture that the item is being worn in/perceived by). Chinos and a polo shirt might be reminiscent of a golfer or country club member, but there’s no guarantee that someone wearing this would be either of the above. But other things have extremely obvious connotations, like a confederate flag T-shirt. Or a mangalsutra. Or Army fatigues. Or an Islamic head covering. These things are immediate signifiers of an association or value that the wearer has or holds dear. I know we are moving toward a society where “anything goes” and we can wear what we want and not be judged for it, but I am not sure we will ever get completely there, and until then, we do still associate clothing with the things it signifies, something that goes deeper than “it looks nice.”

  • TruthSeeker

    i found it very surprising that you like the hijab. To me it is very repulsive and an attack on women’s freedom.

    • Andrea

      That’s funny; I feel the same way about skinny jeans.

      • Sabina

        Haha! I have similar issues with high heels- but some people love them. =)

        • Ambaa

          I suppose we will never be able to tease out how we would be different if we’d never had any influences from culture, stories, family, etc.

    • Sabina

      I think, for some women, it’s an empowering choice.

      Basically I think that whenever a woman (or any person) chooses something, of their own free will, and it makes them happy, then it is good. Like, for example, women who CHOOSE to stay home to raise children, cook, etc. are not oppressed- some women find they are happier this way, and it would be dishonest for them to pursue a career when they don’t actually want one. I would never choose this, and I would be very unhappy if I stayed home with kids all day, but it works for some women. I would also never wear true hijab or abide by any modesty laws, but same thing- works for some women.

      However, if it’s imposed or enforced, I agree that it becomes a very different thing.

    • Ambaa

      It’s interesting how different people can feel and see very different things from the same item, isn’t it? I can’t explain why I find it attractive, but I really do!

  • Shesadri Sekhar Bagchi
    this is real hijab

  • kdjji

    non indians should not be practicing hinduism. hinduism is for indians abrahmic people should not try to spread their believes in india leave us hindus alone alone

    • Ambaa

      I also ask that Abrahamic people leave Hindus alone. But I am a Hindu. I will never accept that somehow all Hindu souls are only born in India. To me that sounds crazy.

  • luckyfatima

    Hmmm, you say that your fascination with hijab is racist and insensitive. Why not hash out that angle of your feelings instead of indulging in them for the rest of the post? You are reading your stereotypes of Islam and covered Muslim women onto us. Islam is vast, Muslims and our practices are vast. The ways in which hijab is practiced are also vast. Islam is reduced to a “restrictive religion.” That is like some non-Hindu who reduces Hinduism to “praying for wealth from Goddess Lakshmi.” That stereotype is there, perhaps there are some people like that. But wouldn’t it show a complete lack of understanding of Hinduism to characterize Hinduism in that way? Are you referring to Islam when you say “join a religion where rules are super important” and “obey rules, get into heaven” (if only it were so simple!) and then contrast that with Hinduism, which makes you challenge yourself everyday, be thinking, and aware? That’s ironic, because for me, Islam keeps me thinking and aware…always a seeker. We should extol what we are passionate about in our religions rather than do an act of compare-contrast because that always sounds hollow. (Plenty of Muslims, Muslim preachers, etc., engage in that, and it is shallow and I don’t like it one bit! Tell me what is right about Islam, not what is inferior about Christianity or Hinduism compared to Islam!) As for hijab, it has so many different meanings to the women who wear it. It can be because we believe in a rule focused orthodox understanding of modesty in Islam. It can be cultural. It can be political. It can be reactionary (to commercialism, to Western standards of beauty), it can be about affirming a Muslim identity in a non-Muslim majority society. It can be because of social pressures in a society where most women cover. It can be a little bit of each or none at all. It is not solely about modesty. But it is all very personal. And women who wear hijab are not saintly, pure, or perfect. (Least of all me!) In societies where hijab is the norm for most women, the criminals also wear hijab. The sex-workers wear hijab. It is a really very complex, multi-faceted practice. There are various orthodox and traditionalist Muslims who would boil covering down to rhetoric on modesty, but who made them the representatives for all of Islam and Muslims? Not to mention that many believing, religious Muslim women don’t cover and don’t believe it is a requirement in Islam. Do you have a lot of friends who cover? (Besides me? :) ) Have you ever read any books about covering? If you are interested, I can recommend one. It is Leila Ahmed’s “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. She gives a good synopsis on the book that you can watch on youtube (I won’t link for fear my comment will be rejected) called “Following the Trail of Islamism and the Veil…” if you have an hour to kill. Anyway…just some food for thought if you are interested. Maybe if you know more about us, you will be less likely to fetishize our clothes :)

    • Ambaa

      When I said rule-based religion I more meant the branches of each religion that focuses more on rules. Each one has groups that focus more on getting the rules exactly right and groups that focus less on that.

      I’ve read a lot of hijab stories. I pour over personal accounts about them. I watch videos, read blogs, read books. I just don’t really know why I do.

      I know intellectually that a hijab doesn’t make someone a pure and saintly person, but I recognize that that’s the thought that comes up for me when I see it.

      I always start with observing my thoughts for a while before I start trying to shift them. Have to know exactly what I’m dealing with.

  • Govinda Malakar

    Hi Ambaa,
    Most North Indian Hindu women cover their head with the Sari whenever they step out of home.Especially Westbengal,orissa,Uttar pradesh etc. Infact in West bengal it is considered bit unchaste to not cover ones head if she is married. Yes, im talking about Hindus.
    Ofcourse these days any ppl are trying to abandon this, trying to look fasionable.

  • Sabina

    I came across this article and am curious about what people think of the reasons listed here:

    There are some reasons which I’d never considered before, but make sense as I read them- not that I would start covering my head, but that now I have a more nuanced understanding of why people might choose to.

    #7 made me think. I had known, of course, that headscarves can make a woman look more beautiful by drawing the focus to her face, and that cultural perceptions of what constitutes beauty differ (that some cultures consider the face to be more important to beauty than other parts of the body, for example). But I hadn’t thought of the angle that it encourages people to focus on the woman’s facial expressions and conversation- her thoughts and feelings. I can understand how this can be empowering, because I sometimes hate feeling conscious of my body or thinking that people are looking at my body (favorably or unfavorably) instead of listening to me.

    I also think that people have a responsibility to listen to each other and not stare at bodies when something more important is going on, and that a person shouldn’t feel she has to cover her body in order to not be ogled… but I can also see how this choice can be liberating!

    • Ambaa

      Thanks for finding that article! Very interesting read.

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