Wearing the Muslim veil in America: What it's like
Wearing the Muslim veil in America may cause awkward moments, but this hijabi finds more positive than negative in her choice.
I knew I was in trouble the moment I sat down. I’d just taken a seat next to an elderly Asian woman on the D-line train, on my way to a college class last year. She immediately stiffened. I began reading a book. She started twitching and looking around the train. We passed the first stop. She took out her pocket Bible, reading rapidly aloud as she rocked back and forth, clearly agitated. I felt awful, but I didn’t know how to calm her. Before we reached the next stop, she gathered her bags, hurried down the aisle, and quickly took a seat next to someone else.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Behind the veil
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I’d just scared a sweet, elderly woman with my petite, head-scarf-wrapped frame, and I felt like a monster. I was upset that my hijab – a strip of cloth, a head scarf – had become so loaded with negative connotations that it inspired such distrust.
For centuries, the West has appropriated the hijab as a symbol of oppression, subjugation, repression, and allegiance to fundamentalist beliefs. And while this may be a reality for some Muslim women around the world, it’s not true for me or those I know. Frustrated with the labels others have imposed upon them, Muslim women, including me, are reclaiming hijab and what it stands for. We are empowered and educated and choose to wear hijab because we are proud of our identity. And our experiences are generally positive.
America meets the hijab
There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in America, many of whom were born and raised here, like me. They bring attention to Islam through constructive contributions (Dalia Mogahed, this year, became the first veiled Muslim woman appointed to a presidential advisory panel), and through destructive violence (as in the case of Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan).
For good or ill, “Islam is the most discussed religion in the media,” says Ms. Mogahed, who is executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
As a result, mainstream America is encountering Islam – and hijab – as never before. Although there are no definitive studies tracking the number of hijab-wearing Muslims in the United States, experts say veiling is a growing phenomenon.
"It’s part of the American mosaic, this point at which you say to yourself, ‘How do I blend where I came from, where I am, and where I’m going?’ Muslim women simply believe ‘I can be who I am – young, bright, upwardly mobile – without having to completely let go of my identity.’ ”
'You're in America now, honey'
I began wearing hijab in ninth grade, not because anyone told me to, but because I believed that it is compulsory in Islam. I was the only hijabi (Muslim slang for a person who wears hijab) in my upstate New York school, and my head scarf occasionally made me squirm self-consciously, but it also spared me from the identity angst my non-Muslim friends were experiencing. I was comfortable in my hijab, and in my skin.