What my Muslim-American BFF taught me about wearing a hijab

We all have a best friend — that one girl (or guy) that we just jam with — the jelly to our peanut butter, the Jay-Z to our Kanye, the milk to our tea. I love my bestie because she is pretty damn hilarious, raps Drake tunes perfectly, and is always down for lazy nargile-and-beach-soaked afternoons. Another thing about my best friend: she’s a Muslim-American woman who sometimes wears a hijab. That fact that I don’t — or that she does — is not something I think about often; But every now and then—when I witness pervasive religious intolerance and misinformed, anti-Muslim sentiments in the media—I feel especially protective of my BFF.

If we are to judge reality based on news coverage, the cultural dissonance that exists between non-Muslim Americans and the broad — and varied — Muslim community is becoming more and more discordant. The only way to bridge the gap is through real and invested understanding.

One positive step came earlier this month with World Hijab day, which offered non-Muslim women the chance to spend the day wearing a hijab to better understand the Muslim-American experience. And yesterday’s viral video featuring 100 years of Iranian beauty —the third part in a series on cultural beauty evolutions—offered a broader audience a brief education in Iran’s history of the hijab, and served as a reminder, in its similarities to previous videos, that we’re all not as different as we think.

I decided the best way for me to learn about hijabs was through some real talk with my BFF — that unwavering rock of a woman who has been my shoulder and my listening-ear for nearly a decade. She doesn’t wear a hijab every day, but she sometimes chooses to.

Here’s what I learned over the course of a very long – and very giggly – conversation.

It’s really a personal choice.
Yes, there are places in the world where women are required to cover up – and that isn’t cool – but for most women in the U.S., it’s a choice made after a lot of consideration. While many women may choose to begin covering their head in high school, others wait until later in life, and even more choose not to wear a head covering of any kind. Ever. And that’s totally OK. The idea that all women wearing the hijab are doing so out of subservience to men is totally misinformed and insulting to many women.

And having the right to choose for oneself is so feminist.
You might not be used to hearing the words “feminism” and “Islam” used together but when a woman has agency, she has the power of choice. And what is more empowering, or more feminist, than the right to decide for yourself as a woman what is best for your well-being and happiness? Answer: Not much.

How you view hijab also has a lot to do with culture.
My friend is Pakistani American, so – as she tells me – it’s common for women to wear a loose shawl over their head as a hijab. But that’s much different than the abayas we associate with places like the UAE. So, how women interpret hijab, the type of covering and the extent of that covering has a lot to do with their culture or where they’re living.

Hijab isn’t about stopping “male temptation,” but having control over the way you are seen.
I think the most powerful and most insightful thing my friend told me about the hijab was that it wasn’t about keeping men looking away from women, or protecting women from big ol’ creeps (it doesn’t), but it was about letting women decide how they want to be seen. By taking the focus off their looks or dress, and by dressing more modestly, women are allowed to have the focus be on other aspects of who they are. The world is an effed up place and it devotes a lot of time to judging women’s bodies, but when a woman (chooses) to wear a headscarf, she has a chance to change the conversation.

Just because you choose to cover your head, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style.
Just because a woman decides to keep her hair covered or chooses to dress more conservatively, it doesn’t mean she can’t let her clothes express her personality. In reality, there are a lot of people making fashion specifically with Muslim women in mind. My friend is a part-time sartorial connoisseur and often introduces me to designers whose clothes boast being both modest and elegant — and I admit, I drool over them too.

I will always remember a short story I read about two women — one was a hijabi and one was not. It went like this: in Turkey, two women make eye contact while out shopping and they immediately assume the other is judging her while also making judgments about the other woman. The woman who does wear a hijab believes the more secular woman is looking down on her for her conservative dress and feels oppressed by that assumption. The woman in the secular dress thinks the woman wearing the hijab is judging her for showing more skin while also finding the woman’s hijab to be problematic. Neither woman talks to each other.

Let’s never be like those women.

[Image via Cut.com/100 Years of Beauty: Iran]

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