Wearing the Hijab for the First Time
Essay by Najla Ghazi Amundson
I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, to Muslim parents from Aleppo, Syria. We lived in an upper-middle class suburb, predominately white and Christian. My parents had doctoral degrees. Dad was an engineer at a large company and mom stayed home with my younger sister, brother, and me. My parents spoke Arabic at home and we responded in English. Our family did not attend Mosque, we did not fast nor did we celebrate Muslim holidays. The women in my family did not wear hijabs. But I knew I was Muslim. My parents taught me that being Muslim was a way of life. I learned about my religion when I asked questions, when I listened to my parents converse, from the rules of our home and the choices I was taught to make. My religion was also strongly tied to my ethnicity. To be Muslim was to be part of the Arab culture.
I grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, during the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Iran hostage crisis. That’s when Nightline first went on the air and Ted Koppel began each show with the number of days the hostages had been in captivity. Then the oil crisis. Neighbor kids would tell me my family should go back to where we came from and ask why my Dad didn’t wear a rag on his head. Just as I emerged as a new television reporter, the first Gulf War erupted. My beat was the local Air Force base. Most of my reports focused on National Guard troops being shipped off to Iraq. Then, there was 9/11 and now we have the ongoing “War on Terror” making Arab and Muslim synonymous with terrorist and anti-American.
I maintained a particular identity and I guarded it heavily. As an elementary student, I didn’t look like my blonde-haired and blue-eyed classmates, but I tried to appear like them as much as possible in clothing, hair, behavior, and talk. This emphasis on mainstream appearance hit a high in college when I represented my state in the Miss America Pageant. I also had chosen a career in broadcast journalism and became a well-recognized figure in my community as an evening television anchor. My position placed an emphasis on appearance.
As I saw it, the only way to relate the “I” to “we” was to blend into the dominant culture. So as I got older and gained more control over my own decisions, I took the route of least resistance. I spent much of my life not discussing my religion, or even my ethnicity. My parents knew what I was doing and so did I. They never said anything. I am sure they were ashamed of my choices. But some things are difficult to talk about. I wasn’t strong enough to be without a “we.”
The decision to wear the hijab and write an autoethnography came about quickly. I came up with the idea about a year ago, but decided the timing wasn’t right. The night before the fall semester began, I was home with my husband, children and one of my friends, Anna (also a graduate student). I brought up the idea again and Anna enthusiastically encouraged me to follow through on it.
I wasn’t so sure.
From an upstairs closet, I dug out a headscarf someone had sent my boys from overseas. I fiddled around with the black and white checkered fabric, trying to remember how I had seen others wear it. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I imagined what others would see.
I scanned Google for more information on hijabs. I wanted to know what it should look like. I had several scarves from the Middle East, but I thought they might be for men. I did not want to wear anything that would be unconvincing or worse yet, disrespectful.
I found a site called “Hijabs R Us,” which made us laugh out loud. We scanned some other sites, awed by the hijab “fashion world.” One site claimed it sold the newest trends in hijabs. Trendy hijabs? Who knew? They came in a dizzying assortment of colors, patterns and fabrics.
All I thought about that night was the following day. I wondered how long would I need to wear the hijab to get my study done.
Wearing the Hijab
I wore a hijab for eight days. It is 7:50 a.m. when I enter class. I look at my class for only a split second as I enter. About 12 of them look at me at once. There is a sense of surprise or uncertainty in their eyes. But I can’t look at them for any longer. I look down and don’t look at them for at least eight minutes. Why can’t I look? Why do I feel like I can’t look rather than I chose not to look or didn’t look?
I go to the board and write the day’s list of activities. As I face the board I keep thinking about them looking at me. When I finish I take a quick count of the students and see that I still have several missing so I say we’ll wait to start to make sure everyone can get here. My voice doesn’t even sound like my voice. It sounds quiet and it almost cracks. When I finally begin speaking I am so careful not to add uhms or ahs. I don’t want them to think I’m incompetent.
They are all smiling at me. Big smiles. Interesting. Do I have something on my face? Oh – I have something on my head. That couldn’t be it, could it? Maybe they’re relieved I don’t have an accent? Wow, they really smile a lot.
At least for the first two days I wore the hijab, there was a noticeable difference in my verbal and non-verbal communication patterns. I did not smile as freely as I normally would. I stood as though I was at attention. I did not use hand gestures often and I did not use the space in front of the classroom to walk around. I felt uncomfortable with eye contact.
My voice was monotone. I revealed little personal information except for the basics such as education and professional experience and some information about my family. In the past, I have revealed a lot about my personal likes and dislikes, my children, my dogs, my parents; you name it. I tell jokes, smile and really work at making the students relax.
Power and Feminism
The tremendous anxiety I felt about wearing the hijab was soon replaced by a sense of power and control. I was making a statement. Through the hijab, I was shouting to others, “I am Muslim and your dominance does not make me fearful of you!” There was also a sense of respect that wearing the veil commanded. The ability to stand out as unique amid a sea of hegemony says I am fearless. I have the confidence and pride to show you who I am.
I took one of my first big ventures outside of campus with my mother-in-law. We went to a craft fair in a city park on a Saturday afternoon. I asked if she was OK going to the fair with me wearing the hijab. She said, “I don’t care. I know who you are.” So we went. Here I am, wearing this hijab at a craft fair. I mean, a craft fair is about as all-American, Midwestern as it gets. As I walked around looking at the folksy Americana looking stuff, I noticed that people would glance at me and then look away. But their diverted glances only made me feel more certain of myself. I felt a growing confidence in who I was and where I come from. People knew as soon as they saw me: I am Muslim. In many ways, it was a relief to finally come out.
Wearing the veil also left me feeling the burden of physical appearance had been lifted. The notion of woman as object rather than person is embedded in our cultural psyche. By covering myself I was uncovering my humanness. I could not be judged on physical appearance because there was nothing to see.
I am part of a religious culture in spirit but I am physically separated from others who share my beliefs. I am part of an ethnic culture, but am one of the few Arabs living in my community. I am part of American culture but it is blended with the culture of my parents’ country of origin. So what happens when your cultural background is not purebred? While my DNA is primarily Middle Eastern, my being is influenced by multiple cultures. I am Arab, American, Muslim, Liberal, Feminist, Mother, Daughter, Scholar, Writer, Journalist, Wife, and Friend. I feel connected to my ethnicity, my religion, my heritage, my family, and my career. I don’t want to use the word “belong” here. Because belonging is subjective. One may be a member of a culture, but whether they sense a belonging to that culture or group can only be known to that person.
One particularly revealing illustration of this was a conversation I had with my eldest son, Zachary. He wanted to be taken to his seventh grade registration.
When I told him we could go he said, “Can you take that off?” He didn’t think I should have to wear it to his school. I was wearing it to my school – wasn’t that enough? After trying to persuade me to change my mind, he gave up. He said it was more important to him to find out about his classes than it was to be worried about what I was wearing. I asked him why he wouldn’t want me to go with him like that. He said his friends would ask him all sorts of questions – it would be the talk of the 7th grade for a while and he would have to explain it to EVERYONE.
I called his father and said, “Zach would like you to take him to orientation. Maybe you could come home early to do it today, or maybe tomorrow?” Zach began to sob.
He cried, “You are brave enough to go out with it on and I’m not brave enough to have you come with me to school! I feel bad. I am not ashamed of you, I just don’t want my friends saying anything about you!”
I hugged him and said, “Zach – I know you are not ashamed of me. But this study shouldn’t affect you.” I told him, don’t feel guilty about not wanting me to come to school. If this were a life-changing decision I was making, that would be different. We would need to deal with this. But, this isn’t a life-changing decision.
Looking back on this conversation, I find it interesting that I thought of this study as not life-changing. In hindsight it really was life-changing. I didn’t realize it then, but it has and will continue to affect the way I see myself. I am freed now to call myself a Muslim.
I briefly considered taking off the hijab for him. Peeling off one part of my identity to focus on another – but decided against it. What does this mean in terms of hybrid identities? Is it possible to be American, Muslim, Arab, all in harmony or is there something about the hierarchy in the American system that does not allow for that. Are we really a melting pot?
It is Sunday morning and my husband and I enjoy our weekly ritual of drinking coffee and reading the paper together. My husband is of Norwegian descent. He was born and raised in northern Minnesota in a town of about 1,200 people. He does not like to draw attention to himself nor does he completely understand why anyone would want to. I know as we sit there, he wants to broach the subject of my hijab. I know he is curious, and perhaps a bit anxious about it.
“So .. When do you plan to take it off?” he asks.
“I’m not sure yet. Why? Does it bother you?” I ask.
“Well. I suppose not. I’m just wondering when you’ll be done.”
I decide to step up the conversation a notch. Something I tend to do, and something he tends to dislike.
“Well, how would you feel if I chose to do this forever?” I say.
He blinks slowly and looks at me knowing what I am doing.
“I think we would need to talk about that,” he says calmly.
“So, you wouldn’t accept me as a Muslim woman?”
“I married a Muslim woman, but I didn’t marry someone who wears a veil. There is a difference.”
So, symbolically, the hijab does much more than simply state “I am Muslim.”
Several weeks after my study, I was listening to one of my favorite morning radio shows. One of the hosts made a racist comment about the Muslim religion. I was so bothered by it, I turned off the radio and vowed never to listen again. Now, the “old me” (the one prior to wearing the hijab) would have left it at that. That would have been my contribution to the situation: To get angry and to do nothing. If I did something, it would mean revealing my religion. I got to my office and couldn’t work because I struggled with the question, “What will you do with your privilege?”
I knew what I had to do.
I wrote an e-mail to the radio host and explained that his comment disappointed me. I said, I am a Muslim and I know we are all not like the comment you made.
I have never made it known I was Muslim. I knew that by telling the host of a radio morning show, it would possibly come out the next day in a way that might not be favorable. Instead, I received a lovely e-mail back that said he had made a mistake and he would talk about it on the show the next day. He did not want to perpetuate generalizations.
That was a huge step for me. Wearing the hijab has connected me with my religious and cultural identity. I feel more part of the “we” even though distance separates me from others who are like me. I feel more at peace with the mix of identities that make me who I am. This increased comfort has also created a new desire to continue making connections to my heritage. I have taken an interest in learning Arabic. I hope to have my father take my boys to the Mosque. I have made mental plans to attend a wedding in Syria next summer. I hope to take my two older boys with me.
My feeling of vulnerability lessens each day. Today, rather than continually suppress the subordinate parts of my identity, I let them be fluid and free. My identity is still in motion and I expect it always will be.