Lamia Arafa, a 20-year-old Muslim student at Florida State University, wears the hijab — a scarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear — and sometimes, she says, people stare.
But instead of taking offense or feeling uncomfortable, Arafa says her hijab is “a gift” that helps her educate others about Islam and the Islamic culture.
It’s “kind of like walking around with a billboard saying, ‘I’m Muslim!’” Arafa says. “It’s a sort of a perfect conversation opener.”
Arafa, who is studying biology, has only been wearing the headscarf for a year and a half now (many start wearing it in puberty). She comes from a half-Catholic, half-Muslim family that, she says, never required her to or asked her to wear the hijab.
But her “relationship with God strengthened” as she learned more about Islam, she says, and she felt it held meaning for her. So Arafa began wearing the headscarf full time and dressing more modestly, also a tenet of her faith.
“(Adjusting to wearing) the longer sleeves was really easy, but actually putting on the headscarf was much more difficult,” Arafa says. “I understood that now I had such a responsibility on my shoulders. If I cut someone off in traffic, it wasn’t just me, Lamia, cutting someone off — now it was like Islam was cutting them off. Everyone I met from now on, when they saw me, they saw Islam, too.”
But she embraced her ambassadorship.
Now, she says, “when I see someone staring at me at a store or wherever, I’ll … casually approach them and ask, ‘Excuse me ma’am/sir, do you have any questions about Islam or the hijab that I can clear up for you? Anything you saw in the news that you want to talk about?’ And people usually do have questions.”
But while every conversation starts differently, she enjoys asking one particular question that, in her opinion, best makes her point about Islam and the negative misconceptions about her religion — one sometimes fanned by the media.
The question, she says, is, “Do you know what the word ‘Islam’ means?’ It means ‘peace.’ Most people don’t know that. When you say ‘Islamic terrorism’ you’re basically saying ‘peaceful terrorism’ — it sounds just as nonsensical in Arabic as it does in English.”
She says “jihad” — a favorite word of the media — is also misunderstood. It “basically means ‘to strive’ in the name of God, in order to be a better person. For example, when a teenage girl resists the urge to gossip about a friend, that is jihad.”
Her classmates often ask her about her hijab, too, she says. “Sometimes it’s really superficial like, ‘Does it get hot in there?’ But other times they really want to know why (I wear the hijab). I talk to whoever for however long they want about whatever it is that they want.”
Arafa says she also enjoys addressing more serious questions from her peers, such as whether the hijab is a form of oppression and if women are being forced to wear it. She says she likes to explain to them that like for many other women, wearing hijab was her choice and no one else’s.
“There’s this big idea that Muslim women are oppressed and that we’re forced into these prisons of headscarves,” Arafa says. “But in a secular sense, it very much frees me from the cultural oppression against women.
“As a young American woman, I felt oppressed by my culture to look a certain way. But putting on the hijab was kind of like (sending a message to others that), ‘No, you are not to value me on the circumference of my thigh — you’re to value me on the human that I am.’”