I didn’t see a hijab in real life until high school — the result of growing up in a homogenous Chicago suburb. So I was admittedly unsure what to make of it at first.
I knew hijabs were somehow tied to Islam. But it was an outward expression of faith I wasn’t comfortable with — especially since it was exclusive to women. I felt it was unfair. Why would men and women be held to such different standards?
There is a greater western stigma associated with the hijab — that it actively subordinates women and reinforces old-time patriarchal structures. But despite being such a macroscopic cultural, political and moral issue, wearing a head covering is an extremely personal and significant decision that women make.
My high school mind failed to recognize that the bulk of Muslim women in the U.S., in fact, choose to wear hijabs. In certain countries, laws require women to cover themselves to varying degrees, but in the U.S. there are no such laws.
Amina Hassan began wearing a hijab in kindergarten, at first just copying her mother. But over the years it has become a symbol of modesty and closeness with her faith. She admits that it can be irritating when she is questioned or sometimes even criticized for covering her head.
“If you knew me, you’d know that I want to wear it,” Hassan said. ”It’s pretty frustrating that I have to explain myself.”
Hassan is adamant that her decision to wear a hijab was her own, and that she never felt pressured by anyone. So one could imagine her choler when the occasional peer criticizes her for covering her head.
Growing up in Senegal, Atsan Senghor only wore head coverings to pray, which she says is the general norm in her country. Despite not regularly covering her head, she highly regards the women that do.
“I have a ton of respect for girls that choose to wear their hijabs,” Senghor said. “It’s pride, not oppression.”
Senghor said that some of her Senegalese friends in the U.S. and Canada started covering their heads when they moved west, as a means of strengthening their religious pride and identity. However she cautions that it should really be up to women to decide for themselves.
“I respect it more when you know it is a personal choice rather than something that’s forced on you,” Senghor said. ”It should really be something you want to do.”
Arif Alshahrani, a male Saudi Arabian student, argues that although the hijab has historical patriarchal roots things are changing — which often goes unrecognized in conversations regarding its ethics. Although it is the law in Saudi Arabia for women to cover everything but their face and hands in public, he is adamant that, albeit paradoxical, women still make the choice.
“The man does not force the woman to wear the hijab,” Alshahrani said. ”She chooses for her religion. They do it for God.”
From a non-Muslim view, it is too easy to objectify the hijab — to see it only for its prescribed cultural implications.
We hear that the wearing of head coverings actively oppresses women. We hear that it is inherently patriarchal. But why do people so rarely consider the voice of women wearing hijabs? And what right do outsiders really have to criticize a decision that often brings greater peace, empowerment and stronger sense of identity to Muslim women?
Women in hijabs don’t want sympathy. They don’t need pity, either. They are proud of their hijabs, regardless of any perceived significance.