I remember donning the hijab for the first time three years ago. I say it was the first time, but really it was one of many times that I had slipped it on, standing in front of the mirror and adjusting the folds of fabric around my face. Yet this time was different. Rather than take it off after prayer or a visit to the local masjid (mosque), I was hoping to wear it regularly.
It was sometime in winter during my freshman year of college at Northwestern, and I had spent my first three months of college searching for my place among thousands of students. Like any freshmen, I had several identifying factors that felt true, things that I felt could not go unmentioned as I sought out the people who would become my closest friends. These included everything from my taste in books and music to my leftist political stance, but also my religion.
As a Muslim growing up in a post 9/11 world, I was accustomed to misconceptions about my religion, my race, and my identity. I was acutely aware of the way I navigated the world as a brown body, and how experiences of hate and injustice only magnified themselves when my mother (wearing hijab) or my sister (darker with characteristic African hair) accompanied me places. My body, in spite of its brown shade, was still in the liminal world of racial ambiguity, a place where I could pass into whiteness when it seemed convenient. There were few markers of my race and my religion. In spite of this, however, I had often felt that my religion was not something to be shed or stifled and hidden for the sake of others, for the sake of their comfort. I did not shy away from my heritage, my deeply Egyptian roots, the pride I felt for Africa and Arabia and Islam. They were the places that made me a blank-American, someone different.
That day in winter, as a lonely and homesick freshman, I remembered that being different was far from wanting or choosing to be different. That, in fact, I was not in control of my narrative so long as I still sought the acceptance of those who might never want to understand me. My desire to wear hijab increased in that moment. Hijab became a symbol of my rejection of white-passing (or at the very least racial ambiguity), a privilege I was distinctly aware I had, and that I knew was not afforded to many of my fellow non-white Americans.
While hijab has historically had a reputation of being a number of things to “the West,” rebellion has rarely been one of them. Certainly among many Muslims and in many Muslim nations it is often considered a sign of piety, or at the very least culture and respect. Yet rebellion, or perhaps a better word is resistance, is one of the many reasons many Muslims wear hijab.
In fact, in the 1970s and ’80s, after a period of secularism, many Muslim majority countries were undergoing an Islamic revival, where the society (not the political regimes) responded to its conditions by adopting religion again. It was a reversal of the Westernisation approach, undermining the belief of my grandparents’ generation that the West was strengthening Muslim nations. My mother describes choosing the hijab in college during the ’80s, a little after this revival. Her parents, the previous generation, rejected her decision; theirs was an era where few women wore hijab, where much of the traditional clothing was left behind in favor of western attire, where alcohol was widely accepted rather than forbidden.
Many American Muslims wear hijab much like the women of the Islamic revival, as a response to the changing times and a rejection of Western influence. While it seems counter-intuitive to wear hijab in a world that increasingly has a negative perception of Muslims, particularly when the consensus among many American Muslims is that one can be religious with our without it, there is a significant presence of American Muslim women wearing the hijab as a strong sense of identity. As one of these women, I know and have insight to a representation of hijab that is rarely portrayed — a representation that I call the American hijab, the antithesis and retaliation to whiteness and the American media, and a nod of solidarity to other people of color.
In this sense, hijab, rather than strictly being a religious decision, is also a sociopolitical choice and representation. In spite of, or rather in response to, the negative portrayal of Muslims by those (Muslims and non-Muslims) who seek to define our narrative as one of barbaric killing and atrocity, women choose hijab — a piece of cloth that declares their identity as Muslims while simultaneously expressing their individual identity as smart, driven, successful, and independent. A simple yet powerful message. A way in which Muslim women can reclaim their narrative.
In choosing to wear the hijab, American Muslim women reconstruct the narrative of Islam in America. More importantly, they define American Islam and celebrate its rich cultural treasures: Islamic songs by Cat Stevens after his conversion, legendary icons like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a deep sense of community that transcends immigrant heritage to become a new national heritage of its own, a style of hijab and clothing developed to bring together Islamic tradition from across the globe.
This American Islam has blossomed in many forms: the Mipsters (Muslim hipsters), Muppies (Muslim Urban Professionals), IMAN (Inner-city Muslim Action Network), and many more coalitions of young Muslim Americans who bring together their cross-cultural heritage — their America and their Islam — and share it with the world on a daily basis, through creative productions, concerts, health clinics and activist movements. While each coalition and organization has its own goals, they share a young, vibrant population of men and women alike with a common religious ideology, but also a sociopolitical identity.
In the same vein, American Muslim women have created communities for hijabi fashion. With blogs, magazines, a strong social media presence, conferences, and more, these women are the epitome of the American hijab as an intricate sociopolitical identity. Instagram is littered with photos of stylish, smart women redefining the traditional garment, following the lead of women like international popstar Yuna. In their defiance of social convention, American Muslim women wearing hijab have paved the way for others and developed a sense of social consciousness and social justice among themselves.
While this story of resistance may seem new, it is not unique to Muslim women. It is a story that rings true for many individuals of color, whether it manifests itself as choosing to don an afro or to participate in the traditions of our non-American ancestors. It is the story of rejecting social pressure, of rejecting the influence of western media and the western world, and of choosing to openly and clearly declare our difference in a society that readily rejects us as part of its narrative.
The choice is embracing that difference and declaring it before anyone else can. This often means representing entire worlds, but it also means liberation from the pressures that society imposes with respect to beauty, identity, race, and culture. At the end of the day when I have fears about continuing to represent my faith without trepidation, I remember that I wear my hijab for the empowerment it grants me in declaring where I stand in a world that — more often than not — is in opposition to all that I am.
I remind myself of the power and privilege of having the choice to decide whether I am explicitly seen or unseen for my difference, and for the ability to pass. While hijab is important to me as both a religious and sociopolitical statement, it is not my skin. At the end of the day, it is a piece of fabric that can be shed. Yet it is my way of acknowledging the unique responsibility and burden that people of color share with respect to teaching others about their identities. To my brothers and sisters of color out there: solidarity.
Mariam Gomaa is a recent graduate of Northwestern University.