To wear or not to wear, that is the question. For an American Muslim woman, deciding whether or not to wear the headscarf — called a hijab — isn’t a fashion choice to be taken lightly. It comes with the added weight of a public declaration of faith: the burdens and joys of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, or in this case, one’s hijab.
Recently, Larycia Hawkins, a Christian professor at Wheaton College, received flak for donning a headscarf to show solidarity with Muslim women. In light of World Hijab Day, we decided to shed some light on this incident by finding out what wearing the headscarf means to Muslim women in America.
Ironically, not wearing a hijab did more to hide Maryam Adamu’s true self from the world than wearing one ever did. Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria, started wearing a headscarf just three years ago. Before that, people had no idea she was Muslim until she told them.
Adamu admitted to hiding this part of her identity from others until she was sure they were really friends.
“Making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Adamu, “I, like, Trojan horsed my Islam. ‘You’re already my friend, I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn.’ ”
Now that people can immediately see that she’s Muslim, Adamu says, they have to deal with it from the start.
This can come as a big burden to some women, especially when others can’t look beyond the hijab. Asma Uddin was a devout Pakistani woman who used to wear a headscarf, but she found that wearing the hijab began to interfere with her career as a lawyer. It came to the point where she had to choose between the two.
“I was tired of being a political spokesperson for my faith,” Uddin says. “I felt that at times I should be able to put that away, and wearing a headscarf in public doesn’t give you that luxury. I was tired of trying to prove that Muslim women in headscarves are also empowered. ‘Look at me. I’m working at a white-shoe law firm with a headscarf on!’ ”
Despite the burdens that wearing a hijab may bring, many Muslim women choose to don the headscarf to show pride in their faith. Yasmin Elhady, a civil rights attorney who was born in Egypt and raised in Alabama, encouraged the freedom of choice that exists for women — Muslim or not — in America.
“I support women who choose to wear it, who choose not to wear it,” says Elhady. “I love the fact that we are able to have that choice, and I don’t think anyone should comment on, you know, why women should wear it or shouldn’t wear it. I think that if women want to wear it in the way they want to wear it, we should be supportive of them.”
But what about non-Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab? Does the same support extend to women who don’t share the same faith? The New York Times hosted an online debate last month to address this very issue. It invited readers to respond to the question: Do non-Muslims help or hurt women by wearing hijab?
Some women shared the opinions of Asra Nomani, a Muslim woman and longtime opponent of non-Muslim women wearing headscarves out of solidarity. In 2015, Nomani wrote a provocative op-ed against the headscarf itself, arguing that it stood for oppression: “The headscarf has become a political symbol for an ideology of Islam that is exported to the world by the theocracies of the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Others women voiced their dissent against the nature of the question, including Dalia Mogahed, who does research on the American Muslim community.
“Some Muslim women wear hijab, some don’t, and it’s just not an issue — it’s a non-issue,” she wrote. “But then you have one person write an engaging article, and suddenly it’s a debate that we’re supposed to be having, that we are not having.”