by Asiyah Syed
It happened first when I was signing myself into an event, and a sister from the Muslim Student Association (MSA) was at the table asked the girl in front of me if she was one of the people who participated in wearing the hijab for the day. When the girl responded that she was, the sister lit up, gushing that this was her favorite event of Islam Awareness Week and began to beg her for a sneak preview of her experience. The girl began to talk about how it wasn’t bad, though she did get the funniest inquiries by her roommates about why she was wearing it when she’s white, at which point I had signed in, gotten a name tag, and decided that I would leave before the portion of the event in which all the girls who participated in “Hijab Day” would recount their experiences.
My MSA hosts an annual Islam Awareness Week (IAW) meant to destigmatize being Muslim on campus by putting on a series of events which the greater campus community is invited to join in order to learn more about Islam from Muslims on campus as well as prominent Muslim figures from the local community. During the day, they run stalls in front of the library inviting non-Muslim campus members to learn about different aspects of Islam and attend the program being held that night, which range from ice cream socials to talks on Islam’s relationship to social justice. One event, however, takes place each year. One day of IAW is always designated as “Hijab Day,” in which MSA sisters hold information stalls about the hijab and what it means. They also provide hijabs for non-Muslim girls on campus to wear for a day, and invite them to attend dinner in the evening in which they will share their thoughts about it.
Last year, I attended the entire “Hijab Day” dinner. First, there was a talk from Dalia Mogahed I will never forget. Following that, the MSA invited sisters who did wear the hijab on stage to speak about their experiences, which was moving to witness as it became evident how important this aspect of their faith was to them, and how they wouldn’t be cowed into diminishing their Muslim identity to make anyone comfortable. The event took a turn once the girls took the stage to talk about what it was like wearing hijabs for a day. I hadn’t considered the implications of this deeply until that moment, when girl after girl recounted how they didn’t find it to be “that bad,” how they navigated the world about the same despite maybe being a bit nervous, with perhaps a confused look or even a compliment on it being the most notable events of the day.
I am sympathetic to the reasoning behind including a day like this every year. So many of the issues surrounding Islamophobia result from dominant narratives in news and entertainment media portraying it as an extremist monolith devoid of individualism and antithetical to the western world. In inviting non-Muslims to share in an experience like wearing the hijab, it allows for them to have a glimpse of how some Muslims live, which is supposed to foster a deeper understanding of what it is like being Muslim in the west. However, in doing so, the event implicitly enforces the idea that marginalization must be tried on by allies to be understood. In inviting non-Muslims on campus to try on the hijab, the MSA is operating on the idea that it is not enough for allies to listen to the experiences of sisters who wear the hijab to understand it better, inherently diminishing the humanity of those sisters by diminishing the weight of their voices. I am also sympathetic to the people who participate in this, as they are allies in the sense that the community invites them to do this and thus any harm they engender is unintentional. But intentions are important in Islam, and if these allies were truly coming into the Muslim spaces with intentions to understand them better, they should be conscious of how they don’t need to try a religious practice to understand it, especially one that has become target for violence. Though I’ve become sick of being traumatized by stories of violence against the Muslim community, I cannot talk about the hijab while ignoring the acts of violence that result from it. Non-Muslims trying on the hijab for a day and talking about how it didn’t really affect them pales in importance when considering sisters like Nabra Hassanen, who lost her life last summer in an act of violence, as well the stories that I am sure our MSA sisters have about harassment they’ve faced. While I am firmly against only considering violence and death when talking about the Muslim community, I do think it is necessary to consider because the allies who get to try the hijab on for a day ignore the privilege they have in being able to have a target on for one day and take it off the next.
The importance of this day and IAW is couched in da’wah at my campus, with one imam actually calling it “Da’wah Week.” I don’t disagree with him in thinking of IAW as important work that teaches the non-Muslim community a lot about Islam and spreads Islam’s message in the way it was meant to: by Muslims. This particular aspect of many such events put on university campuses by Muslim student organizations is misguided in its attempt at da’wah, though. I don’t remember the experiences the girls detailed last year about wearing the hijab for a day, and I didn’t stay to hear them this year because I knew it would be much of the same. What I do remember, and may never forget, was my sister who went up to dispel misconceptions about the hijab, saying that it may cover her head, but not her mind. Instances like that are far more moving and taught me more about how to worship Allah than any ‘ally’ could.
Image: Wasima Farah