I was terrified.
What would people think? Worse, what would people say to me? Would those who know me treat me differently? Would strangers judge me? Would I be on the receiving end of derogatory comments from passerby's? Am I really brave enough to do this? Would I still feel beautiful? Would I feel like myself? Am I making a mistake? These are just some of the questions that were running laps in my mind, constantly, endlessly.
It was summer break. June 16, 2015. I was on my college's campus in Carlisle, Pennsylvania doing research with a professor and a fellow student/friend. There weren't too many other students on campus at the time - maybe 10 or so, that I knew of. A lot of planning went into that day.
Since I was much younger, I knew that I wanted to wear the hijab someday, to fulfill my duties as a Musliminah. I would watch constantly hijab tutorials by Dina Tokio and Nura Afia (my two favourite YouTubers) even though I wasn't hijabi. That "someday" was a distant time, though, after I had gotten married, had a few children, and was probably in my late 30's or 40's. There were a few reasons for this. For one, I was scared how people would react to me making that decision, so I would just put it off until I had the courage. Another reason is that it's honestly all I've ever known from my own family: my own mother didn't start wearing it on a regular basis until well into her adulthood, and only one of my aunts wears it regularly (simply because the hijab, in this sense, isn't as common in Pakistan: it is much more common to loosely toss your duputa (loose shawl) over your hair when you are in a conservative area or during the adhan/prayer times). The only people I really knew who wear the hijab, in this sense, were a couple of friends who had worn it since childhood, and some of my friend's mother's. Another reason is because I wanted to become the perfect Muslim woman before I took on such a (what I thought was) such a huge responsibility of representing ALL Muslims.
I was inspired to change my mind, and wear the hijab as soon as I felt ready by my beautiful friend Salam. I met her when I moved back to Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia in 2007, and we instantly hit it off and became friends. I really adore(d) her. I was honestly shocked (in the best way possible) though when I saw her new profile picture on Facebook: her in a hijab, as an official hijabi! She was the first person I knew of who made this decision as an adult (as I said previously, most of the other people I knew who were hijabi had been wearing it since around middle school). I felt so proud of her. Not because she was wearing the hijab or becoming more pious, but rather because she was brave enough to know what she wanted and to be able to do that in post 9/11 Texas. I don't know, maybe other people don't really see how significant this really is, but to me it was such a brave, courageous act of my friend. It was this event that really inspired me, and was the spark that lit my flame.
Honestly, I also wanted to show the world what your sane, normal, average Muslim is like. Not ISIS. (See my reflection though - I've kind of changed my mind about this. While I am a representation of your everyday Muslim, I don't like having that burden. Can't I just represent me and not an entire faith group?)
During my college career, I became good friends with two girls: Samah, an exchange student from (if I remember correctly) Jordan, and Iman, both of whom were the only hijabi students on our college campus during the time they were here. I thought that was so brave of them both... to stand out among 2,500 other students: to be the only hijabi in our whole school. After seeing their bravery as well, I realized that if they can do it, maybe I can too. Their bravery continued to add fuel to my flame.
Februaryish, 2015: I woke up one day and realized that whether I'm ready or not, this is something I want to do. I want to be a hijabi. I decided to wait until the summer, because I felt that if I just started wearing it randomly in the middle of the semester, I would feel way too self-conscious in my small classes. I was already almost always the sole minority/POC in my classes - I didn't want to further emphasize that. I was scared, though, that I might chicken out between February and summer time. I learned something from my 101 social psychology class: if you tell others of your commitment to something, you are less likely to break that commitment. Hence why people have elaborate wedding ceremonies with hundreds of guests: it makes them, psychologically, less prone to being unfaithful because they took these oaths in front of so many others. Anyways, based on that, I decided I should tell someone my little revelation, because if I told someone then I would be less likely to chicken out later. I told two of my closest friends. Then, I told my colleagues at my school's office of religious life. Then, I told some of my other close friends. Then, I told Iman, and told her how her courage inspired me as well. Eventually, maybe 2 weeks before I began wearing it, I told my family too.
Between February and June, I went on a hijab shopping spree, and ordered 20 or 30 scarves from (my now favourite) online hijab store, www.hearthijab.co.uk. I also ordered a bunch of "hijab-friendly" clothing, ie. dresses, full sleeved shirts, skirts, and so forth. I knew the more effort and money I put into this, the less likely I would be to chicken out.
When Ramadan was finally around the corner in June, I knew I couldn't push this off much more. If I was going to start wearing the hijab, now was the best time. About a week (or perhaps less) before the date I had promised myself I would start wearing the hijab, I went through all my thousands of Facebook photos, untagging myself. I figured this would be more convenient for me than creating a whole new profile. I also went through my Instagram and deleted all my selfies where my hair was showing. It was as tedious as it sounds, but more-so than that, it was really hard. I felt like I was almost murdering my identity by untagging myself from all those photos... This is who I was/this is who I am. Why do I have to hide it? Those who know me well know I am big on self-reflection. I absolutely LOVE looking through old photos and seeing how I have changed, both physically and as a person. Therefore, to be untagging myself/deleting photos and burying my entire past was really, really difficult for me. It made me second guess my decision. I kept asking myself, am I really ready for this?
After spending hours doing that, when I was finally finished, I cried. I was scared. I felt vulnerable. I felt confused. I messaged someone close to me and just started typing all my feelings out without really thinking about what I was saying. I eventually came to the conclusion that I was like a caterpillar in the process of building her cocoon. I only knew life as a caterpillar before, and yet I was undergoing a self-transformation, not knowing what would happen after my metamorphosis, but hoping for the best.
Then, the day I decided I would become hijabi came around. My friends were eagerly waiting for me to wake up so they could help me pick my outfit. And guess what? I chickened out. I woke up, and said nope. Not today. I can't do it today. Tomorrow.
Then, tomorrow came and I told myself I can't push this anymore. It's now or it's never. So I tried on 10 different outfits, none of which I felt like myself in, but eventually just decided to go with jeans, an orangey cardigany thing, a full sleeved white shirt, and a pink scarf. My friends had helped me pick it out. I felt strange. I really just didn't feel like ME. But then, after staring at myself for about 5 minutes, I decided that butterflies don't feel like "me" right when they open their wings for the first time either. I decided to just go with it and see what happens. If I really, really didn't have a good experience, I would just take it off...
I walked outside. My heart POUNDING. I was SO nervous. I was scared what people would say. Carlisle isn't exactly known to be diverse... I was scared someone may say something mean to me. I was scared people would treat me differently. I was scared of so many things. I walked from factory (my dorm/apartment complex) to Kaufman (the psychology building at my college), which was maybe a 5 minute walk. It was the scariest 5 minute walk of my life, even though no one even saw me, haha. When I got there, I quickly unlocked my room, ran in and shut the door. Phew. I survived. Then, instead of doing my work (sorry Professor Kingston!) I smiled. I laughed to myself. I danced. I rejoiced. I took a hundred and one selfies, sent a bunch of snapchats, and I felt really proud of myself. I did it. I walked outside as a hijabi!
The walk back was equally scary, but I felt more confident. I felt more me. The next day, I saw some of my friends, and they kept telling me how beautiful I looked. I believed them. It took me about 2 weeks to honestly, really start feeling like ME with the hijab on, but everyday was easier and easier. I realized that all my worries, for the most part, were bogus. Everyone was so nice to me! When school started again in the fall, people I had never spoken to before would come up to me and tell me that they support me and my choice, that they love my new change, that they think I look beautiful, and so worth.
One really memorable moment for me was about 2 weeks after I started wearing the hijab, I went out for brunch with my friend. We went to a diner somewhere really in town (ie. not right next to the college I study at). I was still super self conscious at the time. An old man was looking at me for a while. I assumed the worst. Eventually, he said "Excuse me?" and my heart raced.. I thought he would say a string of nasty comments (I know - this was my OWN bias) about me, Islam, how I was oppressed, or so forth. But instead, he said, "You have a beautiful smile." It is, to this date, the sweetest, most memorable compliment anyone has ever given to me. It wasn't just a compliment; it was a realization that while I was so worried about how others would judge me, I was actually judging them.
Today marks one year from that day, and I couldn't be more proud of myself. I have learned so much through this year, and I want to share some of my reflections below.
In the Muslim community, everyone holds hijabis up to a higher standard than they do regular folk. Hijabis are seen as these angelic individuals who are supposed to be PERFECT, because they are the most visible representation of Islam and Muslims. They're absolutely not allowed to make any mistakes. This is something that really kept me from wearing the hijab and scared me a lot when I started wearing it. I'm. Not. Perfect. As much as I wish I was something else (mermaid, please), I'm human. All hijabis are! And humans make mistakes, and I wish the Muslim community would stop holding hijabis at a higher standing.
An example of this is, on 9gag someone posted a photo of a woman breastfeeding her baby. In the comments section, everyone was saying how disgusting this is and how she should cover up, etc. Baffled (um... how is showing off one's breasts for advertising a men's cologne relevant OR necessary, whereas feeding your child totally is), I commented something like, "I don't see what's wrong with this," only to receive a ton of "you're a hijabi, you should know better!" replies. Wut.
2. Hijabis shouldn't be responsible to represent anyone except themselves.
Being a hijabi means you are automatically, visibly, a representation of "Islam", of "Muslims". This is only so because we, as societies, place such emphasis on this. We, as humans, create schemas and cognitive maps; stereotypes. If we could all stop though, and realize that an individual doesn't represent anyone but themselves (in all senses of this), that'd be great. That being said, it is important that we all realize that we might be the only X a person knows. For example, I might be the only Muslim someone knows... And therefore, it is, in a way, my duty to represent my faith well. Simply because our minds are built that way.
3. People are curious.
While in Carlisle, I was stared at a lot. I would often joke and say that I feel like a zoo animal. Initially, it would really annoy me, because it would just constantly remind me of that I'm a minority (I was one of two hijabis at Dickinson during the past year). Then, I realized that most people are just curious. Maybe they haven't seen too many people like me, or any at all. Now, when I find someone (curiously) staring, I smile at them.
My school's Muslim Students Association did an event, basically Hijabi for a Day. About 20ish girls participated, which was simply amazing. People are curious and they want to know more. And that's honestly all I can ask for. For people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to continue learning about each other's faiths, cultures, backgrounds, and so forth to really create a deeper understanding of one another.
4. The good outweighs the bad.
While some nasty things have been said to me since I became a hijabi (terrorist, for example...), the good totally outweighs the bad. So many more sweet, encouraging, and kind remarks have been made than nasty ones. Like, exponentially more. It is in our nature to remember the bad things and forget the good, but I make an effort to be conscious of that mental fallacy.
5. You could be the most shiny, deepest red apple in the world, and there would still be people who hate you.
What I mean by this is that, no matter what you do, there will always be someone who doesn't approve. There will always be someone who thinks that I am oppressed and don't realize it (seriously guys, I know I have 3 older brothers and a father, but really... no one forced me into this. In fact, my parents often tell me that if I don't feel comfortable or if I fear for my safety, I can and should take off my scarf). There will always be someone who thinks that I am a "bad hijabi" because my jeans are too tight, 2 strands of my hair are showing, I'm wearing any colour but black, I'm showing my face (so scandalous, I know), or so forth. I've learned that there's no point trying to please everyone else: you should simply please yourself. Do what makes you happy. Be comfortable in your own skin. Forget the haters, because they will always be there, no matter what you do.
6. Hijab means something different to everyone, and that's okay.
My hijab is my hijab. I follow many different hijabi women on social media, such as Dina Tokio and Nura Afia. To be honest, these two women played a huge role as well in my desicion to become hijabi, because they showed me you could be modest and fashionable. Modest, and yet still beautiful. Getting back on point, if you go to either of their social media accounts, you will always find at least one person saying, "This is not hijab!" or "Take off your hijab if you want to wear jeans!" or "Turban style is for sluts". And usually, that person is either a man, or a woman who isn't even wearing a hijab at all, which seems a bit hypocritical. What a hijab is to ME may not be a hijab to a Bedouin in the Arabian desert. That doesn't matter, because we are all on our own journey. To someone, my story may sound silly (it's just a piece of clothing after all... what's the big deal? Just put it on and get over it), but to me, it was a huge decision. So to belittle me by saying that I'm not actually hijabi if I'm not wearing a black burkha with a niqaab (yes, this has been said to me) is ridiculous. Similarly, it's unfair and ridiculous to judge anyone else.
And to tell someone to take off their hijab because something seems wrong to them is so wrong. Assuming you are a Muslim who believes the hijab is mandatory, who are you to tell someone who is making an effort to take it off? That. Is. So. Wrong.
7. Being hijabi does not mean being passive.
I honestly always thought of being hijabi as somewhat being passive. You have to be gentle. You have to watch what you say. You have to be angelic. That is until I moved to Jordan and met a lot of badass hijabis and realized, "Oh hell no! Being hijabi does not mean that at all!" While yes, as a MUSLIM (not as a hijabi, but as a muslim), you are required to be kind to others, being hijabi does not make you oppressed. Or passive. Fight for your rights. Fight for justice. Be smart. Be loud. Be you.
8. The hijab was my choice but maybe not her's.
A lot of girls are forced to wear the hijab by either their family members, the law, or the culture they live in. This. Is. Wrong. When will we as human beings allow women to make choices for themselves, especially in how they dress? Whether they want to wear a pant suit to work instead of a pencil skirt, a hijab instead of done up locks, a burkini instead of a bikini, or a bikini instead of a burkini, I really do not believe that it is anyone's decision but the woman's herself!
I know one person who was forced to wear the hijab by her parents. She would take it off at any chance she got. Assuming the parents wanted her to wear it for religious reasons, what effect does this really have? By forcing her to wear it, they only pushed her away from her faith instead of to it, which is what often happens to girls who are forced into this.
Seriously. A woman should be able to wear what she wants, instead of society forcing anything upon her. I'm looking at you too, Western World, when I say this... For example, if you go to the beach and see a girl wearing anything but a bikini or one piece, she's made fun of and shamed. Let's just let everyone chose, and I mean really chose, what they want to wear instead of forcing anything upon them, whether that be nakedness or being covered up.
9. The hijab is, indeed, a feminist statement.
Yes, I am a hijabi, but I am so much more than that. I am Ayesha. Zahir. Solaiman. A piece of clothing I wear on my head, for my own personal reasons, does not and should not affect anyone else. Someone may think I am oppressed, or passive, or this, or that because of my hijab, but that doesn't and will not define me. I am the only one who can define myself, and my hijab is a way for me to do that, and I will continue challenging views of those who tell me otherwise.
I wanted to show the world what your normal, average Muslim is like. The world is a big place, and I doubt I can really make that much of a difference. But I believe in the butterfly effect, and even if I change one person's perspective of what it means to be a Muslim, Hijabi woman, then I have succeeded. And honestly, I think I have, because I showed myself what that means by becoming one.