Khadija Mohamud (SFS ’17), Rabia Mirza (COL ’16) and Nimrah Baig (COL ’14) are just like any other young women studying at Georgetown. They worry about exams and internships. They feel the effects of long hours in Lau, bemoan the quality of coffee produced by The Corp and dream of medical school or the Peace Corps. They, like many students, are trying to strike the perfect balance between work and play, faith and expression. This question of faith, however, is what makes these women stand out from the crowds of blue and gray. Each of them proudly wears the hijab as an outward expression of their deeply held Muslim faith — a faith that has been misunderstood by their fellow Americans for their entire lives.
Hijab might not be a word all students are familiar with, even though they have more than likely seen a few while walking around campus. While it has several meanings, hijab is most commonly used to refer to a covering over a woman’s head and chest that leaves her face, or sometimes just her eyes, exposed. Usually worn by Muslim women after the age of puberty, hijabs come in a variety of colors and patterns, although the overall effect is one of modesty. But this modesty is not just physical: According to Cyril Glasse’s “The New Encyclopedia of Islam,” hijabs act as a separation between man and God.
But the hijab is more than just an article of clothing or an expression of faith; wearing one is also a personal decision and, for several, a way to unite American and Muslim identities.
“Hijab is a lifestyle choice — it’s choosing to not only dress a certain way, but to interact with the opposite sex in a certain way, to use yourself in terms of your relationship with God and taking it another step in terms of trying to isolate other factors and go to a basic core of the relationship,” Mohamud said.
Mohamud, a resident of Silver Springs, Md., has spent her entire life in the United States, although her parents are both from Somalia. Interested in the Peace Corps as a postgraduate option, it was after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that she saw she was “somewhat different.” Through attending public school and weekend religion school, she realized it was possible to balance both her Muslim and American identities — and part of that came through proudly wearing hijab.
If you ask 10 different Muslim American women, you will get 10 different answers for why they have or have not chosen to embrace the lifestyle of wearing hijab, each based on intense, personal convictions about the role of Islam in their life. Some are influenced by the positive experiences of family members; while others cite their own beliefs about the role of God in their lives.
For Mohamud, who decided to wear hijab permanently when she was 13 years old after wearing it off and on since she was 6, it was about asserting her Muslim beliefs and demanding respect from her peers.
“I wanted people to know who I am because hijab is something that comes to identify you, and when you wear it, you want people to know that you’re Muslim. You want people to know that you expect a certain level of respect,” she said. “You want people to understand, ‘Hey, I choose to dress modestly and deserve to be treated with respect, because I have respect for myself.’”
For Mirza, who grew up in Florida as the daughter of Pakistani immigrant parents, the hijab was the next step in her personal religious journey.
“It was my way of coming closer to God and establishing a closer connection to God. I wanted to be taken seriously and to make a statement about how I want to be treated as a female, as a woman. I wanted to be dressed more modestly and I wanted to make it clear that this is who I am,” Mirza said.
Mirza started wearing the hijab in high school where she faced stereotypical assumptions from both Muslims and non-Muslims about going against traditional dress in favor of her personal beliefs.
“Despite differing opinions people may express, I’m a Muslim who happens to be American in every way,” Mirza said.
“It wasn’t something you could wear Monday
and take off Tuesday
and put back on Friday.
It was a lifestyle choice.”
But that doesn’t mean that not wearing hijab signifies that someone isn’t a true Muslim; its meaning varies for everyone, and it is not necessarily a measure of religious belief.
“That’s not to say if you don’t wear hijab that you aren’t Muslim or if you don’t wear hijab you are less religious because that’s not true. Even though it’s described as something everybody can understand, the nuances collectively make hijab mean something very different for everyone who wears it,” Mirza said.
Sana Imam (COL ’15) was born and raised in America and identifies as Muslim. However, she does not see wearing the hijab as a necessary way of expressing her faith, although she understands why people do.
“My parents emphasized that it was a personal choice. I never felt the pressure that if I didn’t wear one I wasn’t Muslim,” Imam said. “What people tend to forget about religion is at the end of the day, religion is a very personal and private thing. It’s about your own relationship with God.”
This understanding of the popularity of the hijab leads back to strong belief in the tenets of Islam or adherence to cultural social norms from Islamic countries in the Middle East, where the lines between culture and religion are blurred. And sometimes the exact dictations of religious Islamic texts are blurred as well; it is unclear whether wearing the hijab is mandated by the Quran, which never explicitly states that one must be worn.
“There are verses in the Quran that may be interpreted to mean that Muslim women have to cover their head and dress modestly,” said Imam Yahya Hendi, director of Georgetown’s Muslim Chaplaincy. “Of course when you read the Quran it also talks about Muslim men needing to dress modestly … but there are verses that may be interpreted, may be understood, to mean that Muslim women have to cover their hair.”
“If you look back into the scriptures, it was very common for women to get raped, so wearing the hijab was a sort of protection,” Imam said. “The reason behind wearing it makes sense. For example, if you see a girl wearing shorts or a girl wearing jeans, typically guys will hit on the girl with shorts. It’s that kind of mentality.”
For some, whether or not the Quran directly emphasizes the importance of wearing hijab is not significant.
“I think that it’s important that when you’re considering whether to wear the hijab to consider it in a religious context because that is ultimately what your goal is — to become closer to God, to develop the type of character that the Prophet, Peace be Upon him, had, to be a model for society,” Baig said.
Baig, a former president of the Muslim Students Association, moved to Maryland from Pakistan when she was two years old and sometimes struggled with the concern that her Muslim identity made her an outsider to American society. But as she’s grown up, she’s come to realize that being a Muslim American is only a testament to the diversity of the spectrum of the collective American identity. Now, she’s studying biology of global health and is attending medical school next fall in order to become a physician scientist. But she still works hard to reconcile her Muslim heritage and her upbringing in America, and her decision to wear the hijab originated from a strong religious motivation.
“I think that personally I see the hijab as much more a piece of the religion than of the culture because it is tied to these ideals or values that are promoted by Islam and an Islamic way of living and those are the morals you should be developing in your character,” Baig said.
No matter how these women come to their decision or how they frame it, the decision to live according to the rules of hijab has major implications.
“I understood it wasn’t something you could wear Monday and take off Tuesday and put back on Friday,” Mohamud said. “It was a lifestyle choice. Once I chose that, I knew I couldn’t look back.”
With the hijab come a variety of biased misconceptions. The hijab is a very outward visual expression of faith in Islam — a faith few in the United States fully understand. Non-Muslim Americans have been told time and time again that women who wear the hijab are oppressed, that they didn’t choose to cover for themselves or that they are being forced by dominant male relatives or family members to adhere to the practice. The reality is rarely so black and white.
“Everybody usually thinks that I started wearing it because it was a family tradition or because my parents wanted me to wear it, but the honest truth is that when I told my parents I wanted to wear it they didn’t want me to,” Mirza said. “They were wary of the possible repercussions I would encounter.”
Women grappling with the decision to wear the hijab often go through trial periods of wearing it to see if they are prepared to take on the responsibilities associated with maintaining the lifestyle fulltime. The hijabi lifestyle is more than just a manner of dress, but how you carry yourself, how you treat other people, and how you behave. For Baig, that means no physical contact with men in public and a more modest way of presenting herself when around other people. But many realize that the lifestyle is not for them, or at least not at the moment.
“The first time I tried I was freshman in high school. For numerous reasons, I ended up not sticking with it and within half a year I had taken it off,” Baig said. “Then I got to Georgetown and decided after finishing my sophomore year that I wanted to start wearing it again.”
“It’s interesting to see how the environment
changes just because
you’re wearing a scarf
over your head.”
Sana Imam (COL ’15)
For many of the hijabis at Georgetown — and elsewhere in the United States — 9/11 and the anti-Islamic fervor that swept the United States afterward were highly influential to how they practice their religion and their dedication to the hijab.
“I’ve had multiple encounters where people come up to me and say some pretty disgusting things, but I never took it personally because I knew it was coming from a place of ignorance. They just didn’t know any better,” Mohamud said.
While most non-Muslims accept women who wear hijab unquestioningly, there are still those who approach hijabis maliciously.
“There was a really troubling encounter I had where a student I did not know called me a terrorist,” said Baig. “It was a really shocking experience for me because I had never really thought of myself as being seen as an outsider because I’ve been living in the States since I was two years old.”
Although Imam doesn’t wear the hijab herself, one of her friends experimented by wearing it for only one day, and the responses she received were shocking.
“She wore a hijab to Safeway and her treatment was completely different. Usually people are really responsive and helpful, but when she wore the hijab, they weren’t willing to help her or at first pretended they couldn’t understand her,” Imam said. “It’s interesting to see how the environment changes just because you’re wearing a scarf over your head.”
But the most common sentiment they share is one of respectfully defiant self-expression.
“I felt like growing up I was in this position where I was constantly like ‘No, no I promise we’re not like that.’ Or, ‘I promise not all Muslims are like that; the word Islam comes from the word peace,’” Mirza said. “I’ve grown up sort of advocating that this is not how it is. I’ve reached a point that I shouldn’t have to ask for you to be nice, I shouldn’t have to ask for you to treat me with the baseline respect that everyone deserves. If you think that a minority represents the majority then you already have a problem and I should not have to ask you to respect me.”
Mirza described less dramatic interactions stemming from similar misperceptions of Islam as “subtle expressions of distaste.”
“I was going to prom and was getting my makeup done by somebody. I kind of wanted a fierce look because I had this awesome gold dress but they ended up putting light makeup on because they said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to make you look too seductive because I’m sure your father will get mad,’” Mirza said.
Students worry that wearing the hijab can have consequences in their professional lives, too.
“I have had students say [to me], ‘If I continue to wear the hijab, what does this mean for my career and my dreams? I want to be American, I want to be in the foreign service or the military, I want to serve in our law enforcement or our intelligence, but people will look down on me or people might undermine my capabilities or might just overlook me because for them I am connected to them.’ [‘Them’] … meaning the terrorists,” Hendi said.
For students so dedicated to their Muslim faith, it may seem counterintuitive to choose to attend a Catholic university like Georgetown. But for many Muslim students — not just hijabis — Georgetown offers the perfect intellectual refuge where they can learn and grow as students while remaining connected to their religious and cultural roots.
“I’ve never been around a circle of people more educated, more respectful, more understanding. I’ve never felt prouder and happier to wear hijab on campus,” Mohamud said.
“Georgetown has been very welcoming, very supportive and very interested in knowing more about Islam, about Muslim students and about how to accommodate their needs,” said Hendi, who founded the Muslim Chaplaincy and has lead it for more than 15 years.
Georgetown was the first university in the country to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain in 1999 and has worked continuously to improve facilities for Muslim students, through means like adding a prayer room, which opened in 1987 in Copley Hall. Georgetown also incorporates Islam in its promotion of interfaith dialogue.
“The number of Muslim students I would say has tripled since I came to Georgetown. There has been more interest in Georgetown because Georgetown is so accommodating,” Hendi said.
“A lot of the reasons that motivated me to wear hijab came from being at Georgetown,” Baig said. “I think part of the Jesuit tradition is not restricted solely to the religious experience; it’s something broader. Students here have respect for diversity, they’re willing to engage in diversity, they’re willing to tackle things that other people might consider to be uncomfortable, and I think if I had been somewhere without this culture or this tradition I wouldn’t have explored my own faith more deeply and I wouldn’t have taken that extra step to start wearing the hijab.”
Yet at the same time, some students like Mirza believe that their peers’ education and level of silent decorum stifles potentially beneficial dialogue.
“Back home more people didn’t really know what this meant, so they would ask out of curiosity or would be non-maliciously ignorant. They would say things that would not offend me or they might say something that comes off as bad but that’s not what they mean,” said Mizra. “Here, I’ve noticed that people have reached their own opinions about things because they think they’re educated. It’s harder to talk about it here because a lot of people think they know what it is already and won’t ask.”
What the dialogue surrounding the hijab boils down to is choice. No two women have the exact same reasoning for how they have chosen to express their faith and these differences are part of the reason coming up with one easy definition is impossible.
“No one will ever come out and say, ‘That’s it, done deal, women don’t wear hijab.’ Or, ‘That’s it, women wear hijab,’” Hendi said. “It will continue to be debated until the end of time.”
As for the prejudices that have almost become a mainstay of American media culture, Baig has a simple solution
“I would challenge anyone to take a look at Muslim American women in the U.S. who wear the hijab. I don’t think anyone would look at those women and say they are oppressed. They value their education, they go out and seek employment opportunities, they are active in their communities and active politically,” she said. “They are very confident. They use their values, their beliefs and their own skillsets to make a difference in their own societies and that’s liberating. That’s not oppressive in any form.”
“I would challenge people to get to know a hijabi and see what her life is like,” Baig added. “I think that would make the difference.”