By Chelsea Flores
On February 1st, 2013, I participated in the first World Hijab Day. It was a Friday, and I had an English class to attend. I woke up a little bit earlier than normal, watched a few YouTube tutorials on how to put on a hijab, and off I went about my daily routine. I would commute via public transportation for nearly two hours to get to class.
I remember that day being particularly freezing, and I went inside a popular fast food restaurant to wait for the next bus. It was a fast food place I frequented; it was inside of the city’s transit center, and on cold mornings, there would often be a group of commuters standing just inside, looking out of the windows waiting for our buses. . I entered the establishment and sat in an empty seat by the window. This morning was no different, except for the fact that my favorite turquoise pashmina was not around my neck, but on my head. Not two minutes after I sat down, an employee, who had been sweeping the floors nearby, approached me. The first words out of her mouth were not, “Hello,” but, “Excuse me ma’am, but you can’t be here.” I blinked at her. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You can’t be here, unless you’re planning on buying something,” she replied. “Is that your policy?” I asked, “Because I am in here nearly every morning, with several other commuters, and I’ve never been asked to leave.” “I’ve never seen you here before, ma’am. How about this, I’ll let you stay, just this once, all right? If I see you after today, just sitting here, I’m going to ask you to leave,” she stated, and walked away. I sat there slightly dumbfounded, my sharp tongue, sarcasm, and strong New Yorker persona having momentarily escaped me. I then grabbed my bag out of the chair next to me and left to wait the last few minutes for my bus outside. That was the first and only time I was ever approached like that.
That experience at the transit center was quite the eye-opener. I am a white, college-aged woman, and accustomed to the privileges that come along with that. As a teen, my awareness of sexism grew as I came head to head with it. Discrimination, however, was a whole new experience, simply because discrimination is not something that people that look like me face. Discrimination against Muslim women does not need to be validated by my own miniscule encounter with it. The struggles and persecution that Muslim women face do not need to be validated by me, a non-veiled woman who had the luxury of “stepping in their shoes” for 24 hours. I cannot, and will not speak for Muslim women, because I am not one, it is not my place to, and Muslim women do not need me to validate their experiences. I will, however, speak up for them. To me, this is partially what World Hijab Day is all about.
World Hijab Day is not about taking a fashion risk. It is not about fetishizing a religion or a culture paired with it. It is about standing with our sisters in unity, with reverence and respect. It is a sacred opportunity to remember and honor religious heritage, whether it is our own or our sister’s. It is about re-discovering the beauty of choice, and reminding those around us that hijab is not a symbol of oppression. It is a day to humble oneself and to remember God. I believe events like World Hijab Day are absolutely vital to our society. It promotes unity and growth, while squashing stereotypes—things we are ever in dire need of.
To my non-veiled/non-Muslim sisters: February 1st, we have the incredible privilege of participating in World Hijab Day. Aside from wearing a hijab, maybe for the first time, use this day to observe the people around you and their verbal and nonverbal responses to you. Use this day to promote healthy, respectful interfaith dialogue with family and peers. Remember, to strangers, you will most likely appear to be Muslim, so be sure to not do anything that would portray Muslims or Islam in a negative or hypocritical light. Ordering a BLT at your favorite sandwich joint—unless its turkey bacon—or wearing a hijab to the bar…bad idea! Dressing modestly, however, is a really good idea. Carry yourself with the dignity and self-respect that you and your sisters and worthy of. At the end of the day, reflect on your experience. Allow your experiences to mold your thoughts and perspective. If you’re religious, end your day with saying a prayer for your veiled sisters. Ask God to shield them from discrimination, and to protect them from those that would act hatefully toward them due to their hijab. May we all learn something on February 1st, and carry those lessons we learn with us for the rest of our lives.