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Sisters in America: World Hijab Day Photo Shoot Supports Marginalized American-Muslim Women

By: Shireen Hakim, MS, MPH, RDN, Writer in a Headscarf

Touched by a stranger’s sincere and eager public Facebook post, on Wednesday February 1st I visited her house to help her and her non-Muslim friends style themselves in hijabs, in honor of World Hijab Day. Kim Mulligan’s World Hijab Day photo shoot was a beautiful, unique initiative by non-Muslim women to reach out and support Hijabi Muslim women. Upset about the Muslim ban and refugees’ plight, these women embraced me with hugs, smiles, and well-intentioned questions about my faith. They repeatedly thanked me for bringing hijabs and styling them, but it was I bowled over with gratitude for their support and courage. Their acceptance of the hijab warmed my heart. Their effort was reassuring and comforting, because typically it’s us Hijabis that have to overcompensate and reach out to others. This nonjudgmental group made me feel welcome and normal. We were a group of women having fun; enjoying fashion and getting to know one another as humans. It was not about lecturing one another.

As the friendly, beautiful young women shared their own shocking stories of discrimination in the United States, it hit me how similar we all were. (In fact, 3 of the women were also mixed race, and half- Latina like me.) This was not about a superior group pitying others; this was about realizing that at some point in life we’re all victims; we are all vulnerable and need help. Therefore I turned to them with shared sympathy and understanding, which strengthened our bond as sisters in America.

This inclusive effort made me feel better about myself as a person and a Muslim. Also, it has a positive, unifying effect on our community. Unfortunately, the anti-Muslim rhetoric and Muslim ban does negatively affect Muslim-Americans; it makes us feel bad about our religion and cultures, leading to tension within the community. How much criticism can you ignore? It starts to sound true. That’s why it is so important and valuable for non-Muslims like Kim to engage with Muslims. Also, I’m grateful to Nazma Khan for initiating World Hijab Day. I thought I was confident enough in hijab, but after engaging in an event celebrating it I realized I could become even more comfortable and proud of it.Hijab to me is a way to express my true self, which is my soul. When my physical, earthly body is covered, my soul is able to shine through. It is the only one talking. Clothes cover the ego and highlight the soul. Hijab keeps me closer to God and helps me behave respectfully to myself and others around me. It’s true that wearing less/no clothes is ‘freeing,’ but it only frees your ego. Hijab frees your soul.

Hijab is a visible indicator of religion. In the USA, people are free to practice religion, but privately. Typically in the US religious people with outward displays of religion; like nuns with habits or Jews with yarmulkes, are separate from the everyday society. But with hijab, Muslims are saying you can be a full-functioning American and physically express your religion. We still have pride in the country and contribute to its success. It makes many Americans defensive, because this is a secular country and they assume we are trying to press our religion on them. But hijab does not challenge American ideals. It upholds them because it represents individuality and bravery by staying true to your beliefs.

Admittedly, I’m often chided for not identifying ‘enough’ with my parents’ countries of origin. Still, I proudly say I am American. This country has been here long enough to establish legitimate culture, values, and wonderful people. Everyone living here is benefitting from other’s hard work so they need to contribute to improve it. There is definitely something to this diverse, open-minded country and we are going to make it something.

Lastly, this new administration has opened up some difficult conversations about very different groups living together. I do agree that steps need to be taken to keep America organized and flourishing; but it’s unfortunate that they use hate and fear to do that, instead of honesty and communication. That’s what we did together at Kim’s World Hijab Day photo shoot.

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