When I was first assigned to wear the Muslim headscarf called a hijab and write about the experience, I gladly took on the challenge, despite my unease about how others would react.
I was surprised at how it seemed to bring out the chivalry in even non-Muslim men.
But this social experiment was also disappointing at other times.
By wearing a kumbung, the local term for the hijab, I thought I would get a glimpse of what discrimination was like, in honor of World Hijab Day last February 1. I wasn’t completely wrong except that the virulent response came from a completely unexpected direction.
But that would come later, after my adventure started in a flea market stall in Cavite that sold hijabs. When I made my kumbung choice, I thought putting it on would be easy-breezy.
I was dead wrong. That perfect fold was infuriatingly elusive. It was just a piece of cloth but I was all thumbs. The Maranao Muslim women, who provided instructions on how to wear the kumbung, were all giggles over my cumbersome efforts.
When they finally decided they’d had enough fun at my expense, they offered me a misrin. It’s a kind of hijab, but it’s the ready-to-wear kind. It does not need folding or tying.
Finally, correctly garbed, the women of this community were gushing about how the hijab fit me. “Baka hindi ka na makilala sa inyo.”
She was right. It took a second glance for my friends to recognize me.
The hijab with strangers
Once outside the public market, I was feeling oddly self-conscious. Is any one going to figure out that I’m a Catholic wearing a Muslim headdress? Are people going to see me differently, through hijab-tinted glasses, so to speak. Will they give me questioning looks? Are they staring?
But no one was. Everything was normal.
I also half expected to be treated like a second-class citizen, which turned out to be the farthest thing from what actually happened.
If anything, I was being treated more respectfully. Men, specifically, were more chivalrous. They let me go in and out of elevators first and they offered me seats on the train.
The service crew in a fast food joint were also extra attentive to my needs. When I asked one of the service staff if their spaghetti had pork in it, she apologetically said that there was. But she didn’t leave it at that as I was then given an array of pork-free food to choose from instead.
Also, security guards didn’t treat me with suspicion. They did not check my bag any more thoroughly than usual.
At one point, I had to attend an event held inside a Catholic compound. And no, people did not treat me differently.
In the hundred or so people I came across in those three days wearing a hijab, only one person, a cab driver, dared asked me if I am a Muslim. The cabbie was curious because in his experience as a taxi driver for more than a decade, this was the first time he saw a Muslim woman riding a taxi alone.
Sure, there were some who checked me over from head to foot. But there may not be a direct cause and effect between that and my wearing a hijab. As Ate Emma, one of the Maranao vendors, quipped, “Siyempre, tinitignan kami. Pero malay mo tinitignan ka kasi naiiba lang ang suot mo o baka nagagandahan lang po.”
My parents, however, weren’t feeling particularly chivalrous nor deferential towards their now hijab-wearing daughter.
When they saw me wearing a hijab as I came to dinner, they asked me if I had converted. I explained that this was research for an article.
They weren’t buying it, which was really odd because I wasn’t really trying to sell them a bill of goods. But they set the condition: if this meal was ever going to start, it would be with the kumbung taken off.
I did not oblige. I had committed to this experiment and I was determined to see it through. I was going to live my life as usual, except as a hijab girl. Breaking bread with your parents – what could be more normal or more respectful.
Later, I joined my family in a visit to the cemetery. My folks asked me to stay in the car since I didn’t want to remove the headdress.
I refused. When they came across people they knew, they were at a loss as to how to introduce me. I had to do all the explaining myself.
But I really couldn’t blame them. They are what’s known as “saradong Katoliko”. My hijab really threw them off.
Likewise, I had to repeatedly explain to my friends that the hijab was a social experiment. I shared my initial conclusion that men were more gentlemanly.
But in those three days in which I wore the misrin, a friend or two, everyday, would tell me that men are not simply being chivalrous but were, instead, afraid of me.
“It’s fear not respect,” one friend said.
Whether it was fear or respect, I had learned the value of being a “veiled” woman. It’s a proclamation of who you are and the traditions that you live by. It takes confidence to proclaim your identity through clothing.
It’s commonly believed that wearing a veil is a form of sexual discrimination.
I didn’t find it to be so. To my surprise, the veil was strangely liberating, an unapologetic form of self-expression. — DVM, GMA News
- – Kumbung (also called tundung) is the usual headscarf or headdress used by Muslim women. It is a rectangular, triangular or square scarf worn in different styles.
- – Misrin is currently the most common kind of hijab, according to my newfound mentors. It is relatively easy to wear compared to a kumbung. It is a ready-made headdress, which you don’t have to tie or style.
- – Mokna is similar to a kumbung but it is lengthier as it covers everything from the head down to below the waist. It is used only in Mosque worship.
- – There is a hijab and abaya combination, but in this case the hijab is a black headdress that covers the entire face except the eyes. The abaya is a toe-length loose black dress. Women who usually wear this are expected to also wear gloves and socks.
Usually the headscarves cover the hair, neck and chest. All these headdresses come in different colors and designs except for the hijab and abaya combination. Ideally, those who wear the kumbung should wear tops that also cover the arms down to the elbows, as well as your rear and crotch area. –Rouchelle R. Dinglasan