My Scarf, Myself, and You: Hijab Is About More, and Less, than Religious Expression

By Yousur Alhlou

The tiny, default, unisex photo thumbnail haunted me for days.

I had built what I believed was the perfect online resume on LinkedIn, thoroughly listing my education, job experience, and skills, while trying to delicately tread that line between confidence and arrogance. But then I came to the question I always agonized over: whether or not to upload a profile picture.

I wear the hijab—the Arabic word for head scarf—which I presume may be problematic for potential employers. I mean, how often do you see a female hijabi—scarf-wearing—video journalist or photographer?

If I upload a public profile picture, will potential employers look past my hijab to notice my degree, my experience, my hobbies? Or will they move on to the next candidate, put off by whatever assumptions they attach to the garment?

Then again, if I don’t upload a picture, am I not confident enough in myself as an accomplished adult female?

I’m in no way embarrassed or ashamed of my religion or the way I choose to dress. Yes, it is a choice. Although hijab is mandated under religious law, I make a personal decision to wear it. But at the same time, I’m too often conscious of standing out because of the way I dress.

I pur­chase most of my scarves from my neigh­bor­hood Tar­get; the only holy thing about my pink-laced scarf is the amaz­ing bang for the buck at the sale rack.

I hate feeling that people have already formed an opinion about me, my family, or my values—before I’ve spoken a word. (Perhaps I was forced into hijab, perhaps my father beats me, perhaps I’m an extremist with anti-American views, or a fanatic, gun-wielding terrorist.) These assumptions definitely cross my mind when I’m the only female—let alone hijabi—filming a press conference or exercising in public. I feel it even more keenly every time I board a flight, suspicious eyeballs glued to my every move as I walk down the aisle to my seat.

Too often this anxiety is validated. While I was writing this story, for example, my stunningly gorgeous hijabi friend rang to tell me about getting harassed at a ritzy outdoor mall on a sunny afternoon in San Jose. “Would you like to live under Sharia law?” an elderly woman had barked at her.

The preconceptions also figure in more subtle, less hostile ways. As when a past employer, who hadn’t realized I wore hijab until after hiring me, confessed to asking himself when he first saw me, What will we do with you? I guess he was amazed to find that my scarf had no impact on my job performance. Surprise!

Thankfully, for my sanity and yours, I’m more often wrong than right about my biased assumptions about your biased assumptions. Most days, I don’t spare my hijab a thought, and it seems you don’t either.

Although the practice of women covering their hair is not restricted to Islam (Orthodox Judaism and certain Christian sects have the same requirement), Muslims are the largest group to uphold the practice. I began wearing the hijab “full time” on March 26, 2003. I was nearly 13. According to Islamic tradition, a girl transforms into a woman when she begins her menstrual cycle. And it’s at this stage in her life that she’s taught to dress more modestly—to cover her hair, arms, and legs in public.

Hijab is a religious requirement, not a cultural tradition. It would be incorrect to say that I cover because of my Arab heritage—a common misconception. Muslim women across the world, from Indonesia to Ethiopia to Pakistan, adhere to the same guidelines. That’s not to say culture or traditions don’t influence the religious practice of hijab; they do. This is most visible in fiercely patriarchal countries like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, where women are forced to completely cover according to laws written by fanatics.

If fem­in­ism is based on the idea that a wo­man has the sole right to make and im­ple­ment her choices, hijab is ar­gu­ably the most pro­gress­ive form of it.

In its truest form, hijab is not about physical appearance alone. Hijab is also the way a woman walks, talks, and conducts herself. It’s humility, modesty, and piety that should translate through action and behavior.

While outwardly assertive, hijab is an extremely personal decision. In fact, it’s haram (unlawful) to force or enforce it—in the same way you cannot force a Catholic into confession. My loving, religious Syrian-immigrant parents never forced me to cover (but it was definitely a welcomed decision); nor were they angered when my sister, also a practicing Muslim, chose not to.

I wear hijab because I believe in its symbolism. It’s that simple. There’s nothing outwardly holy or godly about me or my scarf. I purchase most of my scarves from my neighborhood Target; the only holy thing about my pink-laced scarf is the amazing bang for the buck at the sale rack.

It’s the message bestowed by the hijab that resonates with millions of women around the world: that hijab is truly liberating, not suffocating, limiting, or diminishing. I have the right to decide who sees what, and when and where. And I choose to allow my actions and values to determine my worth. So if feminism is based on the idea that a woman has the sole right to make and implement her choices, hijab is arguably the most progressive form of it.

It’s been a few years since I first created my LinkedIn account. Since then, I’ve completed my master’s degree. After a summer abroad as a reporter with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, I’m back to square one: hunting for that elusive dream job.

Every once in a while, I log on to update my profile. In fact, I did this once more while writing this story. This time, though, I didn’t obsess on that burdensome thumbnail. I’ve since uploaded a profile picture—one taken quickly by a friend, in a shabby office space with a green screen.

I still worry that the picture might work against me, but I try to ignore those devilish thoughts. Who cares? They’ll find out soon enough, right? And I hope that I’ve worked hard enough to prove—to myself and to you—that what I’ve accomplished and what I have yet to accomplish should not be influenced by that leopard-print scarf I nabbed at the sale rack. 

Yousur Alhlou ’12, M.J. ’14, a former California editorial assistant, is a (hijabi) journalist for hire. Tweet her at @yousuralhlou.

From the Winter 2014 Gender Assumptions issue of California.
Filed under: Human Behavior
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Welcome to American society, where there is a diverse cross-section of people, and personalities. If YOU feel awkward in public, the problem isn’t Americans, most likely it is within you. Be proud of who you are, and just show the same respect to others, that you yourself expect. Yes, there are some that will react in a rude manner,just get over yourself. Again welcome to America. Americans don’t expect to have to adjust,to accommodate your human frailties. Oh, and Merry Christmas, expect to hear that a lot, considering this is a nation that is 75-80-% Christian. Thanks for your respective
Welcome to America CJ Ronnenberg - I am the brown person speaking in a foreign language at the cash register behind you in Safeway. I hope it’s making you very uncomfortable. Guess what? I’m American, as American as you. Yousur and more people like her will make up American society in the next 50 years. So get over yourself. What a crappy, ignorant, patronizing comment to leave on a thoughtful piece.
Yousur: I would agree with CJ this is America. It is not an Islamic society, but even in Muslim countries, we hear of women sometimes harassed for wearing the Hijab. To my knowledge, Hijab was forbidden on Turkish university campuses even though Turkey’s population is 98% Muslim. So, you should expect these kinds of reactions from people here every now and then. I say every now and then because we live in the mostly liberal Bay Area where the majority of people are tolerant and open-minded. Things will get better with time, here in California and across the country. Like CJ said, although it is challenging, women like you should be proud of who you are and always keep “a stiff upper lip!” And, BTW, keep “a stiff upper lip” in response to CJ’s own “Merry Christmas” phrase, which appears to be meant as a high schooler mean way to irritate, bully, antagonize, and/or perhaps indirectly insult you. Never mind because while the phrase may be offensive to CJ, to my knowledge, many Muslims warmly exchange this greeting with Christians all the time.
Be true to yourself. Don’t worry about what others think. Thinking people will judge you on how you conduct yourself, not if you choose to cover (or not).
You think too much of yourself! Excellent employers are not in the business of getting along or making social relationships with employees. Their chief concern is adding dollars to the bottom line — making sure those share-holders are paid. If you, as a prospective employee show even a hint of potential to add revenue, or in your case readers or viewers, then most employers do not care one bit what your religious affiliation is; nor what you wear on your head for whatever reasons you wear it. That said, there are those bigots in the world, (and yes they are employers too) who do care about your religion, race, sexual preference, gender association, etc. who will look at your picture and pass. But ask yourself, is that not a blessing? If you beleive in God so much that you wear a scarf on your head to conform to what you beleive He wants, then why have you no faith in his will for you? Look at it this way: wear the scarf, and when the bigot passes you up, it is God protecting you from a terrible working environment. Is this not the way religious people look at fate? The other way to see this is to ask yourself, “what am I bringing to the table?” Consider, you remove the scarf from you resume picture, and a closet fascist hires you, would it not be the will of your God to educate this person? This is your calling, your opportunity to enlighten an obviously ignorant person to the fact that those wearing Hajib’s are not cartoon shooting, supermarket robbing, Muslim chicks trained by Al Queda. Again, is it not the way of your God to teach and spread the word of your prophet? Can you see this as a challenge from your diety? At the risk of sounding offensive, you lack sophistication with respect to the spiritual teachings of your religion. Religion, or being holy, or one with God, is much more fulfilling when we are concerned with our day-to-day actions (e.g. enlightening the ignorant, being a humble model of Islam, etc.), than how well we worship (e.g. wearing the Hajib, facing the right direction when we pray, etc.) I mean this with love, Peace, AA
Your article about the importance in your religion of “modesty” appears in the Winter, 2014 issue of the California magazine. In that issue, there is a discussion of the “modest beginnings” of Cal women’s basketball (page 79). For the first Cal-Stanford game, the curtains were drawn, and no men were in the audience. The women wore a lot of clothes. The score was 2-1. That is not even the same sport that we enjoy watching today. “Modesty” has no place in basketball today. Altheticism and teamwork are the focus, not modesty. My passion in life is horses. A young horse in training is nervous and will react badly to gloves, hats, and certainly scarves. A scarf would be as debilitating to me as a horse trainer as “modesty” was to Cal basketball players in 1896. You say that a scarf is “mandated under religious law.” Then your religious law asks women to have a very narrow range of possible interests. Basketball and horse training are not possible. How very odd that a religion would ask one gender, and only one gender, not to exploit certain talents they are imbued with.
Having seen very modest women all my life, I think a very very short boy’s kind of haircut is the solution if you wish to find employment in a nonMuslim country where your colleagues are mainly men. If you wear mannish loose clothes and very short hair, you will possibly be seen as lesbian. But that would be directly in the spirit of the Muslim mandate on half their adherents: do not tempt the males. Haram to give men a glimpse of arm or leg or nice hair!!! I do honestly wonder that the Muslim Males don’t feel such a necessity. What is the difference in the sex urge according to you? what about the gay men gawking at handsome Arab boys running through Tangiers? Thereby hangs a tale of immodesty!

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