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

December 12, 2014
by Yousur Alhlou
A scarf

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 now working as a videographer for the NY Times. Tweet her at @yousuralhlou.

From the Winter 2014 Gender Assumptions issue of California.

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