On Wednesday, March 15, one of the warmest days of the year thus far (75 degree and sunny), I was covered up head to toe. Literally. I wore leather knee-high boots, black jeans, a knee-length skirt, a long-sleeve shirt and a headscarf that covered my hair, neck and chest.
Though it may seem like an odd choice of clothing for a day most people donned shorts and a t-shirt, the choice was purposeful. March 12-16 was Islam Awareness Week, sponsored by Loyola's Muslim Student Association (MSA), and MSA asked Loyola women to pledge to wear a hijab for a day, in order to unite sisters for a day in solidarity and experience life as a Muslim woman.
So what was it like for a life-long Lutheran to live a day as a Muslim? Read on to find out.
Why I decided to wear a hijab for a day
Ever since my 7th grade confirmation trip to Chicago, when our confirmation class visited a mosque and synagogue, as well as a church in Cabrini-Green and Korean-language Lutheran service, interfaith dialogue has fascinated me. Since then, I have found that when people have conversations about their faith, they tend to realize just how many things they have in common, rather than what sets them apart. This is also one of the reasons I chose Loyola. Despite its strong Jesuit Catholic heritage, the university touts itself as a "home for all faiths", and thus far I have seen this to be essentially true. However, I felt as a Loyola student I should be seeking out these experiences and actually embodying the "diversity" value we hold so dear. I saw this as an opportunity to see what it was like to walk in another Loyola student's shoes (or should I say, headscarf?).
The preparation (read: what exactly is a hijab?)
Before actually participating in Hijab for a Day, the MSA invited all pledgers to an information and orientation session to learn a bit more about Islam, the hijab and the other participants in this event. Loyola senior Nadia Ahmed explained what exactly a hijab is, and what it means to a Muslim woman, which brought up and disproved several misconceptions about the hijab and Islam.
First of all, hijab does not only refer to an article of clothing. It also means modesty, privacy and a devotion to God. The headscarf is simply a way to embody these principles.
Second of all, contrary to popular belief, each woman chooses when they want to start wearing the hijab and they are not forced to wear it. Several of the MSA women talked about when and why they started wearing the hijab, and many described deeply spiritual reasons.
Third of all, many of the women also pointed out that it prevents the objectification of women. They explained that by wearing the headscarf and dressing modestly, there are no distractions from their intellect, and they feel they can be judged for their word, not what they are wearing. This struck me as a rather feminist reason for wearing the hijab, contrary to the idea that the headscarf is used as a way to stifle or oppress women.
At the initial meeting, I was surprised at the diversity of the women who wanted to participate. There were two women who were Muslim, and were thinking about wearing the hijab full-time but had not fully committed. There was a professor of Asian studies, a woman getting her second bachelors degree with future travel plans to Indonesia and a student involved with a Palestinian rights group. All were interested in learning more about other cultures and gaining a better understanding of Islam.
The evening ended with a headscarf wrapping and pinning tutorial, easily the most intimidating challenge of the night. There are countless ways to wrap and pin the headscarf, but the important thing is that it covers a woman's hair, neck and chest. Some women wear headbands to keep the scarf in place, which I also did (see above). After trial and error with some more complex wraps, thanks to the women at MSA, I was able to master a simple wrap around style with minimal pinning.
Wearing a hijab for a day
I woke up extra early to ensure that I would have time to correctly pin my headscarf, as I had yet to do it without the guidance of someone who actually wears a hijab on a daily basis. Thankfully, I managed to get everything pinned and relatively stable on-time (and I am proud to say it stayed in place all day long) and was out the door by 9:30 to catch my morning train. Here are my observations:
- The el: At the Loyola stop, I didn't feel like an outsider at all. This stop is generally diverse, plus it was so early in the morning no one was paying attention to much. On the train, I felt I got a few quizzical glances, but I attributed those to the general curiosity of commuters.
- WLUW Lunchtime News: This was my first surprise of the day. I help produce a breaking news broadcast three times per week for my college radio station with a crew of eight people--needless to say, we have gotten pretty close through the stress of putting together a broadcast in two hours. However, when I walked into the newsroom, no one asked why I was wearing a headscarf, which I thought was strange, since I have never mentioned before that I was Muslim nor had I ever worn or even discussed wearing a headscarf. About halfway through the day, a friend who knew this day was going on asked me about how things were going thus far. But that was it.
- Work: I had emailed my co-workers ahead of time to let them know that I was wearing a hijab for a day, simply out of professional courtesy, so it was nice to have someone ask how the day was going. I even received several compliments throughout my work day, people commenting on the beautiful color of the scarf and that I could pull off the headscarf "look". A fellow intern who I talk to occasionally even stopped by and asked if I had converted, which led to a discussion on how the hijab is perceived in different cultures. This isn't a conversation I ordinarily would have had in my office, and it was really interesting to hear how it was perceived in a professional setting (very well). I realized that these conversations were not as difficult as they may seem, and once a simple question was asked a connection could be made.
- A cupcake shop: A fellow intern and I walked a few blocks to a Gold Coast cupcake shop. I thought that I may get some weird looks along the way, especially from tourists wandering off Michigan Avenue who may not be used to a headscarf, but just like on the el, I didn't feel anyone really perceived it to be too out of the ordinary. By the time we got to the cupcake shop, I had even forgotten I was wearing it, which was a bit of a surprise when I caught my reflection in a store window on the way back.
- The bank: I had to deposit a paycheck, and I thought going into a bank may provide a different experience. However, what happened on the walk to the bank was what really struck me. I walked past a local YMCA where a few people usually sit, and in the past I have been yelled at in this area. As I walked past one man, he yelled something, but I couldn't quite understand what he said, so in typical city etiquette I continued walking without looking at him. As I walked away, I heard him yell it again and added, "You have to say it back!" which confused and startled me: did I just commit a major cultural offense? Was there a greeting that I hadn't learned? As it turned out, I later figured out he most likely said assalamu alaykum, a traditional Muslim greeting that means "peace be upon you". In return, I was supposed to say wa-alaikum assalam, meaning "and upon you be peace". Later when I discussed my experience with women from MSA, I asked if I had committed any offense. They assured me I had not done anything gravely wrong, thankfully, but inwardly it was another reminder that wearing a hijab is only a small part of a much larger religion.Once I got to the bank I also felt the same way I had on the el: there were a few prolonged looks, but it could have been for a number of reasons. Regardless, it was a bit unnerving to constantly second-guess peoples' glances.
I ended the day at an event hosted by the MSA called "Beyond the Veil". I talked about my experience throughout the day, and we heard from a Karen Danielson, outreach director of Muslim American Society of Chicago. After my day wearing the hijab, I was exhausted, but happy. I felt connected to a new experience and community of people. And after a month of reflecting on my experience, and seeing how it has had a profound effect on how I perceive my own faith and the Muslim experience, I am happy to share my conclusions.
- "Questions are always better than judgement" During the orientation session, we asked countless questions, some of them very honest. Though one woman apologized for asking so many questions, one MSA student said she had been asked questions daily since the day she started wearing the hijab, but she said she always prefers when people ask her about her beliefs, rather than judge without questions. I found this to be the biggest takeaway from the day. I have never made any indication that I am Muslim before, and though I have been known to wear some interesting outfits in the name of fashion, I have never worn a headscarf. I was very surprised at how few people who I know from classes, work and extracurricular activities did not ask me why I was wearing a hijab. On one hand, it felt like a good sign: people in Chicago and at Loyola are so accustomed to other cultures and different lifestyles, Islam isn't necessarily questioned in a negative way. At the same time, it frustrated me. I had stepped outside my comfort zone to do this day, hoping to engage in interfaith discussion, and yet very few people seemed interested in asking even the most basic question: why are you wearing a headscarf? I feel this may be because people are scared to have these talks, that something they say may offend or even show their naivete. I know I felt that exact same way before I had this experience. Now I realize how important faith is to Muslim women, and how they want to share their experiences as a way to encourage solidarity among all women and reflect on a choice that has become a huge part of their identity. Simply asking when a woman began wearing a hijab opens up stories about personal growth, family life and faith journeys, and can be the path to a new connection.
- I need to care less about what I wear: As I mentioned above, I could not believe how often people on the 'el' adjusted their hair and clothing, how many accessories were added for the sake of completing an outfit and how each person checked out their reflection in the windows when an attractive man or woman stepped on the train. It was mostly unbelievable, however, because it was so familiar- I realized I am guilty of these actions on my own daily morning commute. I realized that I am dressing for how other people will perceive me, far more often than how it reflects on me as a person. Wearing the hijab offered the chance to step outside of my usual fashion routine: instead of pouring over my closet the night before or in the morning, constantly changing outfits, I knew exactly what I had to wear and why I was wearing it. The purpose of my dress was entirely changed. Instead of dressing to impress others, to be perceived as fashionable or trend-conscious, I was dressing for my beliefs. Though the headscarf and covering up only reflected my beliefs for this particular day, I was amazed at how freed I felt and how comfortable it was to put on an outfit in the morning and not think about it for the rest of the day.
- Students do not necessarily lose faith in college: I will be the first to admit that I have not been to church in a long time, and this is likely because I don't go to a Lutheran school and a college environment does not always foster a faith-centric lifestyle. However, for these women, their faith is with them at all times, most noticeably wrapped around their head everyday. I was intrigued to hear at the initial meeting that the hijab acts as a daily reminder of their faith as Muslim women, and also reminds them that they are representing their religion whenever they wear it. One woman pointed out that it helps with her road rage-- once when she was driving with her sister, she was cut off in the tangled mess of Chicago traffic. Though she said she was tempted to honk, or cut off the next car, she said her sister reminded her she was wearing a headscarf, and whatever she does may then influence someone's perspective of Islam. I was struck at this observation. Never have I second guessed something that I was doing in fear of it reflecting poorly on Lutherans, notably because there is nothing I wear that physically represents my religion. In this way, it struck me as very brave that these women are willing to wear the headscarf and take on the daily task of knowing what they do may affect people's perceptions of their entire religious group-- one that totals over 1 billion people worldwide.
- When in doubt, smile: Throughout the day, I constantly wondered if second glances, prolonged looks or extra courtesies were a product of wearing a headscarf. As I mentioned before, especially at the bank, I felt that I was being looked at by the tellers sitting alone in their offices. This could be because they were suspicious, or simply because they were bored and interested in someone walking through the doors. I asked Nadia and several other members of the MSA about this, and they said this is a feeling that goes away with time. They pointed out that when you do something different, it is nearly impossible not to feel that you are standing out, and that you want to find a reason this is happening. I mentioned that I was a bit put off by this, and didn't know how to respond in case it actually was an aggressive look. However, Nadia gave me the best advice of the day in response to my concerns. "I always simply turn around and give them a huge smile back," she said.
Over all the experience was amazing. I want to extend a special thank you to the Loyola Muslim Student Association for sponsoring this opportunity, and providing support for those involved.
Would you wear a hijab for a day? Do you agree/disagree with any of my observations? What do you think of inter-faith relations today? Let us know! Comment below, tweet us @Chicago_U or send us an email 1ChicagoU@gmail.com.