“Are you a terrorist?” 21-year-old college senior Sara Ahmed is often confronted with this question because of her headscarf.
The hijab, or Muslim headscarf, has become a symbol of oppression in much of the West in post 9/11 America. However, the women wearing them tell a very different story.
For them, the hijab is an expression of religion and faith. Some hijabs are reappropriated into a symbol of terrorism, while others are used for cultural appropriation, as a sense of style. I spoke to three women who adopted the hijab to further their religious devotion and face the challenge of being misunderstood as hijabis in the west.
“It was the next step in my faith to help me get closer to God,” Ahmed said of her decision. While her choice was a reflection of personal growth since first wearing the hijab at 16, it has been met with some animosity. The Southern California native and Manufacturing Engineering student said that because of her hijab people assume she is foreigner.
When speaking to Ahmed I heard the sadness and indignation in her voice when she shared her experience to me:
“People think I’m not American. This is my home. I don’t know where else I can call home….They act as if it’s an ethnic thing, but it’s not. It’s a religious thing.”
As a result of the media’s association of Islam with radicalism, this is not an uncommon occurrence for hijabis in the West. Many Muslim parents in western countries discourage daughters from wearing hijabs out of concern for their physical safety, especially since the terrorist attack on the twin towers.
Safeta Cerimovic, a New Yorker with a career in health management, experienced this parental concern when she adopted a hijab at 16. Having recently emigrated to the U.S from Bosnia in 2002, her parents were concerned that people would not be accepting of a hijabi New Yorker. Yet she was resolved in her decision. Cerimovic was only woman in her family to wear a hijab.
“It is something I do only for God. Not for my husband or my parents or anyone else.”
Cerimovic has recently become outspoken about her faith on Twitter using the site as a platform to teach peace and acceptance and stand up against stereotypes of her religion, its teachings, and the hijab.
The most common stereotype of hijab is, perhaps, that the women who adopt it have no choice in the matter. 22-year-old Jamiela Kokash is a stark example in resistance of this idea.
Kokash first wore a hijab over a decade ago. She recalls her father’s disagreement with her choice. His argument against it claimed, “The faith is in your heart. As long as you know what’s right and what’s wrong then you don’t have to manifest it on the outside.” Still Kokash was comfortable in her decision until recently. The hijab once felt right, but it became a routine rather than a representation of Kokash’s beliefs, which caused her to consider removing it.
“It became a habit. It became external rather than internal. Put on my glasses, pick up my phone, put on my scarf, put on eyeliner….”
She has taken off her scarf, but says she still believes in the hijab and what it represents and may one day go back to the visual representation of her faith if she regains connection with it.
“I want to fall back in love with it again. I want to return the feelings I had when I first started wearing it.”
Kokash is a beautiful reminder that the clothing a woman chooses to wear, whether hijab, bikini, jeans, or dress, is her prerogative and her comfort.
When asked what the hijab signifies to her, Sara Ahmed powerfully replied,
“Confidence. It signifies the Islam that I follow. It signifies that I’m not oppressed.”
It’s time to respect the choices of Ahmed, Cerimovic, Kokash and all the women who express their confidence, faith, and strength through the hijab.
A special thanks to Harris Ahmed and Aisha Razzak.