Growing up, I always valued modesty. My parents raised me to respect myself, and how I dress is certainly a big part of that. But in my mind, to be covered was something people did for others, especially for men.
I’ve often been self-conscious about how people view my appearance, but I have slowly grown to remind myself that my brain and my heart are what they should care about. And part of my inspiration for that came from the most unlikely place—my Muslim friends who wear the hijab.
The word “hijab” conjures up different images and feelings for just about any person who hears it. Religion, bold fashion statements, politics, mystery, oppression—a hijab is not simply a headscarf. Part of that is due to lack of exposure. For me, brought up in the Catholic faith in the Midwest, I had very little knowledge or understanding about Islam. I always thought of the hijab as a means to cover up a woman’s beauty and individuality.
As a Middle East studies minor in college, I devoted my time to learning about the geographical realm of much of the Muslim world, extending from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east. During my studies in the Middle East, I learned that Muslims view the hijab as a part of their personal faith journey. It is used for bodily modesty—however, it represents veiling beyond just outward appearance. It also represents a way of life, a way of treating others, and a way to personally grow closer to God.
As one friend explained it to me, each person’s journey with the hijab is unique. When she converted to Islam, her hair was a huge part of her self-identity. She rejected the hijab as a way of conforming, even viewing the hijab as anti-feminist. However, as her faith grew, she grew to accept it. She said it was not a change in dress so much as it was a change in heart. “From this point I just continued to transition and grow until one day I realized that the only reason I wasn’t wearing hijab is because I saw it as conforming rather than a deeper growth,” she said. She decided that society’s reception of her, as a person, was less important than her understanding of who she was and what she believed.
While most of my hijab-donning friends are incredibly stylish and still use fashion as a form of self-expression, their headdress shows they’ve placed priority on their beliefs and their inner beauty and strength—an emphasis that I can’t help but find admirable.
Popular culture today has seen a movement toward greater freedom for women, which has largely been powerful and successful. However, on the underbelly of this movement, there is still a notion that nudity trumps modesty as a form of empowerment. Modern feminism often takes a tone of feminine exposure; the freeing of the female body in a very literal sense, such as the “free the nipple” campaign. The contradiction here is that in exposing our bodies so literally, women further become things to look at, and real freedom—the kind where women have equal opportunity as men—gets lost in the shuffle.
In a video montage of Muslim women for Bustle, one woman explained that her headscarf does not make her any less free as a woman. “Even though I’m wearing my hijab, nothing can stop me,” she said. “[The hijab] does not differentiate us and is just what we wear.”
I have come to believe there can be aspects of femininity—and feminism—in covering oneself. It is not just about modesty of dress but also in behavior. By choosing to wear the hijab, Muslim women are reclaiming their identity and privatizing their sexuality. Dalia Mogahed, Muslim scholar and TED talk veteran, posed an interesting question to Trevor Noah on the Daily Show: “When we talk about oppression . . . [it] means the taking away of someone’s power. And what hijab does is it basically privatizes women’s sexuality. . . . So what are we saying when we say that taking away a woman’s sexuality [from the public eye] or privatizing a woman’s sexuality, we’re oppressing her; what does that mean, what does that say about the source of a woman’s power?” Noah sheepishly replied, “We’re saying that a woman is only strong if she is sexy in public?” The lady has a point.
Which is why I’ve come to see the hijab, far from oppressing women, as an instrument showing that their power comes from an interior place. Their dignity and worth are not dependent on being physically pleasing to others; rather, it emphasizes inner strength and beauty. Their veils are an outward, bold expression of belief that also leaves room to emphasize what’s inside.
During my time in the Middle East, the women I met inspired me; they were strong, had aspirations, ran companies, and had wonderful senses of humor. They may have been physically beautiful, but their focus on their faith, families, friends, and education helped me to step back and reevaluate. By letting go of what people thought of me, I stepped out of a jail of my own making.
While I am not Muslim and will not be wearing a hijab anytime soon, I believe the example of my Muslim sisters tells of a lesson we can all learn—that keeping part of ourselves private and not for the consumption of others can lead to greater freedom.
Even though many of my hijabi friends and I have a language barrier, theirs is a universal language of the heart. My hair will someday go gray, and fashions change, but who we are to our core is forever. Women are more than their bodies, after all, and I would prefer to choose to focus instead on my mind and my heart.
Photo Credit: Image from Hijabi World, courtesy of Julie Winokur/Newest Americans