Alexa Webster, FXU President Community & Welfare, writes about her experiences of wearing a hijab for a day.
Below is my final write up of my personal experience in wearing a hijab for a day as part of an event run by the FXU Islamic Society, however with recent events I feel I have to add something to the beginning of this.
On Friday the thirteenth of November the world was rocked by terrorist attacks on Paris. Since then the Muslim community has been targeted for a few who have acted outside of and out of line with Islam. With the trending hangtag of #KillAllMuslims and shocking statements of prejudice, fear, and hate from a significant and loud population of the world, the Muslim community has been blamed for something they themselves do not condone, wish to ever happen, nor believe in. It is such a mass hate, the likes of which I have never seen towards one group of people within my lifetime.
To be faced with such fear and hate for the actions of a few purely because of faith is something I cannot comprehend living. But that was the question that was put to me.
I was asked whether or not I would feel comfortable or safe wearing a hijab now, in the aftermath of the attacks. A month on, and a lot of thinking, I would have to say my answer is no. Yes, I would wear it on both Tremough and Woodlane campuses as I trust my students and have never felt anything but safe here, but outside the isolation of campus life I would not feel comfortable nor safe.
For me this answer doesn’t compromise my faith. I am not a Muslim, and though I believe in a lot of the moral and ethics that are a part of Islam (the perfect example of this being the Believe and Do Good month hosted by the FXU Islamic Society), it is not my religion. I have the privilege of my faith being invisible, and thus not being a target for it. Yet for Muslim women their faith can and does make them a target, because some of them wear something as simple and inoffensive as a head scarf. We should all be free to practice our faith or none faith, yet through the acts of a few and reaction of the world this freedom has been taken away.
The below article are my thoughts, feelings, and things that happened on the day I wore a hijab – I haven’t changed any of it since it was originally written. This day was just three days before the Paris attacks.
On Tuesday the 10th of November the FXU Islamic Society ran an amazing event. That sentence in itself surprises no one, as I-Soc is a society respected by both students and staff alike here in Cornwall, but the event itself did raise a few eyebrows and turn a few heads (quite literally, as you will find out when you read on). The event was called the Hijab Experience, with the Islamic Society inviting women to wear a hijab for the day to experience what life is like for Muslim women in the UK who face prejudice for practicing their beliefs. The statistics speak for themselves, with Muslim women being a target for hate crime and violence, purely because their faith has an element to it which is visual to the rest of society.
The below bullet points are all my different experiences and thoughts throughout the day (as well as questions I was asked), displayed in order that I posted them as a series of Facebook status updates. It was such an eye opening experience, and I feel I learned so much from the day, not only about a faith that I knew about but would never claim to truly know, but also about myself.
It should be noted for the purpose of explained a few of the bullet points that I am a wheelchair user, as there are a couple points around disability mentioned.
- A lot of double takes. I think this is people seeing the scarf then seeing who is wearing it and being confused, as of course I don’t normally wear one.
- I am watching my own behaviour more and have become very aware I am representing a faith group which isn’t my faith group, and don’t want to do anything that could reflect poorly on the Muslim community. This is from things such as swearing a lot less, to not smoking. There are also other aspects to this, like a sudden awareness that I constantly roll up the sleeves of whatever shirt or jumper I am wearing. This has been an even harder habit to break than the smoking!
- When walking around campus a few stares here and there, and some awkward eye contact. One of the things I would add is that I am used to looks/stares due to the walking stick/wheelchair, and then on campus just from a proportion of the students knowing who I am within my role as FXU President Community and Welfare. At first I found it hard to tell if it was more than normal, or just because I was actively looking for it. By the end of the day though I came to the conclusion that it certainly was more than normal, and made a point of making eye contact with people and flashing them the usual smile I give to all on campus. More than you would think normal gave an awkward sort-of-smile in return before looking away and not back again.
- At one point I completely forgot I was wearing the hijab until it was mentioned, and just went ‘oh yeah!’ out loud as I remembered. It just wasn’t an issue for me, and aside from my ears being beautifully warm unlike the ice cubes they normally are I barely noticed it was on when sat at my computer answering emails.
- Students are asking questions! It has been great how many people I have bumped in to, or have actively sought me out to ask questions. The majority (one exception posted below) have been really positive and asking good questions and wanting to know more. I even had a few run off to find the Islamic Society and try a hijab on for themselves!
- I have only had one negative comment. I had one person come up and ask about why I was wearing a hijab, as they had never seen me in before. I then explained what I-Soc were doing, #IAM15, and the reason for me wearing the hijab. After that their questioning became, at best, problematic. They asked why I as a white woman who isn’t a Muslim thought it was appropriate to be wearing a hijab, and mentioned cultural appropriation. It should be noted that this was coming from a white person. I held my tongue and didn’t call them out, being very aware I was representing the FXU Islamic Society and then wasn’t the time for an argument (I don’t argue as a rule as I’m simply not an angry person, and I could tell a discussion was not on the cards). Instead I pointed out that race has nothing to do with whether or not a person is Muslim, as it is a religion not a race of people. I then went on to explain that actually me not being a part of that religion was the point of the experience, to open up my eyes and the eyes of others who took part to what life can be like and reactions received from those not of the faith. We left it there, but it is the most interesting interaction of the day and for me highlights how wearing a hijab makes a person a walking ‘target’ (for want of a better word) to strangers on a certain aspect of a person’s life.
- On to a topic that I talk about a lot… Wheelchairs! Through3 wheeling myself around campus I discovered an important fact: wind in the hair is nothing compared to wind in the hijab!! It was very hard to remain covered, with the headscarf in place, while using both hands to push myself forwards. A lot of arranging in elevators ensued, and at one point on campus I literally just had to give up keeping my hijab in place and get inside to be able to put it back on.
- This point is a compilation of all the different questions I was asked today, mostly around beauty. So yes, it was very warm, which was amazing on a cold Cornish day. Yes, I certainly had help putting it on, and yes hijab maintenance was an issue for me as I had literally no idea what I was doing – at all! I started the day with one safety pin and ended the day with three safety pins and five hair grips holding it in place, mostly down to my own incompetence! And no, I didn’t feel any less attractive at all. If anything the hijab boosted my confidence. Usually I’m in miniskirts, low tops, hair big and basically dressing the opposite of how I was today, but actually I didn’t notice that. After an hour I completely forgot I was wearing the hijab or was dressed differently than how I usually am. I didn’t feel any different or less attractive in that sense, and though I’ll probably be back to crop tops tomorrow, I think it did me a lot of good on a personal level with issues around my confidence.
- Conversations with people involved either a lot more eye contact with people than usual, or a lot less. With the gang in the office and my close friends this didn’t change, but with those I didn’t know or didn’t know as well I found there was either obsessive eye contact or a lot of looking around. None of it was necessarily weird, but was oddly uncomfortable at times.
- People who didn’t know who I was just presumed I was Muslim and that was the end of it, the hijab was never mentioned unless to compliment the scarf I wore and didn’t stop students coming up to me as their president community and welfare. Those who did know me asked questions very openly, or either seemed to ask anything but why I was wearing it, and the word for the day has been ‘cute’. Apparently, it ‘suited me’ and looked ‘super cute’. Though, on that note, I will say I got a lot more compliments than is normal, on everything from my makeup, to smile, to eye colour, to the whole ‘cute’ thing. I’m still not sure how I feel about that last one, as there was certainly a slight novelty factor which has to be noticed though not dwelled upon at this point, but from a whole looking back at the day I know that these compliments were part of what made my day a good day. But a discussion on self-validation from others is probably for a different day!
- I’ve decided to save the thing that, for me, was the most valuable lesson I have learned from today’s experience until this last point. Today I had a couple big meetings, and a few smaller things on Penryn campus. One was using my wheelchair to test accessible routes and doors. The other was Student Council, and one which I can’t talk about but was incredibly important and emotionally difficult. For the informal ‘jaunt’ around campus in my wheelchair I didn’t second guess keeping the hijab on at all, but for the other two I nearly took it off. I was so unsure if it was appropriate to be worn in that situation as Islam isn’t my faith, and I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but professional. Which, as I am writing it now, sounds crazy! But I genuinely felt as if somehow these meetings would be affected by me wearing it. I kept the hijab on in the end, and I learned something very valuable: not a single person treated me any differently than they had before. Now I know this comes from a place of privilege on my part, but it had no affect on how others saw my ability within these situations. I was so nervous, and then after fifteen minutes realized I had been ridiculous to feel that way, which has gotten me thinking a lot tonight about why I felt like I couldn’t wear the hijab to these meetings.
It didn’t change anything about who I am, my capabilities within my role a president community and welfare, or my relationships with members of staff, students, and the situations I was in. This has raised so many more questions for me, such as is it my privilege that meant it had no affect? Why was I suddenly so insecure when going from a social to professional situation? Is this my own insecurities or how society has told me how to feel? And so many, many more! I don’t have the answers (and I don’t know if I ever will), but what I do have is wider eyes and greater appreciation.
Overall I have to say I am so glad I took part in this and remained in the hijab until I returned home. I feel I learned a lot about so many different areas, had my eyes opened, and I think it got a really good conversation going within the student body. The stars of today though have to be the FXU Islamic Society, with a special thanks to Wajeeha who put the hijab on for me this morning and to Oussama for answering a lot of questions I had throughout the day.