Let’s Talk About Hijab: Asking the Right Questions

Today’s Let’s Talk About Hijab post is fun and thoughtful and beautifully written and I feel honored to be able to share it with you. Before beginning this series I read an article by Afia R. Fitriati called Strange Questions About My Hijab which I loved. When I started the series, I dreamed of having a writer like Afia contribute but was a little nervous about a cold-turkey email. But…I summoned my courage and hit the ‘send’ button. Her response was gracious and quick and I clapped (in the privacy of my house) when she said yes. And right there is one of the incredibly rich things about both the internet and about vulnerability and community. But, that could be another entire post let’s get to her essay!

Afia R Fitriati is a staff writer and columnist for Aquila Style, a digital publication for cosmopolitan Muslim women. She also writes for the Muslimah Media Watch blog and a number of other publications. Occasionally, she also tweets her everyday musings on her Twitter: @AfiaRF


Photo by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions of a Hijabi, by Afia R. Fitriati

Of all clothing items in the world, I don’t think anything stirs more arguments, controversies and misperceptions than a Muslim woman’s modest dressing, or also called the hijab.

I mean, I wonder if anyone ever come up to a bikini-wearing woman and ask her with a pitiful tone, “Does your parents/husband make you wear that?”

Slim chance.

But if the same woman were to put on a long dress and a head cover, suddenly the chance of her being asked the same question above increases multiple times.

I know, because I’ve been there. Not wearing the bikini part, but being-asked-all-sorts-of- funny-questions-while-wearing-the-hijab part. And while in general I’m pretty open to a brain-picking discussion, I admit that being asked this type of question is pretty annoying. Why do so many people assume that the only reason a woman wears the hijab is due to the repressive order of someone else?

A groundbreaking book by Leila Ahmed explores her discoveries that in fact for many hijab-wearing women, their covered attire is a symbol of personal liberty, activism and love of The Creator.

I consider myself to fall into that group, although a significant number of people whom I encountered in my travels would still rather think of me as the clueless, oppressed picture of woman they have in their heads.

Fortunately, I’ve also met some genuine souls who channelled their curiousity in my attire and faith in much less intrusive or biased questions:

“In your country, what do you do when you hang out?” Asked Peter –a tall guy from my psychology class– while we were waiting for our bus to arrive.

“The usual stuff,” I shrugged. “Go to the mall, watch movies, watch basketball games…”

If he weren’t that nice (and handsome to boot), I would have added, “No, I don’t make bombs in my spare time.”

And there was also Hae Jyun, a Korean girl in my statistics class who only asked me one important question, “What can’t you eat?” She then took me to a Thai food joint where I could order spring rolls and soup without worries, and we sat and talked for one hour about deep, life-changing stuff: how to keep your skin pimple-free and why Clinique is the best cosmetic brand in the world.

It was such a normal conversation, and yet very rare and precious for a hijabi girl living in a Western world among non-Muslims. So rare that now, fourteen years later, I still vividly remember the details of that hour: what I ordered (or what Hae Jyun ordered for me), what she was wearing, the rain trickling outside.

Because after all, that’s what millions of other hijabis –including myself– are all about: regular, living, breathing human beings. We worry about our children just like any mother, we get cranky during our PMS days (and maybe after) and we love a good dose of ice cream. Some of us are more religious than others and some of us even memorize the whole book of the Quran. Still some of us abhor lipsticks while some others are fans of Louboutin’s shoes. In short, we hijabis don’t come in a one-size-fits-all box.

In the same vein, I don’t deny that some hijabis in certain parts of the world are illiterate and don’t have access to their basic rights-just like some people may think. But to think that all hijab-wearing women are oppressed and extremists are just as faulty as thinking that all tie-wearing men are smart and honest.

The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” goes for hijab-wearing women too. To learn more about us, our faith and why we don the hijab, it is better to leave your assumptions at home and let us begin our discussion with genuine, honest and clever questions.

Thai food, anyone?


Other Posts in the Series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali