Let’s Talk About Hijab: Through the Eyes of Children

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series comes from J.R. Goudeau, yet another internet friend, introduced through an internet friend…Someday I will have to leave this small country and meet these fabulous women in person. J.R. blogs at Love is What You Do and doesn’t shy away from deep, think-ful topics. Every time I read a post I feel challenged and changed, including this one. The journey she shares is one adults are often unable to articulate or too proud to confess, and it is beautiful.

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

photo by Pari Ali, thankful for her willingness to share her pictures

I understood in theory that it might be difficult for a woman who wears hijab to live out her daily life in a culture that doesn’t understand her choices, but it was not until I became friends with a group of Iraqi refugee women in Austin a few years ago that I began to see how hard it truly is. I cannot say that I understand the difficulties and I want to be clear that, unlike many of the fantastic writers in this series, I am not writing from first-hand experience.

I am writing as an outsider and as a friend. And I am not addressing women who wear the hijab, but other people who are around them, other outsiders, other potential friends. My story is simple: my children were changed by women who patiently helped them see past their differences.

But we didn’t start off that way.

I work with a group of Burmese refugee women in an apartment complex near downtown Austin. Over time, several other refugees moved into the area and we began to hang out with them and their children. There were refugees from Afghanistan, Cuba, Somalia, Nepal, Burundi and Iraq. It was like a small United Nations when the kids played pick-up soccer. For several years, our non-profit and others rented an apartment and offered tutoring and other community service programs in the apartment complex.

We never knew who would walk in next. My co-founder Caren and I are raising kids in what seems to be an unorthodox way (at least in our little corner of the world). Our kids have been exposed to all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds. We talk about skin color, hair color, eye color, cultural differences. Our oldest kids are the same age and together they’ve eaten spicy noodles, Cuban cookies and Nepali tea. It’s what’s normal for them.

Which makes the cultural faux pas that happened one night when they were three so particularly terrible to us.

A woman walked in to meet us; she had been a translator for the U.S. army and she was coming to the community center to see if we could help her revamp her resume. She was wearing a dark hijab and a dark dress. We were chatting and asking questions about her cute little girl and her new apartment.

My husband heard the little three-year-olds whispering as they pointed at the woman. He managed to catch our daughter but not my friend Caren’s daughter.

With all her three-year-old bounce, she ran up to our new friend and said in a bright little voice, “You’re a witch!”

We could have died.

The woman handled it beautifully. She leaned down and got on the little girl’s level and talked sweetly and calmly about her hijab. Caren knelt as well, gently explaining that we don’t use that word, that our friend was wearing a dark dress, that she was not a witch.

Her daughter, confused, seemed to get it finally. She nodded sagely. “Oh, so you’re a FRIENDLY witch.”

We’ve laughed about that story since then; our friend lived in the apartment complex for a year before moving on to another place. She was gracious and sweet about the whole thing. It was a childish moment, as bad as anything little kids say when they’re first learning about the differences between people. (And to be clear, my husband was having the same talk with our daughter in the other room—they both said it, he just caught her faster than Caren’s daughter.)

Their reaction shows, I think, the way Western kids, at least the ones in my life, are often conditioned to view people who are different from them as bad or evil or Other. In our girls’ lives, the ideas they associated with a long dark dress and dark hijab came from the depictions of “evil” characters in Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and other movies where the witch is dressed in dark colors. At three it was understandable, even if it was horrifying to their parents. And we are working like crazy to overcome those prejudices in the lives of our own children.

It was another woman, whom I’ll call Noori, who truly made a difference for our girls. During our weekly meetings with the Burmese refugee artisans, we hired Noori, who was also an Iraqi refugee, to babysit the kids. Week after week, Noori walked in wearing her hijab and loved on our children. Our daughters had a lot of questions at first, but it soon became Noori’s hijab became normal. They were much more concerned with whether she brought markers or glitter for her to play with.

Once we were shopping at Lowe’s and the woman who checked us out was wearing a hijab. I expected my girls to say something. The oldest got thoughtful, which is usually the sign she’s about to burst out with something inappropriate, but we made it all the way out of the store without her saying anything. Later, in the car, she brought it up.

“Mommy, that woman wore the cloth on her head that Noori wears.”

“You’re right, she did,” I said. “It’s called a hijab.” I was ready to talk about religious differences or cultural practices, but I was waited to hear her response.

She was quiet for a minute more. “I love Noori.”

To me, it was the perfect response. I love how Noori has changed my kids’ perceptions by being herself.

It’s a small example; I have seen much worse things happen to my Iraqi and Somali friends. People regularly assume these gorgeous, intelligent, brave women are repressed or terrorists or ignorant. As their friend, I am indignant. I also admire them immensely. I cannot imagine the gumption it sometimes takes to wear the hijab in Austin.

But I can say, by being themselves, I think they are quietly changing perceptions.

By loving Noori, by playing hopscotch and jumping rope and coloring with Noori’s kids, our children have learned a lot at a young age. And I am deeply grateful for my Iraqi friends’ patience in not dismissing our kids but loving them despite their frank reaction.

I admire and respect any woman or man who chooses to show their devotion to God through their habits and clothing and life choices. And I suspect that our small story demonstrates a universal truth: being friends with people makes it difficult to objectify them. Perhaps the answer for most Westerners, before judging, is to seek out and listen to women who have good stories and compelling reasons for the choices they have made.

At least for me, that worked out pretty well.

Jessica Scarf Headshot

J.R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found writing about books, babies and Burmese refugees atloveiswhatyoudo.com or on twitter


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

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

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

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Today’s Let’s Talk about Hijab post comes from Pari Ali, in Kuwait. She blogs at Weaving Tapestries and is one of those connections that seems to redeem the time-suck of the internet. I met her through another on-line friend who wisely suggested that Pari’s voice be part of this series. I love the beautiful sentences in this post and the way Pari internalizes modesty, makes hijab about character, and I breathed a deep Amiin (Amen) when I read her last lines. Pari is a devout Muslim who chooses…well, I’ll let her speak for herself…

photo by Pari Ali

photo by Pari Ali

The soft, chiffon hijab framed her sweet, gentle face; its pale pastel shades seemed perfect for the purpose. She was a stranger, someone I was meeting for the first time, yet just looking at her I felt I knew her, for her face radiated an inner calm. Her eyes shone with a rare kindness, with piety and contentment. Though her figure was slight, I felt dwarfed before her, humbled.  She knew where she was going, her feet firmly planted on the path of her faith, she was a traveller whose quest was to attain nearness to her God and his pleasure. Like she showed kindness to her fellow humans, spoke in soft, gentle tones, put a leash on her tongue and temper, tried to live her life in a fair and just way, so she wore the hijab. For an educated, independent doctor, it was not an instrument of repression but just one more way to follow her beliefs.

I live in a country where more than half the female population wear hijabs, niqabs, burqas, etc, according to choice. It is not required under the laws of this country; it is purely a matter of choice. For many it is a garment which is a sheer necessity, they are just not comfortable without it. There might be some women who are repressed by their husbands and forced to wear it, but repression has many faces and all of them are equally ugly. It is also not limited to any particular race, religion, culture, country or peoples. In a country like this, where the women are often financially independent, even wealthy, educated, often very highly, where they drive and travel, write and express themselves in a variety of ways, it is personal choice and not repression, which leads to wearing the hijab.

The hijab certainly does not limit their activities. There are women here, who drive the latest and best sports cars, ride Harleys and jetskis, write amazing poetry, paint, are CEOs of companies, are involved in politics, teach at universities, etc and do it all while wearing the hijab. These are strong, individual, independent women, admirable in every way and especially admirable for the strength of their convictions. They do what they believe in without bowing down to the international peer pressure, the stigma that the media has attached to the hijab and those who wear it and the negative image it is unfortunately portraying for many.

They feel empowered by the hijab, empowered to conceal or reveal what they wish to. Dressing as the world expects you to dress, following fickle fashions, following trends often at the cost of mounting credit, is a worse kind of repression. Why can’t a person just be free to dress as they wish to without the fear of being judged solely by that dress? Not that these ladies do not follow fashion or dress well. Almost every western designer name is to be found in their ample closets. The stores are full of the latest styles. They dress in the latest fashions but choose who they reveal their finery to. That is not repression it is empowerment.

I do not wear the hijab, mainly because of the culture I come from. No one in my family has ever worn it. Yet clothes were and still are always chosen for their modesty. Modesty is so deeply ingrained in us it can almost be called inborn. Neither one of my well educated, independent daughters would ever wear a revealing swimsuit or go to a mixed gym. It is just something that is against their nature.

I do wear other hijabs though, in my quest for perfecting my faith. Hijab is described as a curtain, screen or a partition and I have a number of these. Some are of the firmest materials, which stay steady and unmoving, while it is a constant struggle to keep the others, the ones of silky, slippery material in place. I find it simple to keep the hijabs of moderation against greed and envy, of generosity against selfishness, of modesty against unseemly desires, of unkindness over meanness and kindness firmly in place. It is the hijab of calmness over the temper and the quickness of tongue, the hijab of contentment over discontentment, which I mainly struggle with.

I think it is a Universal struggle.

by Pari Ali

Other posts in the Hijab series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

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

Hijab: Definitions

Let’s Talk about Hijab, Definitions

Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is by…me. I figured before we get too far we needed some definitions.

Hijab. Burka. Head scarf. Chador. Niqaab. Shalmad. Jilbaya. Al-Amira. Shayla. Khimar. Masar. Abaya.

What is it? That depends. The article Not all headscarves are burkas is a helpful starting point. (And please correct me or offer new insights where I’m wrong here, I’m still learning too and am more than willing to be corrected.)

When we talk about hijab, what exactly are we talking about? I read the blog of a woman embarking on a ‘burka experiment.’ I’ll let you google it if you must. One problem with her experiment is that what she is wearing isn’t a burka.

There are different styles of Islamic coverings for women and different names for them depending on what language you speak and different assumptions made about the woman beneath the covering depending on who you talk to.

The abaya, for example, is a black robe worn by Arab women and exported to other countries via expatriates, immigrants, refugees, and fashion tastes. In Djibouti the abaya is worn by Djiboutians of Yemeni descent, my Somali house helper when she is going to Quranic classes, high school or college students who wear skinny jeans beneath the robe, and women who wear it for modesty but need to shed the robe someplace else, like girls who run at the track – they wear the abaya on the bus, whip it off for practice and throw it back on for the return trip. Or by me when I am on my way to a funeral sitting in a conservative area and realize I’m not dressed modestly enough but only have a minute to throw something on. Bam, on goes the abaya and I’m ready.

However, when I told a friend who lives in Pakistan that I sometimes wear the abaya, she was shocked. She said in her city, the abaya was only worn by extreme fundamentalists and was as far from a mere fashion statement as Daallo Airlines is from being reliable.

An example of assumptions…some people tell me that women wearing the niqaab, which is the veil that covers the face, are all possessed by jinn and are the most likely women to cheat you or rob you or insult you. I have been robbed by men and by a woman in a Somali-style shalmad, the colorful, rectangular scarf, and have been insulted by girls in abayas. I have also been cared for and served by women in niqaab so this belief is, um, totally unverifiable.


Hijab is the most basic and all-encompassing term available. According to Islamicity,

Commonly, the term hijab is used to denote the scarf or other type of head-covering worn by Muslim women throughout the world. However, the broader definition of the term refers to a state of modesty and covering that encompasses a woman’s entire body, excluding hands and face.

So when we talk about hijab, we are talking both about an article of clothing and a state of being, similar to Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3 for early Christian women.

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

What I see here is a point of similarity, a value Christian and Muslim women can share and support one another in. The out-workings of the clothing might look different, but the attitudes of modesty and a spirit precious in the sight of God are shared.


Stocking caps, modest and trendy and convenient.

Also, surprising as this might sound to American Christian women, on a global scale, Muslim and Christian women dress much more alike than they do in downtown Minneapolis.

In Djibouti, local women no matter their faith convictions generally dress the same, right down to the hijab choices. This is true in many cultures and countries. It may look to an outside observer that I dress like a “Christian” and my Djiboutian friends dress like “Muslims.” But, also and accurately, I dress like an “American” and my Djiboutian friends (Somali, Afar, Ethiopian, Yemeni…) dress like “Djiboutians.”

The point of all this is that clothes do not necessarily communicate what an observer thinks they communicate, that clothes are culture-based and religion-based, and that modesty is both external and internal.

What have I missed? What are some of your, or your culture’s, distinctives regarding hijab?

The intent of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is to host an on-line conversation where people are free to ask questions, open to learning, and as a place to share experiences, convictions, and ideas about hijab. As a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country, this is almost a daily topic of conversation and I am eager to hear from people from all around the world.

Other posts in the series:

Let’s Talk about Hijab

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

By |March 6th, 2013|Categories: Faith, Islam|Tags: |10 Comments

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post called “Let’s Talk about Hijab” which launched fabulous blog/Twitter/Facebook/email conversations. I encourage you to read the comments for insights from a non-Muslim woman in Africa, a non-Muslim woman in America, and a Muslim woman in Indonesia. That post launched a series I’m calling, big surprise, Let’s Talk about Hijab, in which we, another big surprise, talk about hijab.

Today is the first guest post in the series and I am thrilled Anita Dualeh was willing to contribute. Anita and I recently connected on the blog, but actually first met years and worlds ago in Linguistics courses at the University of Minnesota. I was working on my undergraduate, she on her Masters. Anita is tops on my list of ‘who I want face-to-face time with’ whenever we return to the US. She brings a unique perspective to talking about hijab and I love the way this intro piece immediately sheds light on nuance and variety. Read, enjoy, join in the comments.

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

My first interaction of any depth with Somalis came through a volunteering opportunity in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2003, I began tutoring Somali women in basic literacy skills. On the first day, one of the other Caucasian volunteers wore a head scarf. Without singling her out, the Somali gentleman advising us said we didn’t need to concern ourselves with covering our heads. “Just be yourself,” he said. That sounded like fine advice to me, so that’s what I did. I think it works in this context because I’m a member of the host culture.

Since then I’ve learned a lot more about head covering. It started the day one of the other volunteers, a tall, dark and handsome man, asked me to dinner. I eventually married this persistent gentleman, which meant I married into a culture that currently believes good women cover up.

My husband said when he was growing up in Somalia his mom and sisters didn’t wear the hijab. During the era of Somali socialism, such a practice wasn’t allowed. And prior to socialism, women in Somalia didn’t wear the hijab either. As he sees it, the hijab became popular in the refugee camps as sheiks were preaching that the civil war was judgment from Allah for not adhering to Islamic practices, including modesty of dress.

My husband has never wanted me to wear the hijab. And I have never received any pressure from his family members either. (For the longest time, they were just disappointed that he married me. Before we met, they were hoping that he’d marry a good Muslim woman who would bring him back to the fold.)

Zealous shop keepers have been another story. Once my husband took me to a Somali mall to shop for a dirac (Somali dress). There we encountered a Caucasian woman wearing a hijab, presumably accompanied by her Somali husband. A middle-aged shop keeper stopped us in the hallway to tell my husband he should make his wife cover up. “That other man is better than you are,” she said, referring to the one whose wife was properly dressed. “You’re the man. You’re responsible for her,” she said about me.

I didn’t fully understand this exchange, which took place in the Somali language, but I did understand my husband’s reaction. He was angry. “Let’s get out of here,” he told me. He had been living in the West long enough to wonder at the gall of someone he didn’t know telling him what to do.

That was not an isolated incident. Over time, my husband has come up with some strategies to handle such confrontations. The last time we were at a Somali mall together, the woman who sold us henna powder asked my husband why his wife didn’t wear the hijab. “Why don’t you ask her?” he responded.

If we ever travel to Somalia I’m sure I’ll revisit the issue of head covering. As I see it, it’s a different situation when I’m the foreigner. In the past when I’ve lived in other countries, I’ve always chosen to dress as least as conservatively as the local population. So in Micronesia, for example, I made sure my knees were covered and avoided clothing that would reveal the shape of my thighs. I usually wore a muumuu, the loose dress of Hawaiian origin. From there, it wouldn’t be such a huge step to don the hijab.

Anita Dualeh lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and their two boys. She blogs at 1stteacher.wordpress.com


Speaking of Somalia…this is in Hargeisa and shows a small bit of the variety in how women choose to cover.

The intent of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is to host an on-line conversation where people are free to ask questions, open to learning, and as a place to share experiences, convictions, and ideas about hijab. As a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country, this is almost a daily topic of conversation and I am eager to hear from people from all around the world.

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