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What We Just Don't Get About Women in Hijab

I learned about the recent tragic shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed at a physical therapy appointment. The identities of the terrorists had not been released at that time, but, like so many American Muslims, I felt a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and fervently prayed that they weren't "Muslim."

A few hours later when I got home and read more about the developing story, my good friend texted me. She said her husband warned her that if the suspects turned out to be Muslim he wanted her to remove her hijab (headscarf), which she'd been wearing for nearly 20 years.

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He was worried for her safety and the safety of their two small children. She knew that his concerns were warranted, given the rise in attacks against Muslims in recent years. I was immediately struck by her words and felt panicky. I have two sons myself. I wear hijab. I sensed her fear and confusion, as well as her reluctance and anger, for being put in such a difficult position. My mind raced as I considered the hundreds and thousands of other Muslim women across the country who faced similar fears—and may have been considering removing their hijabs, too.

So, that night, after putting my boys to bed, I sat at my computer and quickly typed up a Facebook post advising my fellow Muslim sisters on how to safeguard themselves and take protective measures against any potential backlash. I wanted to empower and encourage them to not give in to their fears and subsequently remove their hijabs. Instead, I advised them to be smart and "wrap wisely."

I told them to wear hooded sweatshirts, beanies and hats over their hijabs, especially if they were alone or driving through an area they didn't feel safe. I also suggested they buy mace, not go out alone at night and openly communicate their whereabouts to their loved ones.

I advised them to be smart and "wrap wisely."

I had no idea that the post would receive the attention that it did.

Within a few hours, it was shared and liked hundreds of times. By the next morning, it had officially gone viral, reaching the thousands. I began to receive media requests for interviews and my inbox was flooded with private messages, from people all around the country, thanking me.

It has been a whirlwind experience, to say the least but one that continues to teach me.

I've realized more than anything else that the topic of hijab is no longer something restricted to Muslim gatherings or circles. It's something we as a nation need to understand—but not through books and articles or pictures of Muslim women wearing different forms of hijab. Instead, we need to hear about the experiences of American Muslim women who love their country and wear their hijabs proudly because of the freedom of religious expression it affords them.

It's been less than a month since the tragedy in San Bernardino. Unfortunately, things have become increasingly difficult for American Muslims. Despite several national and local campaigns spearheaded by Muslim organizations, communities and individuals to condemn terrorism—as well as to show support for the victims and their families—the tides of anti-Islam rhetoric and Islamophobia have never been stronger. With politicians calling for a special database of American Muslims, as well as a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., it's no wonder that, on a daily basis, stories have emerged about attacks against Muslims, many of whom have been the most visible members of the Muslim community—women and young girls in hijab.

Unfortunately, things have become increasingly difficult for American Muslims.

For many Americans, the debate about hijab can be a confusing one. While they agree with religious freedom and expression, they can't help but see the hijab as a symbol of oppression and misogyny, an antiquated and outdated form of subjugation and control perpetrated by patriarchies and religious zealots. It thus defies logic that any free woman, any educated woman, any American woman would actually want to cover her hair, especially in a highly political climate like we're living in now, where women are putting their lives at risk by doing so.

The truth is that, for the majority of western Muslim women, hijab is absolutely a choice and not something they were coerced into doing. In my family, for example, I am the only woman who wears a hijab. I have two older sisters and many female cousins and aunts. My parents never encouraged us to wear hijab. On the contrary, when I told them about my decision to wear it, they tried to talk me out of it. I was only 20 at the time, and they didn't think I knew what I was doing. My mother was most vocal about her disproval. She worried for, not only my safety, but also that I would have a much harder time finding a husband if I covered up my hair. (Incidentally, I'm married and a mother of two.)

It's been nearly 20 years since I first wore hijab and not much has changed: my mother still believes I'd be better off not wearing it, especially after this latest tragedy.

My story is by no means unique. Most of the women that I have met who wear hijab have done so by their own volition, after deep spiritual reflection and prayer, and certainly not overnight. Hijab is considered an obligatory act but, like any act of devotion, must be done with sincerity. Muslims believe that God is free of all needs, so whatever we do is for our own benefit and ours alone. The Qur'an also states that there is no compulsion in religion, so coercion of any type of practice is strictly prohibited.

Most of the women that I have met who wear hijab have done so by their own volition, after deep spiritual reflection and prayer, and certainly not overnight.

Moving forward, I sincerely hope that as the most diverse, educated and powerful nation, we can all move past this difficult time in our history and collectively begin to heal. I hope we can continue to build bridges of communication and community, where we can understand each other and prevent those who wish to divide us from succeeding to do so. Terrorists would love nothing more than to divide us and pit us against each other.

Sadly, they are not the only ones.

There are some here among us whose xenophobia and hate has increased to dangerous levels. They inspire violence and fear by spreading lies and hatred. Instead of focusing on the real enemies, they target innocent men, women and children, simply because of how they look.

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American Muslims love this country. We are among your neighbors, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, law enforcement and military personnel among others. We are loyal patriots, law-abiding citizens and just as committed to living the American dream as anyone else. We may dress differently than others, but that doesn't mean we are any less American. In fact, it speaks volumes about just how American we are that we can safely, proudly and so openly assert our beliefs.

So, let's stop the cycle of racism and hatred that we're being pulled into and, instead, let us unite and spread goodwill and love towards each other. Let's work together to fight all those who wish us harm—from within our borders and outside of them.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hosai Mojaddidi

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