The Thing on My Head

My parents on their first trip to the US
But to get back to my story; I was just driving out of a parking space one day, when along came a young veiled woman who saw me hesitate to drive my car out, and she turned round and said to me under her veil: “Well then, darling, are you going to knock me down?!” — Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria

If you’re a hijabi, it’s hard to escape from the fact that the hijab is a statement, regardless of your original intent. Not only is it a striking reminder of your “Muslim-ness,” but depending on how you wear it — tight over the head? As a loose scarf? — others will make judgments about your ethno-demographic background and the strength of your religious beliefs. Heavily politicized and dissected in the court of public opinion, the hijab is at times an instrument of repression and at others, against it.

My hijab wasn’t a carefully crafted political statement. It wasn’t a social burden. It was for me, a personal expression of my faith that asked me to give up my vanity for my beliefs. That it allowed me to observe without being observed, pass unnoticed while I navigated the difficult streets of Dhaka, was an added bonus.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who never forced me into it. I know I’m incredibly lucky and it isn’t always the case. I had been religious since I was 10, prayed 5 times a day, and woke at the crack of dawn for Fajr even as my child body longed for 10 more minutes of sleep. By the time high school rolled around, I felt good. I felt ready.

“Wait a year,” my mother said, eyes wary. “Think about it. Then, tell me if you really, truly want to.” A year later, I still really, truly did.

My mother’s reluctance came from genuine concern that once I wore the hijab, I wouldn’t be able to take it off. That my stubbornness and the fear of what others would say would keep me bound to it, long after my religious phase had passed. That I would soon miss having my unruly hair free and despise the hijab for doing this to me.

But wearing it was never an impulsive decision for me. I was aware of what I would lose: a superficial obsession with how I looked and how I presented myself. I did not mourn the loss.

Early on, I was fairly taken by the idea that I could be a kooky, socially progressive Muslim and still wear the hijab. I could be a casual feminist and a connoisseur of classic rock. I could be sassy and enjoy artsy movies. And if you live in a predominantly Muslim country, everyone knows you’re still the same. Wearing the hijab doesn’t make you one-dimensional overnight — doesn’t turn you into a neatly packaged stereotype for all to take in and dissect — but adds an extra modifier to your identity. It gave me more freedom than it took away (again, not always the case) and liberated me from my crippling self-consciousness. A spectator peering in, I could observe and scrutinize while myself being free of the same scrutiny.

The veil doesn’t work the same way here. You become the reluctant center of attention — no longer able to weave in and out of society and observe unencumbered. It will invariably define what people think of you and how they interact with you, drawing their own inferences about your political and religious beliefs, your lifestyle, and your tastes. At times, they will be genuinely curious about you and your culture. At others, they won’t really know what to do with you and be taken aback when you don’t fit their idea of “the veiled woman.” Too many Americans have never met a Muslim, let alone a veiled one. And even the most tolerant of liberals will need time to adjust their prejudices, both latent and manifest.

As a freshman in college, the people who least wanted to befriend me weren’t white Americans but other South Asians. The first day of orientation, I was determined to make friends with everyone. Coming from a small high school with a graduating class of about 40, I was friends with everyone. But whenever I tried talking to most other South Asians, they would hardly acknowledge me: a curt response here and there to my efforts at friendly small talk, a non-comittal shrug. I thought there was something off about me. Maybe I was too strange. Maybe I wasn’t cool enough for them. Regardless, my social success in high school somehow never really translated to freshman year and I didn’t figure out why until some months later.

My roommate brought a new friend over to our room one day, a classmate from her freshman English course. I remembered her instantly. She was from the same orientation group as me, a group no larger than 10. She looked at my uncovered head, my then-vividly red bob, no trace of recognition, as she introduced herself.

“No, I remember you,” I said.

She stared at me, unbelieving. She rattled off the names of the others but refused to believe I was there, refused to believe that she had failed to acknowledge my presence when we were together. I told her that I was one of the people who had handed her tissues following an unfortunate incident during orientation. That I had tried to talk to her and befriend her. She still doesn’t believe it happened, even though we’ve been friends for years since.

I didn’t begin to connect the dots until my lack of faith made me drop the hijab for good. People who wouldn’t necessarily come and speak to me did so of their own volition. They didn't recognize the girl with the auburn bob as the same girl who wore the hijab. I made more friends that week than I did in my previous months of college. But I was still the same, with or without the hijab.

Seeing how others reacted to the veil made me wish I had taken it off sooner. I regretted wrangling with my lack of faith for so long, wishing and hoping that it would subside, instead of accepting it for what it was. Maybe my transition to the US would have been smoother. With hindsight, I know that period of indecision was necessary. If I hadn't fought through it, I would’ve called myself a coward for letting go of something I had believed in so quickly.

Being thousands of miles away from direct parental influence gave me clarity. Growing pains and the whole struggle to find my own identity aside, I didn’t quite realize the effect my parent’s wishes had in shaping what I wanted, or what I thought I wanted. The decision to adopt the veil was my own but I can’t deny that somewhere in the back of my head, I was thinking about how my parents would take it. This subconscious influence oozed into other aspects of my life: from what I wanted to do in the future, to which colleges I should apply to, what I wore…

I can’t say I regret wearing the hijab or taking it off. Both of these decisions were right for me at the time. The disorienting move from Bangladesh to the US made me reevaluate who I am and define my sense of self, independent from my parents’ wishes and desires. It made me doubt my faith (which I still do) but allowed me to eliminate the extraneous elements from my life. There are still plenty of things I’m not sure about and decisions that I will probably undo at some point in my life, including taking off the hijab. But for now, I’m at peace with the choices I’ve made.