Today I wore my Hijab at work.
I set my alarm nice and early, just in case I had a repeat of yesterday’s Hijab debacle, but the stars aligned in my favour, and I had my Hijab pinned and looking lovely in under five minutes. Yay, I’m getting the hang of the Hijab thing! Also, I could get to work early and sneak in before anyone saw me!
Of course, halfway down the road, my scarf started coming un-pinned. Guess who pinned her scarf to her hair again? So I ducked into the bathroom at the railway station to re-pin myself, hoping that a woman wearing a scarf going to hide in the bathroom immediately on arriving at a station wouldn’t look like I was trying to plant a bomb or something. (Yes, I was feeling a bit paranoid.)
Anyway, I got to work very early, and got a full-body double-take from the receptionist, which was fairly hilarious, so I gave her my spiel: No, I haven’t converted, this is in solidarity with Muslim women who have been attacked for wearing Hijab, etc. And then I went straight up to my desk, and posted an email to everyone on my floor:
I actually got some really nice responses to this, both in email and in person, and throughout the day. Everyone who actually said something was supportive (though there was a fair bit of awkward giggling, too). A couple of people couldn’t quite meet my eyes, but since one of these people seems to be scared of me even when I’m not wearing a scarf, and the other did something incredibly stupid while ignoring my advice last Friday, and knows that I know this, I don’t think these can really be counted as data points.
I do know that I spent the first hour at work feeling literally sick with anxiety for fear of what people’s reactions might be, however. I can’t imagine how women who work in less friendly environments than me do this.
I then had a meeting with a group of people I don’t work with directly, and that was… interesting. One of those things where you just wish that someone would ask rather than looking at you sidelong and being super-awkward-polite. Fortunately, it turned out that I was the only person who had provided comments on the document that had been circulated, and quite a lot of them at that (I know, just imagine, me writing lots of comments. It’s hard to picture, isn’t it?), so the first half hour of the meeting was ‘and Catherine made this comment’ ‘and Catherine made this comment’, which was fairly funny and broke the ice – and of course, I was still pretty clearly my usual opinionated self (also something that will shock you, I know), so that helped.
Nobody commented on it, though, and there was no opportunity to address the purple-scarved elephant in the room, which was a pity. It’s definitely better when people ask. Even if the question they ask is “So who are you trying to piss off, then?” (Thanks, N…).
The meeting ended and I went back to work and put a note on my profile page about the fact that I was wearing a scarf and why.
And then I went to the bathroom and re-pinned it, because I’d pinned it so tight at the railway station that it was chafing whenever I spoke…
In retrospect, it’s interesting that I’m so bothered that people might misinterpret me. Do I have an issue with people I know thinking that I’m Muslim? I don’t *think* that’s what’s going on, but it’s hard to tell. I do really, really hate feeling that people are staring at me and thinking weird things (I know, why did I choose this method to express solidarity again?), but I think – I hope – my main issue is one of congruence. I do try to be someone who is pretty open and honest about who I am and what I think, and, while dressing in Hijab actually feels very me, on a cultural level it definitely sends a signal about me that is simply not true. So there’s a weird sense of dissonance about it. Not too sure what to do about that one.
I did have some really good and interesting conversations through the day. It’s kind of scary how many of my colleagues who look Middle Eastern – or even the darker shades of Mediterranean – have had people say nasty racist things about them on trams. I’m half-Italian, and have always thought that I looked Italian, but evidently I’m Anglo enough to ‘pass’, because this is not something I’ve experienced. So I was quite shocked by this. One colleague who has family in Algeria told me I looked like her mother, and another colleague who is originally from Afghanistan was impressed by my Hijab technique and said that the style I have is really tricky, and she can’t manage it (I spoiled the mystique by telling her just how many times I’d had to re-do it today). We talked about how weirdly more like myself I feel in Hijab, and how she found it had the opposite effect.
I had lunch with another colleague, who was in the (fairly large) category of people who were both supportive of what I was doing, and also finding it utterly hilarious to look at me and see this woman in a long, flowing headscarf over the long flowing clothes that I wear to work pretty much all the time in winter, and which combine so well with Hijab that you’d think I bought them for that purpose. She wanted to have lunch with her ‘new Muslim friend!’, and we talked a lot about different styles of Hijab and whether we found them comfortable to look at, and whether this is really our business anyway.
Again, lots of weird looks in the Tea Room, though a couple of colleagues from my old lab came up (separately) and said “Making a statement?”. They know me well. A very large number of people also felt the need to come and tell me how pretty my headscarf looked, which I think is the other thing you do when you are feeling awkward but want to show support and be nice and not ask difficult questions.
(I feel as though that last sentence sounds patronising, and that really isn’t my intention. What is truly fascinating about this is that I’m recognising my own reactions in other people – the comment about how nice my scarf looks is exactly the sort of thing I’d do if I was trying to be polite and supportive and friendly and didn’t know what to say. It’s rather salutory to discover how weird it feels when you can hear the question someone else is asking, but they aren’t actually asking it.)
I went back down and added a statement about why I was wearing a headscarf to my work email signature, and used that signature when sending back the next round of changes on the policy document from the morning’s meeting…
And that was it, really. I had a good conversation with a few other people about what I was doing and why. I’m still not entirely sure whether wearing Hijab at work is a useful thing to do or not, even if one of my bosses thinks I look ‘very authentic’ (and I’m not entirely sure what I think of that statement, because I’m not *actually* playing dress-ups, though I think he was trying to be supportive.)
And then I came home. And took my scarf off, because I’m not going out this evening, and not expecting guests, and much as I love how it looks and feels, cooking in a flowy scarf is really kind of a pest.
I am feeling very lucky in my workplace and my colleagues right now. Admittedly, I’m probably in one of the most multicultural and left-leaning fields of employment in Australia, but that’s not really a guarantee of anything except the fact that if we held an election in my workplace today, the Greens would probably win. And we’d all vote for more funding for medical research. Even the weirdly awkward conversations came from a place of kindness and friendliness, which is a pretty amazing thing.
I admit, part of me is wondering if I have burned any bridges with people who didn’t speak to me today – but you know, there’s nearly ninety people on my floor alone, and hundreds more in the Institute. The reality is, I don’t actually exchange words with everyone every day. And the other reality is that I am inclined to assume people don’t like me, which means that I really, really can’t afford to make any guesses about what people are thinking based on what they aren’t saying.
But I’m feeling pretty OK about wearing my Hijab to work tomorrow.