Hijab, Femininity and Feminism

Today ends my week in Hijab, though I intend to keep wearing it on weekends, at least until things settle down a bit, Islamophobia-wise.  So probably for quite a while, alas – though since I’m still really enjoying wearing it, at least when I can get it to stay on, this is hardly a sacrifice on my part.

The last few days in Hijab were actually pretty normal.  I think people at work had adjusted to the sight of me in a headscarf – and perhaps I had been mis-judging some of the earlier reactions I got, too, because a few people did mention that they’d found it really difficult to get used to seeing me in it.  I look very different in Hijab.

But I’m still me.

I’ve had some fascinating conversations over the week.  Without exception, my colleagues are supportive of action against racism, against Islamophobia, and against, basically, women being attacked on the basis of what they wear.  Hooray, my colleagues!  (Even the ones with a dubious sense of humour!)  It’s not that I thought they weren’t awesome, but I’ve heard some pretty terrible stories from other people wearing Hijab about what their friends, families and colleagues have said to them about it.  I’m very lucky.  I’ve also had several conversations with vehement atheists who feel that all public religious expression should be banned – but who were, on the other hand, quite in favour of my argument that nobody should get to decide what a woman wears other than the woman herself.  And I’ve had a lovely set of conversations with Muslim women, veiled and unveiled, who  were very kind about what I was doing.

Out and about, I’m still getting a fair few suspicious stares, but I’m also getting a fair number of people being super-nice to me – trying to compensate for Islamophobia, I think.  The most disheartening thing I’ve noticed is that when I smile at people on the street or on the tram, far fewer of them smile back than usual.  This makes me rather sad.

Over the last few days, as I’ve become more at home in Hijab, and more inclined to forget what I’m wearing, I’m noticing a few subtler things about how people react to me.  I seem to have become more feminine in the public eye, which is interesting.  It’s definitely the Hijab, too, and not my clothing – apart from my scarf, I’m wearing precisely the same outfits I normally wear in cooler weather.  But suddenly, a lot more people are offering me seats on trams or holding doors for me.  Alas, with my increased femininity, I’ve also noticed a drop in my perceived IQ – not from my colleagues or friends, but out and about, I am suddenly being treated to a lot more patronising behaviour than I’m used to.  Kindly meant, I might add, but, oh, it’s irritating.

Interestingly, I’m also finding that male acquaintances touch me more when I’m wearing Hijab.  Not inappropriately or intrusively, just I’m getting a lot more friendly pats on the shoulder from people who would not normally do that. I have no idea what that’s about.  Reminding themselves that it is still me?  Very odd.  I could theorise about female bodies being somehow viewed as public domain, so that if one conceals more, people unconcsiously compensate for this, but I don’t want to go all feminist theory on what I suspect is a completely unconscious thing.

And speaking of feminist theory…

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Two days

That’s how long it has taken for everyone to forget I’m wearing a scarf and interactions to go back to normal.  True, there are still a few double takes – it’s a big Institute, and I haven’t crossed paths with everyone yet, but in my lab, everyone’s basically used to the idea and has moved on.  Which is nice.

As for me, it turns out that it’s taken about four days for me to reach the point where I can go for long periods of time without remembering that I’m wearing a scarf.  It’s not that I’ve been wandering around feeling self-conscious at all times up until now – though for the first three days, and especially on Monday, I was certainly self-conscious pretty often – but today I found that I’d become so used to the feel of my scarf that I had to check visually several times that I was still wearing it and wasn’t leaving hair or neck exposed (the horror!).  My brain is now tuning out all those nerve endings that were jumping up and down going “Something on my head!  Something on my cheek! Something on my neck!” for the last few days, and this is apparently the new normal.

This does, of course, lead to random moments of confusion when someone reacts to my scarf and at first I don’t know what they are reacting to – or moments of fear when I realise that I have forgotten what I’m wearing and have thus also forgotten to think about where I am, and have to do a quick “Is this somewhere I feel safe wearing a scarf” analysis.  Because the thing that hasn’t stopped is the constant, low-level anxiety about being out in public and looking Non-White.  Even though, I have to say, the worst I’ve had to deal with since Saturday is people moving away from me on public transport or glaring at me at tram stops.

(And I’d just like to add that while this is really very low-grade stuff, I can imagine that it’s the sort of thing that could really build up and start to weigh on one’s psyche over time.  I was bullied at school, and it took me years to walk into a room and not expect everyone to hate me on sight – I still expect this sometimes – and I must admit, getting onto public transport in Hijab does feel a lot like walking into my year nine classroom.)

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Bad Scarf Day…

This is going to be a bit of a pot-pourri post, because today was much the same as yesterday – the only difference was that I went to my singing lesson after work, which meant actually going into the city briefly, but I’m pleased to say that I seemed to blend into the crowd about as much as I usually do.

This is not the case at work, of course.

One thing I’m finding fascinating is the different responses of men and women I work with.  Don’t get me wrong, people of both genders are still being lovely.  But there are definitely gender-based differences in how men and women interact with me.  The women I work with who know why I’m wearing the scarf are treating it more or less like a new haircut – I’m getting the sorts of friendly, complimentary comments about colour, style and maintenance that I got when I died my hair a bright colour a few months back.  And then, invariably, talk turns to the convenience of bad hair days and a scarf.

(For the record, I washed my hair last night.  I re-did the colour.  I made my hair beautiful.  And then today?  I had a Bad Scarf Day, in which my hair was continually escaping, my scarf was randomly bunching up by my ear, the folds wouldn’t sit flat, my pins persisted in attacking me, everything itched – you name it, if it was annoying, my scarf was doing it.

But underneath it, I was having a great hair day.  I can tell, because I took my scarf off when I got home, and my hair looked awesome.)

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Hijabi girl goes to work!

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:

“Hi all,

No, I haven’t converted.  I’m wearing a headscarf this week because a woman was beaten up on my train line recently for wearing hijab.  In response to this, and some similar incidents, a number of non-Muslim women have decided to wear a scarf in solidarity.
(so you don’t have to look at me strangely and wonder if you should say anything…)
Have a good week!
Kind regards,

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Day two in Hijab

Today began with me attempting to get dressed.

Oh, my.

First, of course, the weather was quite hot, so there was the question of what I could wear with my Hijab.  While my Hijab teacher had told me that short sleeves were OK, I don’t think I’ve actually seen short sleeves worn with the Hijab around here, and it felt sort of wrong.  But looking in my wardrobe, I discovered that I could choose between loose, sleeveless tops, or tops with sleeves that were quite tight.  The two tops that I know I own that fall into the category of ‘not too loose but with some sleeve, at least’ were mysteriously missing.

Eventually, I found something that sort of worked – it involved layers – and moved on to attempting my scarf.

And once again, oh my.  Now, part of the problem here is vanity.  I liked how the scarf looked yesterday.  And I wanted to wear something that went with my outfit.  But it turns out that when my Hijab teacher had advised me that cotton scarves are easier, she was, if anything, understating the truth.  I went five rounds with my red, chiffon-ish scarf and three with a silk scarf, before admitting defeat and returning to my original scarf combo.  Which still took me ten minutes to get (mostly) right.  It also required more pins when I did it.

Total time to get dressed this morning?  An hour and fifteen minutes…

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Wearing Hijab in Coburg

I’m not quite sure how to write this post.  I do want to write about the day I’ve spent, but I definitely don’t want to be the white, non-Muslim woman who puts on Hijab for a day and suddenly thinks she understands what it’s like living as a Muslim woman in Australia.  So I’m going to just treat this particular post (or posts, if I end up writing more than one) as a journal of sorts, and try my best to record without drawing conclusions.  Which means it will probably be rambling and unpolished, so apologies in advance!

After my last post, and after depressing myself thoroughly by reading the comments sections in news articles about women in Hijab or Niqab being abused or attacked (never, ever read the comments sections if you want to retain any faith in your fellow humans.  Here’s a handy Twitter feed to remind you of this.), I started looking around for ways to express solidarity and engage with the Muslim community.  I’m actually much more shy than I seem (people are *terrifying*), and also afraid of doing the wrong thing and making things worse, so this was sort of difficult.

I did find a group on Facebook called Women in Solidarity with Hijabi, and it’s fairly easy to lurk in a non-confrontational way on Facebook and see what people are doing, so this seemed like a good place to start.  The idea of this group is to encourage non-Muslim women to wear the Hijab for a day or a week, to show solidarity for their Muslim sisters.

I personally love this idea for many reasons, including the entirely vain one that I’ve always secretly thought that scarves look prettier than hair and have wanted to try wearing one… But more seriously, I do like the idea both of showing solidarity in this way, and of possibly confusing the bigots.  I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if so many people started wearing headscarves that they no longer became a marker of religion (and thus, evidently, a way for nasty-minded and cowardly folk to identify people to pick on)?  And… as a feminist, I get very nervous when people talk about banning the burqa or the niqab.  I mean, yes, part of me does worry that some women are being forced to wear a garment which certainly circumscribes their freedom of action (I can’t see cycling or doing labwork in a niquab, frankly), and which may also reduce their ability to participate socially in society – but I think that banning these garments is likely to further isolate women who may not have a choice about their covering, or who are deeply conscientious about it – like the girls in France who simply stopped going to school when the hijab was banned, because they did not feel that they could be uncovered in public.  But most of all, I really, really am not comfortable with the government telling women (and it’s always women) what they may or may not wear.  I wouldn’t like it if the government forced me to wear a burqa, and I wouldn’t like it if the government forced me to go topless.  What I wear should be nobody’s business but my own.

Of course, the obvious question that arises from this idea is – is wearing a hijab when I’m not Muslim offensive to Muslims?

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