MIDDLEBURY — The hijab, or head scarf, is one of the more recognized — and at times, controversial — symbols of the Muslim faith. For some, it represents female oppression; for some, modesty; for some, faith.
For most Americans, the hijab is simply a mystery.
So when three Muslim students at Middlebury College spoke about their reasons for wearing hijab last Thursday, the hall was packed with people sitting on the floor and craning in through the doors to catch some of the conversation.
What they found was that the three women, while all Muslim, each had a unique story when it came to their wearing of the Islamic headscarf.
“Everyone’s perspective on the hijab is different,” said Mahnaz Rezaie, a first-year student at Middlebury, during the Islamic Society of Middlebury College event. “But I want (people) to respect what I am.”
Professors Justin Stearns and Febe Armanios started off the Islamic Society of Middlebury College event with the religious, historical and sociological background of the veil.
When the three young women began to tell their stories, the room fell silent, rapt with attention.
Hafsa Ahmad, who is from central New Jersey, was the first to speak and the only one with a bare head. Ahmad, a sophomore at the college, began wearing the hijab just after Sept. 11, 2001. She grew up in a Pakistani family, surrounded by a strong Muslim community, and what prompted her to start wearing the hijab was the perception that, immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers, many members of her community were ashamed to demonstrate their religion, due to a resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment.
“I saw women removing the hijab and men shaving their beards,” she said.
So in November of that year, at the age of 11, she decided to start wearing the hijab. She spoke of the slurs and strange looks she got on the street.
For Ahmad, the hijab was a way to fight back against the prejudices she saw surrounding her religion. With her head scarf, she wore t-shirts that bore slogans like “This is what a Muslim feminist looks like,” or “Kiss me, I’m Muslim.”
Before she came to college, Ahmad thought carefully about her identity as a “hijabi,” or one who wears the hijab.
“In high school, I was ‘that outspoken hijabi,’” she laughed.
But she questioned the very reason that she was wearing the hijab — the core of her identity. So until she knew who she was, she decided to stop wearing it. She is still a dedicated member of the Islamic Society at the college — she just chose not to wear the scarf shortly before she came to Middlebury.
Mariam Boxwala was born in India and grew up in Canada. She chose to go through the coming-of-age ceremony and start wearing the rida at age 13. The rida is a robe and head scarf, her sect’s interpretation of the hijab. The one she wore on Thursday was pink.
“It was harder to ride a bike after that,” said Boxwala, a first-year student at Middlebury.
And in her last year of high school, Boxwala’s family moved to Vermont, where she was one of three Indians in a school of 1,500 students at Essex Junction High School. Other students and teachers often assumed that she didn’t speak English. And the clothing that tied her to her culture and her religion sometimes made her feel excluded.
“The world is getting smaller, and everyone communicates in politics and economics. But they don’t communicate in culture,” said Boxwala.
This lack of communication about culture led to her experiences with people she came in contact with in high school.
“They aren’t ignorant. They just don’t know yet,” she added.
Rezaie grew up in a very different environment — she comes from Afghanistan.
“Before coming here, I was worried because I wear the hijab and I don’t shake hands with men,” she said.
Her English teacher in Kabul assured Rezaie that this would be a problem — when she told him that she wanted to work for an American company, he told her that she would never be able to. She asked him why.
“He told me, ‘Because you are wearing the hijab,’” she said.
But she did find a job with an American company, and then decided that she wanted to continue her education in the United States. When she told people, they told her the same thing: She would never be able to study in the United States without removing her hijab.
Now that she is in the U.S., she said, people sometimes think that her parents force her to wear the hijab.
“If they forced me, I would have taken it off when I got here,” she said. “But it’s my faith.”
Her hijab was colorful, threaded with gold. She wore a black band underneath to make sure no hair was showing.
“There are some things that you change when you go to another country. I don’t eat Afghan food here. But I can’t change my faith,” she said.
Rezaie emphasized that, even back home, the hijab isn’t something that all Muslim women wear. At work in Kabul, she often felt that men listened to her better, since they weren’t focusing on her appearance.
The question-and-answer section ran almost as long as the talk itself, and it transformed the event into a dialog — people shared their own experiences and asked questions about feminism, restrictions, and fashion trends in hijabs and robes.
But the highlight, to many of the attendees, was the honesty and humor with which Boxwala, Ahmad and Rezaie had shared their stories.
“It’s my identity — it’s part of who I am,” said Boxwala. “But it’s only one part of my identity.”