by Cristina Serra
What comes to mind when you see someone wearing a hijab? For many people in the West, the hijab is a powerful symbol of oppression. Many view it as a testament to the “backwardness” of Muslim culture in regards to women and as proof that no substantive developments have been made to foster gender equality in Muslim regions. Indeed, movements like My Stealthy Freedom in Iran or the FEMEN movement in Ukraine add bitter fire to the idea that women only wear the hijab because it has been forced upon them. My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook page founded by London-based journalist Masij Alinejad that encourages women to post photos sans hijab, already has more than 655,000 likes and thousands of daily posts. Spread across these Facebook pages are pictures of brave Iranian women flaunting their locks as a protest against laws that make the hijab compulsory. To someone with little or no knowledge of Muslim culture, movements like these may enforce the preconception that the majority of women who wear the hijab— from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia to Somalia— would rather go without it.
Nevertheless, my time in the Middle East and at Georgetown has proven quite the opposite. I’ve learned that much of the negativity towards hijabs comes from a lack of understanding of what they represent and why women choose to wear them. For many women, the hijab is a symbol of faith and culture, an article of clothing that tells the world who they are and what they believe in. It is something they wear with pride, no different than the frat boys with flags on their way to the ‘Mericuh party on Prospect. It is a way for them to prove that modesty can still be stylish and feminine, while still displaying their individuality. Far from being a burden, wearing the hijab is something many Muslim women love and appreciate, an emblem of both personal choice and cultural identity.
Part of this pride involves showcasing the hijab by making it look effortlessly chic. When I walk around campus, I see girls running around in fabulous hijabs (and clothes and shoes and bags . . . I’ll stop digressing now), always adding to them personal style. Floral designs, embellishments, and golden details— I have never once seen a hijab on campus that was identical. Wityan Alawfi, a student of Georgetown’s Intensive English Program, says she likes “simple styles that don’t have too many colors”. She told me that although the “turban-style hijab” (where a scarf is tied around the head in a tight knot rather than around the neck) is the new trend, she prefers the traditional, low-key look.
Aseel Alhumaidan, on the other hand, says she loves trying new patterns and designs. Like Wityan, she is from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and is also in the English Program. She caught my eye when she was walking through the Farmer’s Market in a chic outfit with a simple hijab. It was subtle and lavender, adding a nice contrast to her grey Céline sweater, striped black and white skirt and metallic backpack. She might keep it simple today, but she loves finding rare designs and staying up-to-date with the latest trends.
Photo by Tiffany Lam
“I can’t wear the same style for two days in a row, and I like trying out different patterns” she exclaims with a gleaming smile. “There are a lot of Instagram accounts that help me choose my hijab”, she adds, referring to the hundreds of accounts specifically for hijabi fashion, like Chichijab and Hijabfashion.
The fact that so many women want to showcase their hijabs by making them a fashion statement forces us to rethink any biases we might have about the Muslim headscarf. I don’t mean to argue that all women love the hijab or that it doesn’t pose several difficulties for many women around the world. In several regions, the use of the hijab is just the surface of many other gender issues that constrict women in regards to education, employment and human rights. What I want to voice is that every society has cultural nuances that are often melded into one dull, misplaced category. Not all women dislike wearing the hijab, just like not all Mexicans like guacamole or all Northeasterners like pastels. Thankfully, Georgetown has a way of exposing true cultures even outside the classroom, teaching us that what we’ve learned is not always what holds true. Pay attention, and you’ll see that the girls who wear the hijab on campus manage to transform a Muslim tradition into one unusually striking fashion statement.