Feb. 1 marked World Hijab Day, an annual event founded in 2013 to encourage women of all religious backgrounds to wear and experience the hijab.
Nazma Khan, a Muslim social activist and Bangladeshi immigrant, founded the movement with the goal of fostering global religious tolerance. Khan aimed to provide a venue for thoughtful conversation on the hijab’s meaning and significance. In accordance with Khan’s vision, UNC’s Muslim Student Association and others worldwide held “hijab try-on booths,” where non-Muslim women were encouraged to try on hijabs and take photos in them, and even challenged to wear the hijab for the day’s duration.
While I appreciate the sentiment of solidarity behind the movement, I must also acknowledge the way World Hijab Day outlines the exploitative relationship that exists between western societies and their conditional support for Islamic practices.
Hijab is accepted when embraced by mainstream audiences in a show of tolerance and inclusion, yet pop culture continues to perpetuate a double standard in relation to how Muslim vs. non-Muslim women are expected to behave.
Last month, for example, British Muslim Amena Khan became L’Oreal’s only hijab-wearing model to front their hair care campaign. Fashion and beauty bloggers were quick to express their praise for L’Oreal’s efforts towards inclusion. However, shortly afterwards, a right-wing US media outlet unearthed tweets by Khan in 2014, in which she’d expressed her condemnation of Israel’s war in Gaza.
Days later, Khan announced her resignation, apologizing for the divisive content of her tweets. Journalist Areeb Ullah pointed out the double standard exemplified by the situation, citing how contrastingly, Israeli actress Gal Gadot was never forced to apologize for outwardly supporting the same war.
The word hijab is derived from the Arabic word for modesty, and women who choose to wear it do so to project an image of self-respect, and as a badge of religious identity. The hijab is a constant reminder of one’s commitment to Islam.
Although it is sometimes seen and depicted as a tool for oppression, in my experience, it’s the exact opposite. The hijab empowers women like myself to unapologetically embrace their faith, and encourages society to value character, personality and thought before appearance.
World Hijab Day is idealistic in that it exposes wearers to the community-building potential of hijab, but does little to address the fact that these very communities are often dehumanized and misrepresented by mainstream media.