A lone table stood under a white tent on the quad Wednesday morning and afternoon.
On the table were children’s books, stickers, pamphlets and polaroid pictures — all featuring women wearing hijabs.
Wednesday, Feb. 1, was World Hijab Day, an international holiday to raise awareness and celebrate Muslim hijabi women. The UNC Muslim Students Association set up a tent in the quad to commemorate the day. Blue letter balloons that read ‘World Hijab Day’ adorned the front side.
“When I think of World Hijab Day, I think of so many people coming together to break the stereotypes of what the hijab is and break the stereotypes of what Islam is — just something that's been portrayed so negatively by Western media, especially when a lot of the information out there about Islam and the religion and the people is so misconstrued,” first-year student and MSA member Mariam Matin said.
Community members who stopped by MSA’s tent had the opportunity to speak with hijabi women and even try on hijabs themselves.
MSA members also sold stickers featuring a hijabi woman’s silhouette. The proceeds went toward Duha, a nonprofit that provides women in Niger with entrepreneurship skills and resources to start their own businesses.
“It's like a whole woman empowerment event in different aspects,” Rida Bayraktar, MSA vice president, said.
But in addition to celebrating the hijab, MSA also sought to bring attention to the prejudice hijabi women face. These women are more vulnerable to hate crimes and discrimination just because they are visibly Muslim, Bayraktar said.
About seven out of 10 hijabi women indicate they have faced discrimination at least once, compared to three out of 10 non-hijabi Muslim women, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
This discrimination is not always intentional, but it is harmful, first-year MSA member Sarah Nayel said. She said it often first manifests itself through staring or offensive questions like "Are you bald?"
“A lot of people just assume a lot of things about Islam, like that it's a terroristic religion, or that it's really violent or really strict,” she said. “And I think just being able to share the hijab, which is one of the more beautiful, yet misunderstood parts of our religion, is something that's really special about World Hijab Day.”
Bayraktar, Matin and Nayel all expressed having positive and negative experiences while wearing the hijab.
Bayraktar, who lived in Turkey from her elementary school years until the end of high school, recalled significant discrimination in Turkey.
“In Turkey, women at the time couldn't get an education with a hijab,” she said. “They had to take off their hijabs to go to school, they couldn't work with a hijab and so many things were banned for hijabi women. So it was a big choice and sacrifice to make.”
She even relayed an anecdote of Mother’s Day in Turkey, when her elementary school teacher would not allow her to show photos of her mother like the rest of the students because her mother wore a hijab.
“(My teacher) would make me find pictures from the internet of random white American family pictures so that I wasn't showing my mom being a hijabi person,” she said.
Club members also highlighted their tendency to be hyper-conscious of their hijab at UNC and beyond.
They said that when they wear the hijab, they feel they represent the Muslim community at large. They said they feel significant pressure not to make mistakes, with the fear that those would reflect poorly on the entire Muslim community.
“You're viewed as a representative for millions of people on a daily basis,” Bayraktar said.
Despite this increased self-consciousness, Bayraktar, Matin and Nayel all said their experiences wearing their hijabs at UNC have been mostly positive.
They spoke fondly of campus diversity and minority empowerment, and said they feel more comfortable wearing their hijab on campus than in some places they have previously lived.
“Here it just feels like it's a part of me that nobody can change, nobody can take away. So, I wear it a lot more comfortably and a lot more openly now,” Nayel said.
But although the girls said they feel comfortable wearing the hijab, Matin pointed out a separate aspect of her Muslim identity that presents a challenge on campus.
She said access to halal meat in campus dining halls was limited during her first semester as a student, and she and other Muslim students ended up canceling their meal plans. In her words, Halal is a way of slaughtering disease-free animals in the most humane way possible.
Matin said she was told campus dining would soon bring back halal meat every day of the week. She said the lack of access to halal meat is one example of the need to raise awareness about challenges for Muslim students.
Bayraktar echoed Matin’s desire to raise the UNC community’s consciousness.
“World Hijab Day is not one day, ‘Let's do it and then call it a day,’" she said. “It’s actually a continuous process about raising awareness about hijabi Muslim women and then carrying respect and understanding towards them.”
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