Saturday, April 09, 2005


I know I haven't blogged in ages. This piece dates back originally to early October 2001, about a month or so following the events of 9/11. At a time when Muslim women were removing their hijab out of fear of harassment, a wonderful woman chose to make a statement. She began what became known as Scarves for Solidarity -- an effort for all women in the U.S. of all faiths to wear a headscarf for one day. Those that visited her website were invited to post a journal entry about their experiences wearing hijab. That day was October 8, 2001. This is a story about my experience the very first time I wore hijab.

Wearing Hijab

My experience began on Sunday, when I began my search for a hijab. I had heard of the Scarves for Solidarity campaign the day before and it struck me that this was something that I could do. I'd been feeling so very helpless in the face of all that had happened recently – and I live in an area with a large Muslim population.

I began my search in Berkeley at the sari shops and was able to find a scarf, but it wasn't really quite what I'd had in mind. Then, as I headed back to Oakland, I remembered the Public Market food court in Emeryville, and the Afghan restaurant, Pamir. It occurred to me that they could probably advise me about where, on a Sunday, I might find a hijab. Not only did the owner give me explicit directions to a place near my home, he seemed so very touched when I told him why. We spoke a bit about the world situation and he told me that he felt very lucky that his customers had been so supportive.

So I went to the market the owner had directed me to, only to find them closed up tight! Sigh. Not willing to go all the way to Fremont, I figured I would just have to make do with the scarf I had purchased earlier.

Later that evening, as I wandered off in search of dinner, I decided to take one final swing past the market, and to my surprise, the doors were now wide open. I parked and entered. A young Middle Eastern man at the counter asked if he could help me and I told him that I understood that I could purchase a hijab there. I ended up with a black one with nice lace trim. A two-piece under-cap and tube-like over-scarf that I now refer to as a "no-brainer" hijab, nearly impossible to get it on wrong.

During our transaction, our conversation turned to the reasons why I, an obviously white, middle-aged woman would wish to purchase such an item, and I explained about the Scarves for Solidarity effort. He met my eyes and said, merely, "Thank you."

We did share some humorous moments as he tried to show me how to wear this newly-purchased hijab; the under-cap going all askew as I tried to get the over-scarf into place. Eventually, I said I'd manage it at home in front of a mirror.

I then headed back to Pamir, in part to get dinner and in part to thank the owner. As I approached, I proudly held aloft my purchase, exclaiming, "I got it!"

He called his teenage daughter over and explained to her what I was planning to do. She was very thrilled and amazed that I would do such a thing. The owner also expressed a desire to actually see me wearing this hijab, so I told him that I would stop by for lunch the following day.

So that was Sunday. I felt that I had touched the lives of a number of people with the mere intent of this gesture.

On Monday, I wore the hijab all day and into the evening. It was the most amazing day! All of my experiences were positive and I managed to open dialogue with a number of people.

I began by wearing the hijab when I took my dog downstairs to run around out back. I ran into one of my neighbors and it struck me as funny – there was no reaction at all from him... nada... even though we spent some time chatting as we normally do when we meet. I decided not to bring it up if he didn't... and he didn't.

I realized that my usual attire of shorts and "Dyke March" t-shirt probably wasn't particularly appropriate, so I found myself dressed in my favorite long-sleeved green shirt and black jeans.

I went to Pamir for lunch. I did feel a bit self-conscious at first on the drive to Emeryville, but that feeling passed soon enough. As I headed for the counter, the owner spotted me and hit face lit up in a huge grin. He told me how nice I looked. He then called all the workers/family over to see me and asked me to explain the purpose of what I was doing.

Later, I went to Safeway in search of some halvah (go figure) and discovered that they didn't have any. Tahini, yes; halvah, no way. Sigh. So I headed over to the market where I had purchased my hijab, assuming that they would have some.

There are three businesses in a row: a halal meat market, a tiny grocery store, and a pizza restaurant. I began at the meat market and was sent next door. As I approached, the men gathered around the entrance parted respectfully to let me pass. Inside the store, it was quite narrow, and a man there stepped aside, saying, "Excuse me, Sister." There was no question in anyone's mind that I was an observant Muslim woman and deserving of respect. It was a very interesting feeling. I found what I wanted and brought it to the counter. The clerk recognized me and grinned! He seemed very pleased that I had managed to put on my hijab properly.

After returning home, I took my dog out again, and sat on the back stairs while she ran around. Shortly thereafter, my down-the-hall neighbor, Amina, came downstairs. Amina is originally from Somalia, but normally does not cover unless she is taking her father to the mosque. Her eyes got all big and she asked me what in the ... I explained the situation and I could tell she was moved by it. We sat and talked about being Muslim and being lesbian (she Muslim and I lesbian) and how we both understood what it's like to be part of an oppressed minority. She is very open-minded and shared some stories about when she was younger and living in L.A. She also offered me a copy of the Qur'an, should I be interested in reading it. I told her I would be very interested, but to please make sure that it wasn't just in Arabic. We shared a laugh over that.

As Amina and I sat on the steps talking, we were joined by another neighbor, Omar, a young Pakistani man who had recently moved in upstairs. He and I often discussed politics and the world situation when we met.

So, I learned a lot about Islam that day. I made a number of people feel respected and worthwhile. I made myself happy. I proved (again) my belief that the more we reach out to break down the barriers of "us" and "them", the less there are of "them" and the more there are of "us".

For whatever it's worth, I feel that I did some good in the world that day and I feel that my life is forever changed for the better because of it.

Bobbe Leviten © 2001; 2005

4 comment(s):

  • Salaams

    Beautiful post, Masha Allah.

    In the UK, we have the Assembly for the Protection of Hijab, aka Prohijab:




    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/09/2005 04:53:00 AM  

  • Salam Bobbe,
    I, as you are aware, have worn the head scarf for many years and it is very much a part of me. I am going to the US for the first time in several years this summer with my kids who also have not seen it for years. Is it going to cause a lot of problems if I leave it on? I really feel wrong with it off.

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 4/11/2005 12:05:00 AM  

  • Salaam, Anna:

    I sometimes wear hijab and sometimes don't. I don't believe that you'll have any problems if you choose to wear it. I haven't. I decided to wear hijab when I went to renew my driver's license in February. Nobody batted an eye.

    Should you have any problem, CAIR has numbers you can call to report such incidents.

    The farther away you are from things, the more out of proportion they get blown. This is very true of earthquakes around here -- I get calls and emails from friends around the world wondering if I'm okay -- even if what happened wasn't even close.

    I'm sure you will have no problems. I and Mona and Vana and Nilofer all are eagerly awaiting your visit!

    By Blogger Bobbe, at 4/11/2005 02:41:00 PM  

  • Salaam.
    It was wonderful to read about your experience of headscarfe day. It would be great to have something like this in the UK. People here have a really odd relationship to hijab. To non muslims it typifies the oppressive nature of islam and many people believe that if muslim women had a choice they would be wipping it off and having blonde highlights done. If a woman says she likes wearing hijab then it's becuase she's in a state of denile about it and feels she needs to defend her religion.

    Speaking to French aquaintance recently I was further shocked by their attitude to hijab. 'They wont take it off..' said my aquaintance indignantly. Although the social attitude to dress in the UK generally is different to France, I am baffled by the French femminist stance on the issue. After spending decades campaigning for women to be seen in terms of who we are rather than what we look like it seem rather hypocritical to tell women that to wear hijab is oppressive. The rhetoric in the UK is not dissimilar. Years spent wearing dungerees have been wasted as now being liberated means how little you are wearing and how young you look.

    I cannot help thinking that there is a link between the drive to make western (UK)women more concious about their physical appearance, and to follow fashion to the degree that surgery is undertaken to pursue it, and the negative portrayal of muslim women who do neither.

    Indeed there are issues regarding hijab and patriachal attitudes to women, however I would also argue that many of those arguments are equaly valid in regards to the fashion industry and western media.

    Having though about the hijab for some time I have no problem with wearing hijab (I cannot fulltime - a personal reason)and one day I hope to be in a position to wear one full time.

    By Blogger ummiskander, at 4/18/2005 01:49:00 PM  

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