By Mariam Amir Hassan
How many times a year do we enjoy a free day from work and if it is not free, merely reminded of special days in our calendar? The short answer is quite a few. Having said that, my question for you is: what do you know about the World Hijab Day on the 1st of February?
In a spirit of making history by marking a special day, I, along with women from different parts of the world, have joined in a campaign to raise awareness of the headscarf (what is known as ‘hijab’). Part of this campaign is to invite both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear it for one day and tell us about their experiences – this is the World Hijab Day. World Hijab Day is the brainchild of Nazma Khan.
On YouTube in ‘World Hijab Day’ at a Rad Talk, you find Nazma eloquently talking about how it feels wearing the hijab in New York – before and in the aftermath of 9/11. With an open emotional tone to her voice, she takes us back in her life by saying: “I had no idea that a piece of fabric on my head would cause me so much pain for the next several years. I was discriminated against both verbally and physically. I was called names such as batman and ninja. At one point, a student literally kicked me and spat at me both inside and outside of school.”
She wanted women to walk in her shoes and feel how it is to wear a headscarf (some people call women with headscarves a ‘hijabi’) and thus she created the website for World Hijab Day in 2013. She comments: “My message was simply to invite women of all faiths across the globe to wear the hijab for just one day on February 1st. Within just eight days, I got responses from women from sixty-seven countries worldwide, including United Kingdom, Australia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sweden, Albania, Denmark and Mexico.”
Her call received positive response and many were inspired to start projects for the World Hijab Day. Last year at Middlesex University, I and a group of friends invited others to have a debate about the hijab and try one if they like. I still laugh about the reaction of some ladies when they saw themselves for the first time with a hijab in a mirror. “I can’t believe this is me…it actually looks nice”, was the first impression of one student. In solidarity with their hijabi friends, women lined up for the ‘hijab trial’ and opened up about their thoughts of the headscarves. “I think women should be allowed to wear what they want and no one should instruct them. I am happy to see this event because it shows that the hijab is beautiful and women are not oppressed in it but rather free.” And so, women had their portraits with messages about the hijab, such as ‘Ana Horra’ which translates to ‘I am Free’ in Arabic and ‘Hijab is my Choice’.
These positive messages of the hijab are unfortunately not prevalent in our society, especially in the media where the hijab and the face-veil (the niqab) or for that matter any religious covering are linked to extremism or a sign of oppression. Daily Express made this headline about the hijab: ‘Veil Case Teacher Costs Us £250,000’. The front cover of the best-selling family newspaper, The Sun, made this demand: ‘Ban Veils in Schools, Courts and Hospitals’.
So when the media showed a genuine interest for women and their experiences in wearing the hijab, it was refreshing. The BBC was one of the first to write about the World Hijab Day and featured a story about a young non-Muslim woman who when given the opportunity to wear the hijab by a friend, took it. “They [her parents] were worried I would be attacked in the street because of a lack of tolerance.”
The World Hijab day is like other special days, a good chance to educate our society that no one can judge a book by its cover and Muslim women certainly also have their stories to tell.