How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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Hijab Symbol Icon

An Arabic word with a wide range of meanings, hijab most commonly refers to a specific kind of headscarf worn as a veil by some Muslim women. (Someone who wears the hijab is called a hijabi.) In other contexts, the word also denotes the principle of modesty, the social separation of men and women, and codes of women’s dress in general.

Many Westerners interpret the hijab as evidence of women’s repression under Islam because they assume that men force them to wear it in order to cover their bodies. But, in reality, the hijab is often a feminist symbol in the West; Bayoumi suggests that most American hijabis, like Yasmin, are “far from the stereotype of the submissive and retreating female” but rather see the hijab as an expression of cultural pride and statement against Islamophobia, even if they recognize that wearing one can open them to discrimination or violence. He cites one scholar who argued that, in France, wearing the hijab is a way for Muslim women to “mark and claim a presence in the public sphere” where they are otherwise invisible. The standard Western narrative is based on the false assumption that feminism is a necessarily secular struggle, which requires women to give up cultural and religious symbols and adopt a uniform code of Western dress that is ostensibly “neutral” (but actually just as culturally particular as the hijab).

The hijab therefore symbolizes not just Islam, but also all the assumptions about Islam that divide Muslims from non-Muslims and reproduce deeply-embedded, centuries-old stereotypes of Muslims as violent, culturally backwards, and hostile to Western culture. For a white couple on Yasmin’s bus in Brooklyn, for instance, a woman’s hijab signifies that she must be a terrorist; but for Yasmin, the same woman’s hijab stands for the inclusive, multicultural society and right to free expression that she values so dearly in the United States.

Hijab Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

The How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? quotes below all refer to the symbol of Hijab. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? published in 2008.
Yasmin Quotes

“911. What's your emergency?”

“There's a white couple on a city bus. I think she has a bomb in her purse. It's a 863 bus, going up Fifth Avenue. The license plate is . . .”

She wanted to call. She really did, just to make a point, to make them feel the same way—singled out, powerless, discriminated against, a source of irrational fear. But she didn't call. In fact, she didn't do anything, and because of that she was annoyed with herself.

Related Characters: Moustafa Bayoumi (speaker), Yasmin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hijab
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:
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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? PDF

Hijab Symbol Timeline in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

The timeline below shows where the symbol Hijab appears in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Yasmin
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
...to pick up food for her sisters, Yasmin watches a white couple harass a fellow hijab-wearing Muslim woman, suggesting that she has a bomb under her blanket. It is just a... (full context)
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Yasmin, like many hijab-wearing women in the United States, is fearless and formidable, “far from the stereotype of the... (full context)
Rami
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
...and helps in their da‘wa. Bayoumi remembers an article about French Muslim women wearing the hijab or worshipping in public to “mark and claim a presence in the public sphere.” Similarly,... (full context)