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?
“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.