For American Muslim women, hijabs affirm their right to choose

Bushra Amiwala, 25, is the youngest person to ever serve on the school board in the Illinois town of Skokie. Her work is focused in creating a more inclusive school system. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Akilah Townsend

As the only hijabi student at her Bronx, N.Y., school in the ’90s, Nazma Khan faced so much Islamophobia that she contemplated dropping out. Her classmates called the Bangladeshi immigrant names such as “ninja,” “Batman” and “Mother Teresa.” She was shoved, kicked and spat on by students, who often waited outside her classroom to try to pull off her headscarf.

After 9/11, as a recent college graduate living in New York City as a visibly Muslim woman, Khan said the hijabophobia only worsened, and she was chased down city streets and called a terrorist. Still, Khan said she loved wearing her hijab, an “outward expression of my inner faith,” and wanted to help women and girls like her who were being mistreated.

“I kept on thinking about it, and I was like, ‘What if I asked women from all walks of life to wear the hijab for one day?'” she said. “Maybe they will see that I am not hiding a bomb underneath my scarf or that this scarf does not have a life of its own to oppress me.”

After three years ruminating on the idea, Khan founded World Hijab Day in 2013. The February holiday encourages people to spend a day donning hijabs in an effort to normalize them and upend false assumptions about the head covering. Since its start, not every Muslim has applauded the annual event, but it has quickly gained popularity, spreading to more than 150 countries.

For Muslim women, wearing a hijab is an act of worship as well as a way to practice modesty, a principle expected in the behavior and dress of all Muslims. Although the visibility of the head coverings has made women targets of Islamophobia, Muslim women who wear the hijab in the United States say the decision to wear the cloth covering is a liberating one. By sharing their diverse hijabi journeys, they say they are proof that Muslim women are not a monolith.

When Houston author and illustrator Huda Fahmy began wearing a hijab at 10 years old, she felt the pressure to be perfect and live up to the piety associated with it. As she grew older, she realized she did not need to fit a mold for the hijab to be a meaningful part of how she practiced Islam.

“A lot of times we are reduced to having the same experiences,” Fahmy said. But “every hijabi has a different relationship with her scarf and with her religion and with the way she decides to wear it and present herself.”

In her comic books, such as “Yes, I’m Hot in This” and the forthcoming “Huda F Cares,” Fahmy uses humor to work through stereotypes and tell stories about nuanced hijabi characters, such as someone who loves wearing her hijab and does not struggle with the desire to wear it, or someone who is part of a large Muslim community.

Fahmy has always loved comics, but she felt drawn to pursue cartooning as a career in 2016, compelled to combat Islamophobic narratives from politicians such as Donald Trump who talked about Muslims without talking to Muslims.

Bushra Amiwala, 25, who serves as the youngest school board member in the Illinois town of Skokie, said she also noticed the sentiment at the time and how the treatment of Muslim people would “ebb and flow based on the political climate.”

It helped her make the decision to ease into wearing a hijab, as both another step forward in her religious journey and a way to destigmatize the hijab. “My intention of wearing the hijab was to rewrite the preconceived notion people had for Muslim women before it became permanently ingrained in their minds,” she said. “And I thought the best way to do so is when our thoughts and beliefs are malleable: in high school.”

Her plan worked. When Amiwala went to high school wearing her hijab, she fielded a lot of questions from her classmates, such as whether she still washes her hair, which she does. As a school board member, she also supported legislation that addressed the lack of in-depth education about Islam and other religions in Illinois public schools.

“I am so grateful that I live in an area where I have the choice. That empowers me to another level,” she said. “I can freely choose to cover my head, and that is a choice that I am making that I can see through.”

Iman Zawahry made the choice to start wearing a hijab during her sophomore year of college in an effort to dispel stereotypes. Sometimes when meeting people for the first time, she says they are surprised by her personality: boisterous and funny, without a foreign accent.

She hopes her work as a filmmaker can also bring more Muslim stories, ones that do not revolve around terrorism or the oversexualization of women, to the forefront. One of the movies she directed, “Americanish” which was released in 2021, is the first American Muslim romantic comedy made by an American Muslim woman and has been acquired by Sony Pictures International Productions.

“It is just a rom-com, but it is a rom-com with three Brown Pakistani Muslim women, and they are leading the film. It is not a crazy idea, but it is something that we have not seen,” Zawahry said. “These are the stories that I connected with when I grew up, and I really just wanted to see it through my eyes.”

Whether it is wearing a hijab on set or making sure hijabis are represented on-screen, Zawahry is passionate about activism and promoting American Muslim visibility. “This is what I want the film to do: to create awareness and change and move people to be better community members,” she said.



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