Junior Nabila Dadar says she has been the subject of stares ever since she arrived on campus and discovered that she was the only Muslim student at Knox to wear the hijab, an isolating situation that initially led her to consider transferring to another college. Dadar decided, with the help of other members of the Islamic Club, to use her unique position to educate students about the hijab and what it means to her.
This past Wednesday, Feb. 24, the club hosted “Hijab Day” on campus, open to all female-identifying students who wanted to spend a day in the shoes of Muslim women who decide to wear the hijab.
Dadar helped create the event to educate students and faculty as a response to a mentality she witnessed at Knox, which saw the hijab as a form of oppression.
“That is why I want women to wear it, because me standing up there saying it’s empowering is not really going to do much for the campus,” Dadar explained. “But I think giving women the opportunity to wear it will allow them to think about it in ways they haven’t before.”
The hijab is a scarf wrapped around the head, covering one’s hair and neck. Its literal Arabic translation means “curtain” or, more applicably, “covering.” To explain why Muslim women wear the head covering and what it is intended to do for them, Islamic Club hosted a session on Monday, Feb. 22 entitled “Hijab: This is Our Empowerment” to open dialogue and give out headscarves. All participants of Hijab Day were required to attend the event to take part and were encouraged to join in a reflection session on the evening of Hijab Day two days later.
Dadar, who is Co-President of Islamic Club and junior Diandra Soemardi led the event with the support of other Islamic Club members. Once they explained what the hijab was, they explained its importance.
“This is a commandment from God,” Dadar explained. In committing to the act of wearing the hijab, the wearer gives a visible sign of submission to God.
Beyond that, the intent behind covering the body in such a way is to encourage modesty in women and to promote treatment of women as individuals so they will be judged on the merit of their character instead of their gender.
In response to the equality argument often made by Westerners, Soemardi added that the idea of “everything should be the same” for men and women is not applicable in Islam. Dadar explained further by saying that men have different obligations, such as looking down when speaking to women and bringing money made back into the home for all the family to benefit from. Women do not have this obligation.
Along with wearing the hijab, Dadar and Soemardi emphasized other requirements of hijab dress. Because the aim is to focus on modesty, women who dress this way must also wear loose clothing that does not cling in a way that could be construed as emphasizing a woman’s sexuality. It requires also that only the face, hands and feet be showing at any time.
Islamic Club Co-President and senior Rohail Khan cautioned that hijab practices are not totally universal. “What Pakistani women consider modesty might not be something that someone from Indonesia might consider modesty. É There have been cultural interpretations of it, but obviously the main obligatory factors in a basic definition still remains the same.”
Many of the Islamic Club members come from diverse backgrounds, which brings in a cultural element to hijab-wearing. Dadar, born but not raised in Kenya, visited the country and encountered a lax view of the hijab in which women do not pin the hijabs in place but wrap them around their heads and allow hair to show underneath.
Soemardi, a native of Indonesia, explained that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and thus the hijab is very common. She cited peer and societal pressure to wear the hijab as well, especially when people question why she doesn’t wear the hijab and when she witnesses friends growing older and deciding to take it on even after the normal starting age of puberty.
Soemardi also emphasized her belief that “those who mandate wearing the hijab [are] political, and [it] is part of their culture and is not part of Islam.”
Dadar diverged from Soemardi in her interpretation of cultural versus religious mandates.
“According to Islam, just how we have to pray five times a day, that is mandatory,” Dadar explained. “You have to give to charity whether you like it or not. That a women needs to cover, that is not a choice.” The choice, Dadar said, comes from a current-day cultural decision of whether or not to wear the hijab. But in the Quran, she states, “It is very much encouraged.”
Another element they focused on was the idea of cultural appropriation and how that could play into wearing the hijab as a non-Muslim.
“I think it’s disrespectful when you wear it without knowing the significance behind it,” Dadar said. “I think it’s very disrespectful to someone who does wear it.”
Soemardi defined cultural appropriation as the taking of an element of another’s culture without permission or a deeper understanding of the element being taken out of its context. In having students participate in the discussion about the hijab, Islamic Club gave their permission as believers of the faith with the understanding that the women would take with them the deeper meaning of the scarves they wore. This was emphasized again with the inclusion of a reflection session on the evening of Hijab Day.
Islamic Club is not the first group at Knox to participate in this kind of activity. Professor of Religion James Thrall holds an Introduction to Religion course every fall which requires students to take on a generalized religious or spiritual practice for a certain length of time and write a report on their choice for their final paper. In 2013, a group of four women, one of whom was a Muslim who did not wear a hijab regularly, decided to wear the hijab for a week as their project.
Thrall was initially wary of the idea, as it replicated a distinctly Muslim practice instead of a more generic one. He allowed them to complete the project on the condition that they be aware of any protest from Muslim students. When they experienced no backlash, he allowed another student a year later to pursue the project as well. In their reports, he saw that they held a greater respect for the practice and underlying ideas of modesty.
“The exercise itself just provides another mode of learning that’s not just book knowledge,” Thrall said. “What does it feel like to wear always a public identity. What affect does that have on how a person feels?”
While the young women in the religion course wore it for a longer period of time, the Islamic Club hopes that even just a day devoted to it will help change perceptions.
After the informational session, students took blue scarves provided by Islamic Club to wear on Hijab Day. Some students stayed behind to take part in an informal demonstration on different styles to wear the hijab. Junior Laura Lee tried hers on with the help of Dadar, patting down the scarf to make sure it covered all of her hair.
“Personally, I am Christian, but I believe every religion has a truth about God,” Lee said in explaining why she choose to participate. “I think it’s a very narrow-minded view to say that my religion is the only religion that knows the truth about God.”
By the end of the night, only a few scarves remained of the 40 set out for participants to take. Dadar worried about how many students would actually take part in the Wednesday event, but it appeared a good number of women did. At the reflection session Wednesday, Feburary 24, 11 students wore the hijab.
Some worried about disapproval and were questioned on whether they understood the implications of the hijab, but most of the students received positive feedback and felt they learned more about the hijab from their experiences.