‘I lived in constant fear’

These are the words of Nazma Khan, who founded World Hijab Day, which was on 1 February 2018. Khan immigrated to New York from Bangladesh when she was just 11. ‘Wearing a hijab was a direct sign that I was Muslim, I lived in constant fear. I was called names such as Osama Bin Laden and terrorist. During 2011, I received many messages from women across the Globe with similar situations, and I kept on thinking how can I help these women? How can I help myself?’

The World Hijab Day campaign encourages women of different faiths and ethnicities to wear a hijab to create empathy and a better cultural understanding of what it’s like for Muslim women to wear a Hijab, and thousands of women from around the world did. ‘If they were to walk in my shoes for just one day perhaps things would change.’

Jaya Shah, Canterbury Christchurch University student, is one of the many who I decided to participate in World Hijab Day. ‘Living in a very multicultural city can open your eyes. Before university, I lived in a white middle-class area and was never really exposed to different faiths or ways of living, but once in Canterbury, it all changed. My friends came from all different religions and backgrounds. I wanted to understand more about what it is like to be different from what is perceived as the norm.’

A Muslim student at UEA shared some of her experiences of wearing a hijab and her thoughts on World Hijab Day itself. ‘In my first year here there were barely any Muslims, I always wished to see someone wear the hijab so that I wouldn’t feel left out. I think World Hijab Day is a step forward, but I don’t think it means a lot because the people already doing it are already educated, so I don’t think it influences those who have submitted to the stereotypes, who do believe in all of those racist thoughts.’

Aliya Schmid, on the other hand, thinks that ‘it is amazing that women who aren’t Muslims are wearing it to show support. It encourages other young Muslim girls and women in general to wear it and to know that it’s okay to feel comfortable.’

Aliya has had a different experience of being a young Muslim woman in the UK. ‘I choose not to wear a hijab only because I grew up in an environment where there were not a lot of Muslims. A lot of people do not know that I am a Muslim as I don’t wear one. I was taught the reason behind wearing a hijab, but I was given freedom of choice. And that’s what Islam teaches.’

However, many disagree with this and World Hijab Day has become quite controversial, particularly on Twitter; the Hijab is often symbolised as a tool for oppression and exclusion. As a result, many people have opted out of using #worldhijabday and instead are using #nohijabday.

Melissa Chen tweeted ‘Genuinely not sure why we need a @WorldHijabDay. As long as there are women who aren’t #FreeFromHijab, why shine the light on being #FreeInHijab? It means nothing to be free unless you can be free *from* it. This Feb 1st, until everyone can choose, #NoHijabDay’.

Whilst it divides opinion, World Hijab Day is meant to celebrate and foster discussion on why some Muslim women decided to wear a hijab, and to some extent, it has done just that.

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Mia Shah

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January 2022
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