Hijab: Subtle Exclusion Remains… And It’s A Problem
Ilustration by Beena Mistry
‘Growing Up Black in Canada’ is a writers’ series brought to you by Black Futures Now Toronto in partnership with Shameless Magazine. The series is meant to bring forward local and personal Black histories that do not fit into mainstream narratives about what it means to be a young person in Canada. Throughout the series we will highlight the non-fiction work of five young writers from various backgrounds. Through their stories, we will explore what growing up Black in Canada has meant to them, and the impact that these experiences have had on their sense of self. These pieces explore themes of personal growth, systemic injustices, community, self-awareness, longing, and joy that are unique to each writer, and speak to the particularity of experiences that comes from growing up different locales in Toronto and beyond. Our hope is that by sharing them, they will resonate with others in ways that push them to look at who they are more closely and Canadian history, as well as cultural identities more critically. This is Part 2. Find Part 1 here. And check out Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5
I stood in line, busying myself by going through emails that had arrived the previous evening. My morning routine regularly involved a stop at this coffee shop and I had come to recognize the people that accompanied me on this early morning pilgrimage. As I approached the front of the line, I noticed an unfamiliar grin on a very familiar face. The barista—an individual with whom I had interacted with many times before—was happily taking my order and it was obvious to me that he did not recognize me without my hijab.
I stopped wearing the hijab in the summer of 2015 after wearing it for more than 15 years. In the weeks leading up to this decision I prepared myself for the questions, comments and concerns raised by people who knew me as a hijabi. The one thing I was not prepared for was the profoundly different manner in which the public would receive me.
At first, it was the barista’s pleasant demeanour that caught me off guard. Then, strangers at the mall would ask me for style advice and convenience store cashiers would let me off the hook if I forgot my wallet. For a while, I liked the attention, but this swiftly gave way to a feeling of unease — “why are people being so nice to me?” I wondered. I quickly realized that being a hijabi had denied me access to a basic level of humanity.
Removing the hijab meant that I was now worthy of people’s time, kindness, and party invites. I no longer had to be my best self in order to be accepted by others. People laughed at my jokes when they weren’t that funny; people smiled at me even on my worst days.
I was finally welcome, but I wanted no part of it.
I felt like I had pushed back the curtain to reveal something insidious. Not only were strangers nicer but I was now privy to conversations with Islamophobes who did not realize they had a Muslim among them. I also noticed that (some) well-meaning people—including those who attended solidarity rallies and Islamophobia lectures—did not feel comfortable around hijabis. On the surface they appeared to support Muslims, but did they really know us? Did any of them want us close?
It would not be an overstatement to say that we live in a time where Muslims are attacked on all fronts. My newsfeed is a steady stream of Islamophobic editorials, protests to ban religious accommodation in public schools and hate crimes against Muslims. Hijabis—the face of the Muslim community—often feel the full force of this hatred given their visibility. It pains me to know that hijab-wearing women are also subject to daily micro-aggressions and covert abuses from the silent, “benevolent” majority, which threaten to further alienate them from our society. While I remain hurt and fearful in the wake of the relentless anti-Islam rhetoric, I recognize that I now hold a very real privilege without the visible mark of the hijab.
In the months after making this decision I became more and more distrustful of any kindness directed towards me. I regularly found myself reflecting on the authenticity of my relationships and whether the new people in my life would have appreciated me as a hijabi. This anxiety made me risk averse when it came to developing new relationships and I relied on my long time friends to help me cope.
In an effort to overcome these negative thoughts, I looked to use my voice in a way that would shine a light on the Muslim community and its concerns. For the first time, I joined a Muslim organization on campus and I now regularly centre my Muslim identity in conversations. I have also become hyperaware of the seemingly small ways that progressive-minded activists and reformers alike distance the very groups that they fight alongside. I am not immune to this behaviour either and I now work hard to show my solidarity in all ways, including my day-today interactions with other marginalized groups.
The more I work through these issues the more I believe that meaningful and authentic relationships are still on the horizon. I realize now that while I may not have control over who accepts me into their inner circle, I do have power over who enters mine. The only difference now is that the hijab is no longer there to act as my own personal colander—filtering out those who hold conscious or unconscious bias and leaving behind my true allies and friends.
Still, if my experience has taught me anything it is that our personal relationships do not happen by accident. The individuals who make-up our inner circles were welcomed in through a series of friendly smiles and deliberate invitations that were extended in large part due to the belief that they had something to offer. If we are to truly move forward, then solidarity for the Muslim community—or any marginalized community for that matter—should consist of more than just attendance at demonstrations. Solidarity should move us to really connect with and learn from the very people we perceive as being different from us. Just as we are critical of all manner of things, we must be critical of why we claim the friends we do.
Sherifa Hadi Sherifa Hadi is a law student and a long-time supporter of youth leadership and youth mentorship initiatives. She has been involved in numerous youth based organizations in the city of Ottawa and abroad, but she is most proud of her role as the founder of CrossOver, a mentorship program for first-generation Canadian students interested in pursuing professional programs. Sherifa is a self-proclaimed film junkie and a lover of libraries.
Photo provided by the author.