The hijab is a symbol that has garnered much attention in recent years. While often considered to be a visual representation of Islam, the hijab has also been associated with negative stereotypes in Western culture. Women who wear hijabs, known as hijabis, have often found themselves under increased levels of scrutiny as a result of this physical representation of their faith.
What is it like to wear the hijab at USC and Columbia? What are the reasons that Muslim women choose to wear the hijab, and how do they navigate all of the misconceptions associated with it? In a society that seems to have so much to say about Muslim women, what do hijabi women have to say about the day-to-day experiences of expressing their faith? Three USC students, Saidah Wade, Taahera Islam and Bsmla Berber, share their stories.
To many Muslim women, the meaning of the hijab goes much deeper than a garment covering their head and neck, tying into an individual’s identity and the way they present themselves to the world. While the interviewees expressed how they found hijab to be a rite of passage and a symbol of their faith, they began to wear hijab at various ages after seeing other figures in their life wear it, such as their mothers, aunts and sisters.
Islam explained that she started wearing the hijab in the fifth grade. “In Islam, when you hit puberty, that’s when you start wearing hijab full-time,” she said. Wade, on the other hand, began wearing the hijab at three years old after seeing her mother wear it. Berber has also been wearing the hijab since before puberty, when she was eleven years old. She was excited to reach the coming-of-age moment that came with wearing the hijab and wanted to follow in her mother’s and aunts’ footsteps.
Although the hijab can provide the opportunity to become closer with one’s relatives and community, the significance of the hijab is different for each person who wears it. “I try to think of it as a crown,” Wade explained. “You’re representing religion, you’re representing yourself, you’re representing other Muslimas, no matter where you’re at, or at any time.”
Islam appreciates the significance of the hijab as it allows her to be an ambassador for her religion. “When people view me outside, they know as soon as they see me that I am Muslim. It is something that makes me stand out, but I’ve always taken that into a very positive light because, for me, it gives me the opportunity to represent my religion in a positive way when there are a lot of misconceptions and bad media around Islam. For me, I’ve never felt hijab to be a burden in any way.”
On top of this, the experience of wearing the hijab is not static; a person’s reasons for wearing the hijab can change throughout their life as they continue to grow into who they are as a person. Islam explained that when she initially started wearing hijab, she was hesitant in answering questions related to her faith. “I think when I started wearing [the hijab], I wasn’t as confident in myself,” Islam said. However, as she has grown older and learned more about her religion on her own terms, Islam has become more confident in her identity as a Muslim-American.
Berber also explained how she recognized the value of the hijab to herself as she became older. “Now, for me, wearing the hijab – it’s my identity. I wear it because I want people to know I’m Muslim, because I’m proud of being Muslim, and I also want people to come to me with questions. I want to be able to represent Islam and I want people to be able to point me out and say, ‘There’s a Muslim and she’s pre-med,’ or, ‘and she’s an RA,’ and all these things.”
Wearing the hijab is a personal choice for each individual that leads to differences in their experience of Islam relative to Muslims who do not wear the hijab. All of the interviewees mentioned how wearing the hijab automatically signifies to those around them of their faith, whereas those who do not wear the hijab have a choice in telling people whether or not they are Muslim. Wade explained how there were often times during high school where people would know she was Muslim, but not her brother.
Islam expanded on this idea to mention how wearing the hijab invites criticism from both outside of and within the Muslim community. “I think the biggest thing about being a hijabi Muslim is that you face scrutiny from both sides. You face scrutiny from non-Muslims who view you as ‘the other,’ like you’re different. But at the same time, when you think that you’re gonna get support from other Muslims, you’re scrutinized more by them. Not everyone, of course. But I would say there is one group of Muslims who will put hijabi women on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect, to do everything perfect – because, like I said, you are representing your religion, but at the same time, we’re not perfect people. We’re not perfect Muslims.”
Alternatively, Berber explained how she realized that wearing the hijab came with an increased responsibility. Berber shared that she always wants people to ask her questions about Islam, but it is still a significant undertaking to be a continuous spokesperson for your faith – something that was not unwelcome, but still unexpected for her when she first began to wear the hijab. “I’ve found myself a lot of times having to advocate for myself and other Muslims on campus and also explain things Muslims do on campus.”
Wade, Islam and Berber have also each felt pressures as they navigate their professional careers at USC. “I feel like there’s always gonna be that challenge of having an extra step to prove yourself,” Wade said. “Especially now more than ever with affirmative action – that’s just another layer of what’s already been here.”
Berber voiced other concerns related to this topic. “With all these misconceptions surrounding hijabis in the media, I feel like there’s always this expectation to be the best. You can’t just be a doctor, because you’re a hijabi. So you have to be a good hijabi doctor, a good hijabi writer, a good hijabi period.”
Islam explained how there have been times she has been told that she only received an opportunity or internship because "the company was looking for diversity". “To hear from other people that you only got something because of the way you look, because you’re different, because they’re looking for diversity – I think that’s so gut-wrenching.” Islam shared that when individuals make these comments, they undermine the amount of work and preparation she put into getting a certain opportunity. She struggles with how to respond to people when they make such comments to her, and she fears that people will think that she only received an opportunity for the way she looks, rather than her qualifications.
The interviewees all state that they have not faced as many overtly Islamophobic encounters at USC, and most of the questions they've been asked throughout their lives have been out of curiosity. However, there have still been microaggressions and times when they have been faced with misconceptions about hijabis and Islam from others. “There is an existing sexualization of Muslim women,” Islam said. “There are these certain misconceptions that people have based on things they’ve seen in the media, like with Mia Khalifa.” Islam said that this led to many guys in her high school classes to ask her perverted and inappropriate questions. “I think during that time, I was just really embarrassed. I would brush it off, but looking back at it now, I see it was such a big deal, and I didn’t really understand the sexualization of Muslim women during that time.”
Both Wade and Berber also mentioned Laura Loomer, a conservative activist who was invited by Uncensored America to speak at Russell House, according to ABC Columbia. Loomer is known for her bigoted and Islamophobic comments. She was previously banned from using ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft after posting Islamophobic comments, and she was banned from X, formerly known as Twitter, in 2018 after criticizing U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar for her faith. She has also previously called Muslims “savages” and Islam a “cancer”, according to The Guardian. During her speech at USC, the Post and Courier states that Loomer declared that male Muslim Uber drivers were dangerous and how Islam is “not a religion”, but a “political ideology”, amid other baseless claims.
Berber said she spent up to a week leading up to and after the event emailing and calling university officials, as she and many other Muslim students did not feel safe with Loomer on campus. University officials did not do anything because "their hands were tied".
Wade explained how this event negatively affected her as well. “[Loomer] made an Islamophobic speech right across from our prayer room in Russell House. During Ramadan, while we were fasting,” Wade said. “You meet with [Muslim Student Association], you meet with different Muslims on campus and you try to be comfortable enough to break out of that shell in order to pray in a room that’s not private or pray with other people or fast and meet with each other – and we can’t even be in an area by ourselves without feeling threatened or someone making terrible comments like that.”
In “Hijab, Gendered Islamophobia, and the Lived Experiences of Muslim Women”, Dr. Naved Bakali and Nour Sabani explain how “Islamophobia operates on multiple levels, and is compounded by struggles of race, class, and gender among others.” Each of the interviewees have found that their experience with the hijab and Islam have been influenced by other parts of their identity.
Islam talks about an encounter during her AP Human Geography class in high school, in which a student told her, "Even though you are Muslim, I am not afraid of you." When Islam asked for clarification, the student replied, "You’re a Muslim woman, so I have no reason to be afraid of you." “I was just really confused,” Islam said. “I think this ties back strongly into the idea of Muslim women being oppressed, and how we’re just meek women, very submissive – all of those misconceptions that people have about us, which ties into a bunch of different tropes. With me also being Asian-American, that’s a whole trope of Asian women and how they’re submissive.”
Wade, who is Black, explains how she has faced racism both from within the Muslim community and outside of it. Although racism and other forms of discrimination are forbidden in Islam, it does not stop individuals from acting on their prejudices. Wade shared that there have been times when people at her local mosque have not wanted to pray next to her or even shake her hand. “One thing my father always reminds me is that there are two struggles,” Wade said. “Not only am I Muslim in a majority Christian society, but I’m also a minority. I’ve always kept those two things at my forefront, whether that’s applying for something or going into a room where no one looks like me. You have to adjust to those types of things, and I have learned how to make myself comfortable enough to strive for what I want, rather than thinking about the uncomfortable.”
Berber has found that her experiences with mental health have been influenced by her identity as a Muslim. Berber explained that she has often encountered the misconception that because she has mental health struggles, she is not religious enough. However, Berber has found that learning more about Islam on her own terms has allowed her to have a stronger relationship with her faith. “From that, I was able to use religion as a way to lessen my anxiety because I knew there was a higher power there. I wasn’t experiencing anxiety because I wasn’t close to God; I was just experiencing anxiety because I had anxiety.” Berber is now a mental health ambassador on campus, and shares her struggles with mental health while advocating for mental health awareness.
Each person interviewed is their own person who has made their way. Their hijab has influenced their path to who they are now, but the hijab is also only one part of them. The media might influence people to lean into stereotypes, to see individuals wearing a hijab and to try to put them all into the same box. But people cannot be contained, and to try to characterize someone with one word is reductive. Although Muslim women share an identity and community, each person’s life is rich and varied in their own right.
For other Muslimas and hijabis, Islam shared this at the end of her interview: “Do not be afraid to take up space, because why should you? There’s nothing that makes you so different that means you shouldn’t be allowed somewhere; we’re just regular people.”