Deciding — really deciding — to unapologetically wear my hijab, for me, has been the most freeing and rebellious and feminist thing I could possibly do.

by Leah Vernon

In Boston, my Somali friend and I scarfed down fried pickles and crab legs and chatted about good food, Islam, and being a woman in America. We then ordered these huge desserts that we could barely finish just because.

“Ohh, let me see the photos from your trip to London,” she exclaimed.

I hunched my shoulders and pulled out my phone. “If you must,” I replied because, well, ya’ll know I’m extra.

I swiped over to the photos that I took for this independent Muslim designer, Buno Designs, who makes these bomb handmade kimonos in the UK. The photographer was Parisian and a hijabi and so sweet. And even though I was dead tired from flying overseas, I had approximately thirty minutes to rush to the shoot. I was totally surprised that they had come out so well.

The waitress had returned to the table with our bills and came up from behind my friend who was admiring the photos.

“That’s you?” The white server asked.

“Yes, it is.”  

“You a model?”

I raised a brow. “Yes.”

“May I?” My friend handed her my phone. She swiped right, seemingly puzzled by the photos I took. Every once in a while, she’d glance at me, then back at the photos. I waited for her to say something off the wall. She finally handed the phone back.

“Where were those taken?”

“London,” I said modestly. “I had a few modeling gigs there.”

“You model with that on?” she pointed to my scarf. “All the time?”

“Yeah, I model with my hijab on.”

Becky crossed her arms over her chest, trying to figure out how someone like me could model, how someone my size and my religion could be living that kind of life that she had been told was only for thin, white women. She couldn’t figure out how to compare me to the Muslims she’d seen on CNN. The ones who were very Middle-Eastern or very extreme. Confusion was written all over her face.  

“Where are you guys from?” She followed up with her interrogation tactics. This was a quite common question from her kind. She was expecting the Middle East, because clearly there are noooo other kinds of Muslims anywhere in the world.

“I’m African-American Muslim,” I said with a smile.

My friend replied, “I’m Somali Muslim.”

“Oh.” Becky nodded. Then, after an awkward pause, she said, “Those photos are really nice.”

I yearned to reply: I know. But I said “thanks” instead.   

I knew she wanted to pry more into our lives, but had other tables to wait. Or maybe she got the very real feeling that her delivery was all wrong and her presence was annoying us. Whichever one it was, her mind was doing complete somersaults as she walked away. She’d just been taught a lesson on stereotyping.

The incident got me to thinking about hijabs and why we wear them. And how others perceive a girl in hijab. A girl who’s visibly Muslim AF.  

* * *

When I was younger, not even going to lie, I had major issues with the hijab. It made me stand out, made me different. And different wasn’t in. I yearned to be normal. For the most part, I wore it because if I didn’t, I felt it’d make Mom angry, disappointed in me somehow. But I didn’t like the way it made me feel. It was a piece of long, draping cloth on my head that wasn’t that serious, but was at the same time. People had been making such a big deal out of not seeing my hair that I started to view hijab as the problem … and not society and how they viewed differences among other cultures and religions. I was too young to understand that. So I blamed the hijab.

Related: France’s Burkini Ban Stinks of the Same Patriarchal Baloney it Claims to Oppose

For me, growing up, the hijab was so closely connected to the identity of being a Muslim woman. We looked down upon girls who didn’t opt to wear the hijab. We called them weak. Ostracized them. Questioned their faith and asked what was so hard about wearing it. I mean, hadn’t they loved Allah? We had been conditioned to predict whether or not you were a “good” Muslim based on a cloth that covered your hair and neck. I fell into that trap, that mentality, until I was faced with the same challenge: to wear or not to wear.

Leah Vernon hijab

* * *

“Out of all the kids, I thought you’d be the one to stop wearing your scarf,” my non-Muslim aunt said to me. I was like nineteen. And it hurt my feelings.

I guessed my struggle with it was more outward than I initially thought. Even though I’d never took it off in front of her, she sensed my indecision. For me, the hijab became safe, a habit. I wore it out of loyalty and not want. I snatched it off in the night when I was going out to party. I just wanted to be without the attachments of it, but it’d always resurface. I’d show my ID to the bouncer and he’d stare at it for a long time. Then glance up at me. My ID showed a hijabi. The girl who stood in front of him was a “regular” girl just wanting to have a good time. One was so brazen to ask where my hijab was. I snatched my ID from him and stormed into the club.

How dare he? I thought.

The next question to myself was, where was my hijab?

* * *

I’ve learned a lot as I’m nearing the big 3-0. I’m even working on a memoir to showcase the evolution of myself. My growth into becoming me. Being OK with being Muslim. Being black. Being short. Being overweight. Being a child who’s parentless. And because I’m cool with me, I also understand that others may not be, and that’s cool, too, because that has absolutely nothing to do with me. Your dislike of my choice of hijab is personal — and ignorant.  

People wear their hijabs (or don’t wear it) for many different reasons. But the majority of people, including Becky at the restaurant, believe that it’s a sign of oppression. The media has made it so that closed-minded individuals have been brainwashed to think that when they see a Muslim woman covering her hair and body that automatically equates to she’s being forced by her evil, Arabic-speaking father. They have all these notions of you being bald, you being forced into an arranged marriage, you being subservient to a man, and that you absolutely, unequivocally couldn’t be a feminist. All hell would break loose if a hijabi was a feminist. *Gasps*

Deciding — really deciding — to unapologetically wear my hijab, for me, has been the most freeing and rebellious and feminist thing I could possibly do.

I don’t wear my hijab for others so they could think I’m a good, practicing Muslim girl. Nah. I do it because it is me, it is my crown, my shield. It tells people that I’m strong in my belief whether I say it or not. I’m proud and loud of who I am. And it says that no bigot shall prosper on my watch. And because I’m so “out there” with it, it makes individuals (like Becky) very uncomfortable. They just can’t figure out how a girl like me continues to defy odds, being different, being openly true, while getting beat down daily for being a minority Muslim.

“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”  — Dinos Christianopoulos

Leah V. is an indie author who’s just published her first speculative fiction novel, Impure. Her main focus is bringing diversity to commercial fiction. When she isn’t writing or eating tasty foods, she’s modeling and tending to her body positive style blog, Beauty and the Muse.

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