More than my hijab: the veil and academia

I wear a hijab. I have done so since the age of 14. I did it for specific reasons back then; today, my rationale differs in scope and in meaning.

With time, my perspective on who I am in relation to others and myself has changed, and my approach to faith has undergone the same progression. Unfortunately, people do not see these nuances at first sight. Instead, often times, what people do choose to see before is a simplistic, uninteresting and often rather unwitting imagining of a woman with a veil wrapped around her face.

That being said, this post is not an opinion piece about what the hijab has meant for me, and how I think most folks get it wrong with their stereotypes. At age 23, I really don’t care anymore who likes it and who doesn’t; who gets it and who doesn’t. I am bored with debates about the hijab. I find them arid and circular. You want to wear it, then wear it; if you don’t, then don’t.

In fact, after 9 years of wearing the hijab and committing to it, I am over the gaze – the perspectives other people have when they look at me. I don’t feel like I am part of their experience with it. It took me a while to understand this. It took me a while to battle with the gaze.

When I chose to commit to the hijab as a teenager, it was because I had gained a new perspective on Islam and I believed wearing the garment was an important testimony to that dedication. However, there was also a subconscious desire to “better” the image of Muslims after 9/11. In other words, in my fourth year of high school, I had this (rather simplistic) logic: if am smart and wear the veil, people will start thinking Muslim women aren’t oppressed. Win!

I had this mentality for 3 years.

At my high school, given that I was surrounded with folks that had grown up with me and who knew me before and after I started wearing the hijab, that effect didn’t really take root. No one changed their ways with me, and I ignorantly took this as a sign that my approach was working. This perspective I had floating inside my head ceased when I left high school for Dawson College.

There, in various political science seminars, I would share my analysis and perspective on whatever was debated in class. Often, at the end of our lectures, I would get the weirdest comments from classmates and sometimes even professors. Generic statements like “Wow, you are actually super smart” or “You aren’t like the others” (without ever defining what “others” meant), or the best one – “You speak well, good for you!” I never felt flattered. Every compliment struck me as an insult. At 16, it wasn’t clear for me why I did not smile when hearing these comments, but I knew I felt a crunch of astonishment in my spine every time someone shot this type of praise at me.

By my last year at Dawson, I realized that I had proclaimed myself the ambassador of a people, trying to please the gaze of others, so that those gazing at me could comfort their fears based on very racist and Islamophobic foundations. I had accepted the very low, racist standard that others had set for women like me: women who choose to symbolize their commitment to faith with the hijab. I realized how ridiculous I was, and how ridiculous were those who articulated the comments as well.

By the time I moved to Ottawa to commence my Bachelor’s degree, I had learned to get over myself and to disconnect myself from that type of expectation. It was hard, but it was important.

Many incidents occurred during my three years as an undergrad where I would hear the echo of these astonished compliments, characterized by the colonial attitudes of an imperialist heritage. By that time, I knew how to deal with them and I was prepared to divorce myself from them. However, nothing quite surpassed one event that occurred while I was completing my graduate studies.

As a Master’s student, I spent my time outside class working part-time jobs as a research assistant, teaching assistant and corrector. I was tasked by a professor I worked for to supervise two exams for him, because he had to leave for Egypt due to a family emergency. I agreed; the time fit my schedule and I saw no problem. I made it to the first exam session without incident. For the second, though, I mixed up Wednesday and Thursday. The students showed up Wednesday morning to an exam with no one to invigilate. They went to the department administration, and the dean found out. I felt terrible for causing problems for this professor. I had failed him. He trusted me and I let him down.

I got to his office, I sat down. I apologized, several times, as if I was reciting a prayer.

I was ready for a lot to be said. I imagined him saying things like “This was irresponsible,” “This was a serious mistake,” or “I didn’t think you would put me in this situation.” Perhaps something along the lines of: “As a graduate student, you should be able to handle your responsibilities – or do you not have an organized agenda for your commitments?”

Instead, the professor looked at me and said:

“You need to be careful with your mistakes. You know – between you and me – you are an Arab, Muslim woman, not to mention that you wear the hijab. You need to watch out. I think you understand that you don’t get to make mistakes, not like this one.”

Bombshell. I could hear myself swallow my pride for those infinite thirty seconds as we stared at each other. His lips keep moving but I could not hear a sound.

Only one though crossed my mind: what a weight this man has on his shoulders; what a burden he lives with. He lives his life through the gaze of others to the point that he’s carved a space out for it inside himself. He calculates his every move not out of love for his job, not out of eagerness for the future, but out of the intensity of the gaze of others. I realized how imprisoned this man was, how he let that gaze live inside him. I also realized that had I not woken up to this problem in college, this could have been me in twenty years.

I do not plan my mistakes. I don’t write them with a pencil in my agenda, because they do not need a schedule; they’ll happen anyway. My goal in life is not to make the fewest mistakes possible, and I would never paralyze myself at the fear of receiving criticism. We should never proclaim ourselves to be ambassadors; it’s a silly way to go about life. It’s debilitating: the exercise of giving birth to the little monster inside of you that is the gaze. It’s worse than receiving those compliments wrapped in casual racism.

Once you understand this and accept it, you begin to free yourself from the gaze. Freeing yourself doesn’t mean you pretend that gaze is not there. Rather, it means that you don’t concern yourself with it. You don’t learn to do things because you think people are watching, and you want to prove that people like you can be “worth it”. It is a ridiculous way to go about life. I did it for three years as a teenager, and when the epiphany hit me, I was disgusted with myself the same way I felt sorry for my professor.

Make mistakes, apologize, fall, get back up, and fail sometimes. Do what you do because you love it, because you want to challenge your capabilities. People will always have something to say and a reason to look at you differently. The professor, the colleague, the T.A., the dean of the department, the fellow students – they’ll all act towards you in ways you cannot control.  But you can control how you deal with it.

By refusing to let their gaze live inside of you, you will do yourself and the people around you a favour. It might take them a long while to figure out what their polite colonial leanings are doing to their relationship with you, and how ridiculous their reflexes can be, but you should by no means cater to those reflexes in the meantime.

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4 thoughts on “More than my hijab: the veil and academia

  1. I don’t think that it’s a pitiable attitude to take that one, as a member of a minority community, is a sort of ambassador or representative of one’s community to non-members because, frankly, that’s how non-members often perceive us. That’s stupid and unfair but it’s a reality: often people, especially those of majority and/or privileged communities, will regard our actions as reflective of the character of the community/ies with which they identify us. I think that we simply have to accept that reality. We do not, I stress, have to accept the responsibility for that role and hold ourselves to some higher standard of action in order to have our community look good in the eyes of others. We can choose not, in your words, to invite the gaze of others into our lives and we are not answerable to anyone, inside or outside of our putative community/ies, for that choice. That freedom to choose doesn’t change the reality of how others will see us and our relation to our community/ies, however.

    I made the choice to see myself as such a representative for people of colour (I’m mulatto and typically read as either black or generic ‘Middle Eastern’) and more recently, for the LGBT* and bisexual communities. It can, at times, be a heavy burden but it’s one I’ve chosen to bear because I don’t want others to have to do so. I want to contribute to a world where my communities no longer need representatives. I will work twice as hard to prove myself so that my children only have to work 75% harder, and my grandchildren 50%. And I’ve chosen to bear it because the people who came before fought that same fight or much, much harder fights so that I can have the privilege to only have to work twice as hard to prove myself to my academic superiors. I’m privileged to be an out queer man because others already stood at Stonewall. I’m privileged to be in interracial relationships and, indeed, to be the product of an interracial marriage, because others already stood up to the lynch mobs and fought for desegregation. I’m proud to continue those fights in my small ways, by enduring uncomfortable looks when I mention the campus LGBT* society or responding politely to comments that I’m “very smart/well-dressed/well-spoken/etc. for a…”

    I know many members of the Muslim community who see their lives in the same terms. They choose to see themselves as representatives of Islam because they know that others will judge all Muslims by the actions of those they see, whether in the news or in their daily lives, and we all know what sort of Muslim the news media chooses to show us and how that coverage can harm the Muslim community.

    Please don’t think I’m casting aspersions. I respect and understanding your decisions but it doesn’t matter whether I do not because you don’t answer to me for them. It’s a difficult choice not to let the gaze in but I don’t think that it’s a pitiable choice to invite it.

  2. I understand where you are coming from. However, its important to make the distinction between engaging in your community, playing an active and progressive role in whatever you consider to be your community. And then there is actively paying attention to people expectations and going about life catering to them. Its the not the same thing and confusing them can be dangerous because often times the expectations and the desire to respond to them is in fact disallowing progress because its disenfranchised people from their sense of autonomy.

  3. […] More than my hijab: the veil and academia ( […]

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