Faith and Reason
On an otherwise normal late February evening, an article of clothing that has aroused passions among people and governments around the globe took center stage in a crowded Rohatyn Center conference room, its meaning embodied and expressed by three young Middlebury women who have confronted a key element of their identities at a young age.
For more than two hours, sophomore Hafsa Ahmad and first-year students Mariam Boxwala and Mahnaz Rezaie spoke openly—and with great maturity and global perspective—to a packed room of community members about their experiences wearing the hijab, the traditional veil worn by many Muslim women. They were joined by Middlebury professors Febe Armanios and Justin Stearns, who offered historical and religious contexts, respectively. Armanios grew up in Cairo and her teaching spans the rise of Islam to present-day Middle East, and Stearns’ interests include Islamic law and Muslim and Christian perceptions of each other.
To a curious crowd that was clearly eager to learn—and understand—more about this often controversial headscarf, the panel offered collective insight on the history and culture of Islam as well as individual anecdotes that helped, as they intended, “to unveil the mystery of the hijab.”
Hijab is an Arabic word that refers to the type of head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women, but it can also indicate the modest Muslim styles of dress in general. There seem to be as many definitions and understandings of the hijab as there are women who wear it, and these three “hijabis,” as they call themselves, were no exception.
Hafsa, who was the key organizer of the event, began by acknowledging what was immediately obvious to all—that she was the only one of the three panelists not wearing the hijab. She explained that she had recently stopped wearing it for a host of reasons, none of which had to do with a dwindling of her faith, but that would become clearer as she spoke. Hafsa first donned the hijab at age 11, shortly after 9/11, when many Muslims in her central New Jersey hometown were removing their religious garments or shaving their traditional beards out of fear.
With the uninhibited precocity of a bright-eyed sixth-grader, Hafsa saw her decision as a cultural rite of passage and a chance to celebrate a part of who she was. “It seemed like something every Muslim should be doing—especially then. I wanted to show my faith, regardless of the slurs and vandalism that might come with it.” She eventually stopped wearing the hijab as her departure for college neared. “Wearing it for those seven years certainly taught me to be stronger because I had to find ways to deal with the prejudice and backlash. But I began to struggle with who I was outside of the hijab and I wanted a chance to explore that.”
When Mariam spoke about her own experiences, during her youth in Canada and later when her family moved to northern Vermont, she emphasized that the hijab could mean something different to every woman who chooses to wear it, but more often than not it could cause controversy. “Some of the strongest criticism I got when I began wearing the hijab at age 13 was from my own Muslim community,” she said. Because she is an Indian Muslim, her style of dress has different customs—she is allowed to show her hair, for example—and many of her Muslim friends who were unfamiliar with her particular sect would call her immodest for not covering her loose bangs. “They would say the most unkind things to me in the stairwell at school, and yet there I was covered head to toe!”
Mahnaz, an international student from Kabul, Afghanistan, where the hijab is prevalent, recalled that she took great pride in the moment, at age nine, when she began wearing it—first as an added scarf outside of the house and then regularly as part of her full covering. “The Koran states clearly that you should not display your beauty,” she said. “And my hair is part of my beauty.” Upon coming to Middlebury from Afghanistan, many people—including some family back home—suggested that she need not wear her hijab if she didn’t want to. “But I value it and the respect and confidence it brings me,” she explained. “It is my faith, I believe in it. To change that would break me.”
Mariam noted, as did the other panelists, that the hijab had provided her a sense of freedom on many levels—from ever-changing fashion trends, from the eyes of men, from the burden of being judged by one’s looks rather than one’s words. Often misunderstood by western culture to be a form of oppression and male dominance, the hijab instead allowed these women the opportunity to express their modesty and piety, protect their honor and instill an important sense of confidence in facing the diverse world around them.
Hafsa recalled that she was often referred to in high school as “that girl with that thing on her head who talks a lot.” But her appearance encouraged conversation from friends and strangers alike, giving her the chance to clarify what the hijab is really about. “People aren’t ignorant,” added Mariam with a broad smile. “They just don’t know yet.”
These three young women spoke about their religion and culture with absolute gravity, but they each acknowledged the need for patience and humor when talking about their faith. Asked by an audience member how her life had changed when she began wearing the hijab, Mariam said simply, “It was harder to ride a bike.” After the laughter subsided she added, “It’s part of my identity, it always has been, but it’s not the only part.”
“For such a simple piece of cloth,” Hafsa agreed, “it’s very complex.”
For Mahnaz, the feeling is equally personal. “Everyone’s perspective is different,” she said. “This is mine.”
What was most remarkable to many of the people gathered, as illustrated by the lingering chatter of the departing crowd, was the way that these three very different and independent Muslim women were able to offer such a range of perspective within their faith and yet be so accepting of each other’s differences. Something everyone could learn a little more of.