Nimo Abdi, a 22-year-old Kent resident, says she struggles with stereotypes others have about the hijab.
“People make it as if it’s like, there’s no grey area, like it’s just black and white. But, to me, I don’t really see it like that,” she said.
“They make it seem like … it’s religious, there’s no other way that they can wear it,” Abdi said. “And I see it as: it can be fashionable — like right now I’m wearing it with a hat. It can be a political symbol. Because nowadays especially with the president in place, it can be like, ‘Hey, this is who I am and I’m not afraid to show it.’”
Though Abdi views herself as a feminist, she says she feels like there is a certain branch of the movement that doesn’t include people like her.
“There’s a version that says ‘let me liberate you,’” she said.
Abdi and many other local Muslim women who wear hijabs say they don’t need saving. From fashion shows to college degrees, Muslim women in Seattle and beyond are confronting negative stereotypes about who they are and what they wear.
Earlier this month, the Malikah Festival in Redmond celebrated the culture and beauty of modest dress. The event featured local artists and vendors as well as food and dance.
The highlight of Malikah — the Arabic word for “queen” — was a fashion show, which displayed the modest styles predominately from the Middle East and North Africa. Young models in flowing abayas walked up and down the aisles, pivoting with perfection and presenting designs ranging from sporty to couture, with hijabs to match.
Lee Mozena, the creator of the festival, said in an email that the festival aimed to bring the hijab and other forms of cultural and religious dress into the mainstream.
“People can learn about each other through simple activities — like enjoying fashion together.”
Controversy over modesty
The hijab and other head coverings like the burqa or niqab remain a topic of controversy, particularly in Western nations where some people believe that modesty seems incompatible with modern feminist thought.
France, for example, effectively banned the burqa in 2010 when its parliament passed a bill prohibiting the covering of faces in public areas. This year, Germany supported a draft law to ban burqas and niqabs in certain professions.
The European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, also ruled back in March that employers were within their rights to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols, a move that has been criticized as a front for discrimination against Muslim women who wear the hijab.
Some local Muslim women say that the controversies drown out their voices. They point to the media’s neglect of them as a significant driver of people’s false assumptions and broad stereotypes about the hijab and women in Islam.
Biley Abatiyow, a 19-year-old student at the University of Washington, says the hijab is portrayed negatively in the media. She is eager for others to better understand Muslim women’s perspective on wearing one.
“I want to show the positivity to it. I have worn the hijab for most of my life, so I feel like I’m really comfortable with it,” Abatiyow said. “It has become me.”
Abatiyow also strongly objects to the common assumption that all Muslim women are subservient or are forced to cover their head.
“Some people think I have to wear it. No. If I didn’t feel like wearing it one day I could take it off. It’s a personal choice,” she said.
Najma Adan, 18, and a UW student who lives in Bellevue, says she feels the hijab allows her the freedom to be and speak in the world without having to think about how she looks. On the other hand, she does admit she gets frustrated with constant stereotypes.
But those are just opportunities to tell others about herself, she said.
“The hijab lets me be an ambassador for Islam to people who don’t know about it.”
And when someone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say, Adan doesn’t let it faze her.
“I ignore people who don’t want to listen.”
The hijab and feminism
Abdi, who was born in the United States, said an older woman once stopped her in a grocery store and told her she no longer needed to cover her head now that she was in the United States.
Abatiyow says that some feminists exclude Muslim women — believing they need to be “liberated.”
“I believe feminism to be a variety of women who get to do what they want, how they want — and you shouldn’t judge them,” Abatiyow said. “Feminism, to me, is the woman’s choice. How are you going to tell me I can’t wear a scarf when I chose to wear a scarf – and that’s not feminism?”
Adan said another way in which Muslim women are standing up for themselves is through getting a college education.
“I feel like it’s a platform for me to be able to speak in front of everyone about my experiences — about myself, about whatever I have to say, so that they don’t have a reason to shut me down. To say ‘no your opinion is invalid because you’re not educated,’” Adan said.
And other Muslim women around the world and in this region can be heard doing the same.
Jamela Mohamed, a local Muslim-American woman who said she was discriminated against for covering her head at the Kent branch of Sound Credit Union. She posted a video account of the incident on her Facebook page earlier this month, saying “I never want this to happen to anybody and NOBODY should ever be treated this way,” prompting the credit union to issue an apology on their website.
And in Sweden, Muslim women rallied on May Day in response to the EU ruling to protest for their rights as workers. They say mainstream narratives miss their message: hijabis are strong, vocal and capable of leading their own resistance.
Abdi admitted that it can be difficult to wear a hijab because of negative and judgmental comments from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
She says that type of ignorance is baffling to her. Abdi chose to wear the hijab when she was 17. As a child, she was told by her mother that it was important to wait until she was ready — because it was a decision between her and God.
“But, at the end of the day it’s my identity. It’s who I am,” Abdi said. “If I do take it off, out of fear, then I’ve lost a part of myself.”