In hijab, you can’t really hide. You become used to being seen, noticed, judged, or even gawked at. More than ever, its become an act of courage in the face of hate.
I largely became immune to those stares over time. I didn’t want to be actively consumed by other’s energy, especially the negative ones.
Many times, I embraced the visibility. I had nothing to hide and I wasn’t ashamed. I donned loud floral prints and walked with my head held high.
Other days, I wanted to blend in the crowd. I wanted to not have to represent an entire religion, or stand out in any way. I wanted not to have to explain.
Perhaps, that’s why I have the habit of not noticing everything that happens around me when I’m walking. I had to learn to look inward, to focus on my inner thoughts and present company.
Even though I stood out (especially growing up in a predominantly white city), that was my way of hiding. Of treasuring what mattered to me, at the sacrifice of not being as mindful of my surroundings.
Now, post-hijab removal, that’s all changed.
I blend in, for the most part. As I stroll the busy streets of New York, I’m practically invisible, in fact. Sometimes that means getting stepped on, and other times it’s blissful to be a nobody as in individual, while simultaneously contributing to a vibrant and diverse crowd.
This is the freedom I wanted, right?
It is, in a way. But freedom does not come easy.
I was used to walking into any room and standing out as the hijabi woman. My Muslim and “otherness” identity was self-explanatory. I was proud to represent a strong female, but that often meant being boxed into stereotypes.
I thought that without hijab, I could finally share what I wanted about myself, which felt jarring at first— In all the transition, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking as often about other parts of my identity.
That was quickly tested during my first day of work.
In a room full of predominately white folks, who was I? Did I look Middle Eastern enough? How have my privileges changed? What did I feel comfortable divulging to others? What did it mean to be a woman of color, but to have lighter skin and not wear hijab? I never had to ask those questions before in this context.
In an interesting turn of events, I became anxious about becoming invisible. I found myself clinging to my name, grateful that it set me apart and connected me to my beloved culture, a small comfort.
I went home that night and realized I had a lot of soul searching ahead of me. Who was I really, without the hijab? What did the crook of my nose mean? The olive tone in my skin? Why did I want to blend in sometimes and not others? Where is my community? Where am I most comfortable?
I understand that not everyone can choose to be seen or unseen based on their dress, looks, or race, and that the resulting consequences (or benefits) can vary in this biased (er, racist) society.
But, I find myself navigating that choice. Even though asks from others have become less frequent and more subtle (“what are you” or “where are you really from” being the most popular), I feel a responsibility to keep asking those questions of myself.