Calgary reporter experiments with wearing headscarf
When I was 15 years old, I moved to Canada from Venezuela.
Most people don’t think I’m an immigrant because I look Caucasian — I have green eyes, white skin, and straight hair.
My looks have never seemed to affect how people treated me. As far as I know, I have never been discriminated against because of my appearance.
However, I’ve always been curious as to what it might feel like to be singled out because of what you look like. The problem was I didn’t really know how to make myself stand out.
An experiment begins
Inspiration came last year when I saw a Tumblr post about a Mexican-American girl who wore a hijab, or headscarf, for a few days as a challenge posed by her school’s Muslim Student Association.
She reported she was horrified to see the negative reactions people had towards her, from dirty looks at the mall to “preachers” telling her to “go back to her country.” Her story saddened me, but I realized I wanted to try wearing a hijab too.
The only problem was, I didn’t know any Muslim girls who could help me. I knew nothing about how to wear a hijab, or what it meant, or what to expect. The Internet wasn’t much help either. I went to several YouTube videos that showed how to wear a hijab. The explanations were complicated. I ended up totally lost.
I started asking around, and found out one of my fellow students was Muslim; she just didn’t wear a headscarf. She candidly invited me to a Muslim sisters’ get-together the following week so I could meet some of her friends.
Sisterhood of the hijab
I didn’t know what to expect when I went into that gathering, although I must admit I thought Muslim women would be different from their non-Muslim counterparts.
I wondered if their conversations would revolve around religion. Turns out I was completely wrong.
“The hijab became something I was just wearing on my head, a personal choice, and one that the Calgarians I encountered seemed to ultimately accept.”
I felt like I was at just another girls’ night — meeting new people, talking about school, eating pizza, playing games, complimenting each other’s clothes. Religion never came up unless I asked.
After my friend told them that I wanted to wear a hijab as a social experiment, some of them made it their goal to teach me how to put one on. To my amazement, I only needed a regular scarf put on the right way, and I would be done.
I also asked for tips as to what should I wear in order to not give away that I wasn’t Muslim during my experiment. They told me that, as long as my clothes weren’t too revealing or skin-tight, I should be fine. I later learned these clothing choices were really about portraying oneself in a modest way.
The next few days were spent practicing how to put the hijab on, and figuring out which clothes I could wear and which ones I couldn’t.
Finally, my first day wearing a hijab was here. It was going to be an exciting week.
I decided that my first outing wearing the headscarf would be at work on a Sunday. Getting ready for my job as a cashier at a bookstore, I wore a long-sleeved shirt, leggings and a long skirt, along with the hijab, and my work vest.
It turned out to be a fairly difficult day, not because of the people, but because I felt like a roasted chicken with so many layers on.
The experience gave me a new sense of respect for women who wear hijabs, niqabs and burqas in the Middle East. I imagine they get used to the heat; I never did.
As for people’s reactions, I was glad no one was hostile to me in the eight hours I spent at work.
What I found though, was that people seemed to be very careful about what they talked to me about, almost as if they were afraid anything they said would offend or anger me.
Some others seemed a little uncomfortable, like they thought I would judge them based on whatever they were buying, or what they were telling me.
Marwa Soboh, a 21-year-old Muslim student from Mount Royal University, tells me my reaction was normal. Even now, she says the hijab intimidates her Muslim friends.
“They don’t talk about things because they think I’d judge them,” she says, although she has been wearing the headscarf for almost five years now.
A memorable customer
One person stands out in my mind from my work shift. This customer was buying ‘Out’ magazine, a publication that caters to the gay community.
During his transaction, he kept his head low, looking at the counter and never at me. I don’t know if it was because he was uncomfortable with buying the magazine or if it was because I was wearing the hijab.
On the cover of the magazine was a picture of actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka in a romantic pose, so to make small chat while his credit card went through, I told the customer that I had seen the photo shoot of the two actors online, and that I thought it was really cute. He looked supremely uncomfortable when I said it and chuckled awkwardly. A few seconds later, his transaction was approved; he took his card, his magazine, gave me a forced smile, a “thanks,” and left.
I don’t know why he reacted like this, but, to me, it felt like it may have been the hijab.
Nothing out of the ordinary
The next day, I went to school and, since almost everyone in my class knew why I was wearing a hijab, it wasn’t too uncomfortable.
When I was walking the hallways at school, though, I felt like everyone was looking at me.
Honestly, that whole week I felt the most uncomfortable when I saw other Muslims. This was because I felt like somehow they knew I was faking it, that I wasn’t really Muslim, or that they would start talking to me about Islam and I wouldn’t know what to say.
As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. No one stopped to talk to me unless they knew me. No one’s behaviour was out of the ordinary.
That Thursday, I went to the mall. My laptop wasn’t working properly so I went to the Apple Store to see if they could fix it.
The employees’ reactions struck me as comical. They seemed uncomfortable that a girl wearing a hijab had gone alone into their store to get her computer fixed. One employee stammered as he tried to help.
Two other employees stood close by and seemed to stare at me. I didn’t understandwhy they seemed awkward but they weren’t hostile, which made me happy. The careful way of speaking to me was still there, though. I left, and walked around the mall, feeling as though others were staring, or maybe I was being paranoid.
Later, when speaking about this experience to Marwa, my MRU colleague, she tells me she understands that feeling of paranoia. “[Putting on a hijab] in Canada is a big step,” she says, adding, “You become identified as Muslim.”
She also says that the moment she put it on, she felt like others’ treatment towards her changed, and she attributed it to the headscarf. Later on, she realized that it was only her insecurities that made it uncomfortable.
After she told me that, it all made sense for me. I wasn’t being stared at; I was just scared of being judged because of what I was wearing.
As the rest of the week went on, I became more comfortable with going out wearing my headscarf and I stopped paying attention to people’s reactions. The hijab became something I was just wearing on my head, a personal choice, and one that the Calgarians I encountered seemed to ultimately accept.