At UW, empowerment can come in the form of a hijab

hijab day selfie 2

One larger group selfie at the World Hijab Day event on the UW campus.

Step one — place scarf over your head, one side longer than the other. Step two — wrap longer side around your neck. Step three — tuck. Done.

This is the daily routine for UW neurobiology student Fatima El-Ghazali and other hijabis, people who wear a hijab. She has an entire closet full of scarves, giving her an endless possibility of styles.

People who don’t normally wear hijabs got the chance to try them on or even wear them for the whole day at the University of Washington’s World Hijab Day on Wednesday. Perhaps lured by free cupcakes, those who approached the event’s tent were greeted by a table of neatly folded scarves ranging from neutral colors to bright floral prints. The air buzzed with chatter and giggles as people tried on scarves, learned different ways of wrapping them, checked out their look in mirrors and took selfies together.

Although World Hijab Day normally takes place Feb. 1, Pillars of Service, a student organization, has the event in spring to avoid some of Seattle’s wetter weather and encourage more people to participate. Organizers aimed to address what they see as the main misconceptions about women who wear hijabs in order to normalize and destigmatize the practice.

Credit: All photos by Julia-Grace Sanders

The biggest misconception is that women who wear it are oppressed, said Dina Bassyiouni, vice president of Pillars or Service, but it’s really about choice. “You should be the only one who has the right to decide if you wear it or not,” Bassyiouni said. “No one else should tell you to wear it or to take it off.

"As a feminist, that really irritates me. You have to decide if you are ready and comfortable with wearing it.”

Dina Bassyiouni, right, helps another woman with a hijab. Credit: All photos by Julia-Grace Sanders

When people see someone wearing a hijab, they often make conjectures not only on a person’s reasons for wearing it but about Islam itself. Many people think hijabs give men a means to control Muslim women when, in religious teaching, men have nothing to do with it. “In the Koran, God is talking to the women directly about wearing it,” Bassyiouni said. “He’s not asking the husbands or the men to tell them. In Islam, there is no middleman. It’s only you and your Lord, that’s it.”

As she’s speaking, a man walks by and yells at the group to “stop promoting the oppression of women.” It’s not the first time, the women say, that he’s harassed the group today. “As long as it’s only words, I don’t care,” Bassayiouni said. “They can say whatever they want.”

While most visitors only briefly tried on hijabs, some chose to wear it the entire day. “I can never fully understand what it’s like to wear a hijab all the time,” said Elizabeth Bernbaum, a senior physics major. “But I want to experience it for a day and see if I get any weird looks or anything.”

She’s wearing the simple, everyday hijab style that Bassyiouni and Pillar of Service President Fatima El-Ghazali are wearing.

Fatima El-Ghazali, president of Pillars of Service

For Bassyiouni, wearing hijab means getting stares and some questions. At this event last year, a woman tried to convince her that she’s brainwashed and wearing hijab is oppressive. “I like being able to tell people ‘no, I’m not going to let you see or look at more than what I want to show you,’” Bassyiouni said. “This is how I choose to represent myself.”

Student Sophia Beglari

It’s no secret that people make snap judgements about others based on their appearance. But Bassyiouni said the hijab has the effect of helping people to get to know her. “People have to actually ask me questions because they can’t tell as much about me, besides the fact that I’m Muslim, based on how I look,” Bassyiouni said.

Hijab white

Throughout the day, the pile of scarves on the table grew smaller and smaller as more people walked away wearing hijab, often for the first time. “You get strength when you wear it,” El-Ghazali said. “The choice to wear it is empowering. Plus, no bad hair days!”

Hijab sunglasses


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About the Authors & Contributors

Julia-Grace Sanders

Julia-Grace Sanders

Julia-Grace Sanders is a storyteller who is passionate about human rights and committed to justice. Throughout her time as a journalism and human rights student at the University of Washington, she has reported on marginalized communities and the policies that affect them. Her writing connects social and global issues to foster informed and involved citizens.