‘Undercover’ in hijab: unveiling one month later

Column by Cassidy Herrington. E-mail cherrington@kykernel.com.

Hilton Als, an African American writer, says our worldview and sense of “otherness” is created in our mother’s lap.

Mother’s lap is protective and familiar. Leaving this worldview can be uncomfortable, but I can assure you, the rewards are much greater.

Last month, I climbed out of my “lap” and wore a hijab, the Muslim headscarf.  I thought this temporary modification of my appearance would bring me closer to an understanding of the Muslim community, but in retrospect, I learned more about my place in the world.

Simplified, one piece of fabric is all it takes to turn perspectives upside-down.

The hijab is a contested, sacred and sometimes controversial symbol, but it is just a symbol. It is a symbol of Islam, a misconstrued, misunderstood religion that represents the most diverse population of people in the world — a population of more than one billion people.

I realized the best way to identify with Muslims was to take a walk in their shoes. On Oct. 1, I covered my head with a gauze scarf and grappled with the perceptions of strangers, peers and even my own family.

Because of perceptions, I even struggled to write this column. My experience with the hijab was personal, but I hope sharing what I saw will open a critical conversation.

My hijab silenced, but simultaneously, my hijab brought unforgettable words.

In the first column I wrote this semester, I compared college to an alarm clock saying, “we see the face of a clock, but rarely do we see what operates behind it.” At the time, I did not realize how seriously I needed to act on my own words — as a journalist, a woman and a human.

A few weeks after I wrote that piece, a guest columnist addressed Islamophobic sentiments regarding the proposed “ground zero” mosque. The writer was Muslim, and she received a flurry of feedback.

The comments online accumulated like a swarm of mindless pests. The collective opinion equated Islam to violence and terrorism.

In response to her column, one comment said, “[The writer] asks us to trust Islam. Given our collective experience, and given Islam’s history I have to wonder what planet she thinks we are on.”

Although I did not know the voices behind these anonymous posts, I felt involuntarily linked to them — because I am not Muslim. I wanted to connect people, and almost instinctively, I decided that a hijab was necessary. A hijab could help me use my affiliation with “white,” non-Muslims to build rapport with the Islamic community and at the same time, show non-Muslims the truth from an unheard voice. Above all, I wanted to see and feel the standard lifestyle for so many women around the world — because I’m curious, and that’s why I’m a journalist.

Before I took this step, I decided to propose my idea to the women who wear headscarves every day. Little did I know, a room full of strangers would quickly become my greatest source of encouragement and would make this project more attainable.

The handshake
Initially, I worried about how the Muslim community would perceive a non-Muslim in a hijab, so I needed its approval before I would start trying on scarves. On Sept. 16, I went to a Muslim Student Association meeting to introduce myself.

When I opened the door to the meeting room, I was incredibly nervous. To erase any sign of uncertainty, I interjected to a girl seated across the room, “meeting starts at 7, right?”  The girl, it turns out, was Heba Suleiman, the MSA president. After I explained my plan, her face lit up.

“That is an amazing idea,” she said.

I felt my tension and built-up anxiety melt away. In the minutes following, I introduced myself to the whole group with an “asalaam alaykum,” and although I was half-prepared for it, I was alarmed to hear dozens of “wa aylaykum asalam” in response.

Before I left, several girls approached me. I will not forget what one girl said, “this gives me hope.” Another girl said, “I’m Muslim, and I couldn’t even do that.” It did not hit me until then, that this project would be more than covering my hair. I would be representing a community and a faith, and consequentially, I needed to be fully conscious of my actions while in hijab.

First steps “undercover”
Two weeks later, I met Heba and her friend Leanna for coffee, and they showed me how to wrap a hijab. The girls were incredibly helpful, more than they probably realized. Although this project was my personal undertaking, I knew I wouldn’t be alone — this thought helped me later when I felt like ripping off the hijab and quitting.

Responses to my hijab were subtle or nonexistent. I noticed passing glances diverted to the ground, but overall, everything felt the same. Near the end of the month, a classmate pointed out that a boy had been staring at me, much to my oblivion. The hijab became a part of me, and until I turned my head and felt a gentle tug, I forgot it was there.
For the most part, I carried out life as usual while in hijab. I rode my bike and felt the sensation of wind whipping under my headscarf. I walked past storefront windows, caught a glimpse of a foreign reflection and had to frequently remind myself that the girl was me. Hijab became part of my morning routine, and on one morning I biked to class and turned around because I realized I left without it. At the end of the day, I laughed at my “hijab hair” pressed flat against my scalp.

The hijab sometimes made me uneasy. I went to the grocery store and felt people dodge me in the aisles — or was that just my imagination?

I recognize every exchange I had and every occurrence I report may be an assumption or over analysis because few of my encounters were transparent. The truth is, however, very few of my peers said anything about the hijab. My classmates
I’ve sat next to for more than a year, my professors and my friends from high school — no one addressed the obvious, and it hurt. I felt separated from the people who know me best — or so I thought.

A gap in the conversation exists, and it’s not just surrounding my situation.

Just over a week ago, I turned on the news to see Juan Williams, a former NPR news analyst fired for commentary about Islam. Williams said, “If I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

His statement revealed an internalized fear. And I saw this fear when my colleagues dodged the topic. When I went back to ask “why?,” several said it was too “touchy” or insensitive to bring up.

A hijab is a just symbol, like a cross, a star or an American flag. I am still the same Cassidy Herrington — I didn’t change my identity, but I was treated like a separate entity.

Talk is not cheap
When someone mentioned my hijab without my provocation, I immediately felt at ease. A barista at my usual coffee stop politely asked, “Are you veiling?” A friend in the newsroom asked, “Are your ears cold?”

My favorite account involves a back-story.

I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and I garnered an appetite when I was young. My childhood home neighbored my “third grandmother,” the most loving second-generation Lebanese woman and exceptional cook (not an exaggeration, she could get me to eat leafy vegetables when I was a child zealot of noodles and cheese). I remember knocking on her back door when I was five, asking for Tupperware brimming with tabouleh.

When King Tut’s opened on Limestone, my school year swiftly improved to a fabulously garlicky degree. At least once a week, I stopped by to pick up the tabouleh, hummos or falafel to medicate my case of the newsroom munchies.

On Oct. 21, the owner, Ashraf Yousef, stopped me before I went inside.

“I heard about your project, and I like it,” he said. “And you look beautiful in your hijab.”

This encounter was by far the best. And it made my shawarma sandwich taste particularly delicious. I went back on my last day to thank him, and Yousef said, “I’m just giving my honest opinion, with the hijab, you look beautiful. It makes your face look better.”

Yousef asked if I would wear the hijab to his restaurant when the project was over. I nodded, smiled and took a crunchy mouthful of fattoush.

False patriotism
I did not receive intentional, flagrant anti-Muslim responses. I did, however, receive an e-mail allegedly “intended” for another reader. The e-mail was titled “My new ringtone.” When I opened the audio file, the Muslim prayer to Mecca was abruptly silenced by three gunshots and the U.S. national anthem.

I spoke to the sender of the e-mail, and he said, “It was just a joke.” Here lies a problem with phobias and intolerance — joking about it doesn’t make it less of an issue. When was it ever okay to joke about hatred and persecution? Was it acceptable when Jews were grotesquely drawn in Nazi cartoons? Or when Emmet Till was brutally murdered?

The e-mail is unfortunate evidence that many people inaccurately perceive Islam as violent or as “the other.” A Gallup poll taken last November found 43 percent of Americans feel at least a “little” prejudice against Muslims. And if you need further confirmation that Islamophobia exists, consult Ann Coulter or Newt Gingrich.

I’ve been asked, “Will you wear the hijab when it’s over?” and initially, I didn’t think I would — because I’m not Muslim, I don’t personally believe in hijab. Now that I see it hanging on my wall and I am able to reflect on the strength it gave me, I think, yes, when I need the headscarf, I might wear it.

Ashraf said, “A non-Muslim woman who wears a hijab is just wearing a headscarf.” (and apparently, my face “looks better.”) Appearances aside, when I wore the hijab, I felt confident and focused. I wore the hijab to a news conference for Rand Paul, and although an event coordinator stopped me (just me, except for one elusive blogger) to check my credentials, I felt I accurately represented myself as an intelligent, determined journalist — I was not concerned with how I looked, but rather, I was focused on gathering the story.

So now, I return to my first column of the year. I’ve asked the questions, and I’ve reached across the circles. Now, it’s your turn. You don’t have to wear a hijab for a month to change someone’s life or yours. The Masjid Bilial Islamic Center will host a “get to know your neighbors” on Nov. 7, and UK’s Muslim Student Association is having “The Hajj” on Nov. 8. These are opportunities for non-Muslims to be better informed and make meaningful connections.

I want to thank Heba for being a friend and a resource for help. Thank you to Ashraf Yousef and King Tut for the delicious food and the inspiration. Finally, I apologize to the individuals who feel I have “lied” to them about my identity or who do not agree with this project. I hope this page clears things up — you have the truth now, and I hope you find use for it.

Why are we so afraid to talk about this? We are not at war with Islam. In fact, Muslim soldiers are defending this country. Making jokes about terrorism is not going to make the situation less serious. Simply “tolerating” someone’s presence is not enough.

If you turn on the news, you will inevitably hear the prefix, “extremist,” when describing Islam. What you see and hear from the media is fallible — if you want the truth, talk to a Muslim.

Cassidy Herrington is a journalism and international studies junior. E-mail cherrington@kykernel.com.

Hey Cassidy,
I’m a junior in college right now and should be studying for an exam, but I came across your article from two of my friends’ facebooks. I think what you did was extremely beautiful and shows true strength. I’ve worn the hijab for 9 years now and reading your article felt like you were saying the exact thoughts in my head. I realize that some of the comments here are less than kind, but the reality is that people will always hate when it comes to absolutely anything. There was an article the other day about the death of child and even then, the comments were sprinkled with insensitivity and hate.
I just want to let you know that I truly appreciate you doing this project and thank you for giving us (read:Muslims) a chance. 

You are an absolutely beautiful girl, and I not just by looks, but just by who you are.

So thank you, a million times over.

I know you mean well but I find this kind of dumb, it has been done before a lot by female journalists in the US & UK over the past decade. Some people seem to think we all need a white woman to demystify the rest of the world for us! Muslim women aren’t creatures from Mars. You did a month long investigation which tells us basically nothing interesting. You could have shortened this article to one sentence: “I wore a hijab for a month and nothing happened.” Are headscarves something people *need* to have a conversation about? Really? People have different dress codes. Different religions believe in different things. Big whoopty doo. Who doesn’t know this by now?

 Why didn’t you go the whole hog and wear a niqab?  No doubt dear Mr Elaggoune below would think you’d look even better in that. 

Where are You getting you’re information from? This is completly not true have you even attempted to see in a muslim girls or women perspective on how she views this? You only hear what you want but have you talk to a muslim and gotten to know their side of the story? If you look into the old testment you will infact see that it is very similar to what Muslims belive and very unconsistent with the new testament. I really feel like you need to get you’re research from a crediable source and use it when you blog for refrence (note you will not be able to find crediable sources to accusations like that)

Dear Cassidy,

Thank you very much for this beautiful story, really amazing. I wish you all the best in your life and GOD bless you dear!

P.S: you look really great with Hijab.

May GOD forgive us all!
I am just wondering whether Mary, the Mother of Jesus, peace and blessing be upon them, was wearing the HIJAB? and also why Muslims are the only people following her?

Get to know a real Muslim or perhaps just read about the Islamic ages and what have they offered to humanity.


Assalamo Alikom(^_^)!!
First, really I see that you are better with Hijab than without, and belive me I said that, not because I’m muslim, but because it’s the truth at least for the comparison between your two photos.
So, to day I have read an article about you Cassidy on the profile of MUZLIM.COM on FaceBook, that speaks about your fabulous experience with the Islamic veil, I’m impressed by your story and I say you “THANK YOU”, for;
 Your courage, because in the time where many muslims women are afraid to put it, and especially who live abroad of muslims societies, You have do it.
 Your analogy synthesis is great, because your method of analyzing things is very logical.
 Your Fairness, because you have seen the error in relation between the society and Islam, where you have accomplit your mission as journalist by giving and showing the correct way to know Hijab, Muslim and ISLAM.
Really it was both a very intellegent and sacrifice step from you to reach the truth and you have succeeded, CONGRATULATIONS….(^_^)
God bless you

‘Yousef said, “I’m just giving my honest opinion, with the hijab, you
look beautiful. It makes your face look better.” Yousef asked if I
would wear the hijab to his restaurant when the project was over. I
nodded, smiled and took a crunchy mouthful of fattoush.’

Why do you think he said that? So that you become a visible symbol of Islam,
even if you’re not actually Muslim yourself. All religions try to
increase their influence by such subtle and not-so-subtle means.
However, I do respect your openess and empathy; most Muslims are just
decent people trying to get on with their lives. So yes, respect Muslims,
but that doesn’t mean that we should respect everything about Islam.

Where did you learn this horrific and overgeneralized opinion?  Do you know any Muslims?  Have you ever been to a Muslim dominated country or community?  Your examples of particular events and equating them to equal the entire definition of the hijab is really a stretch.  If you agree with that argument, than you could also say that all Christians who wear the cross support the genocide and destruction that occurred during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Colonial conquests in the name of religion have marred the history of many religions and nations, not just Islam, and it is a horrific part of our global history and present!.  But it is precisely the bigoted and blind hatred that you  are expressing that has allowed these kinds of conquests to occur. When you believe this, it is easy to  justify that it is “OK” to kill other groups of people- because they are “sub-human” animals.        This is the exact same argument that Hitler and the Nazis used to justify the mass murdering of Jews, Muslims, disabled, and any other group that was “different.”  Please, try to get to know a Muslim person. Just one.  See if it is different than what you thought and what you hear on the news. You may be surprised. I hope you find some way to not feel so much hate for your fellow humans.

The entire point of the garment is to hide female beauty because the parts of the world where islam dominates is full of low IQ, sub-human animals who rape anything and everything. 

It’s especially vomit inducing to see a European female volunteer to wear such clothing because islam has a long history of raiding, invading, colonizing, butchering and enslaving white Europeans.

And one of the main motivations for doing so was to mass kidnap European females – many of whom were extremely young – for the purpose of using them as sex slaves.

In fact, 2/3rds of the slaves in the islamic slave trade were females. They were shipped all throughout the muslim empire to serve as sex slaves for their muslim rapists/masters.

Even European males – including young boys – experienced this same hellish fate.

Millions of Europeans were enslaved and butchered by muslims and their females treated like sex toys.

How dare you dishonor your heritage by willingly going along with the barbaric muslim customs forced upon your helpless and horribly oppressed ancestors.
May God forgive you.

:) first you have to know that your face is radiant in Hijab ma shaa Allah !
2nd thank you for such an experience and let me tell you that when i got to the end of the article i was really sad..i was hoping it will never end :)
3rd i admire your courage and thank you ..
you just reminded me of how powerful my Hijab is ..and how much i truly love it! :)

excellent story!! I have many Muslim friends although I myself and not Muslim. I wear the scarf when it’s cold and I don’t care what people think. Maybe if I had the guts I would wear it all the time, kudos to you!

I see everybody is criticizing Arafat but none has tried to respond to his claims.

He used proofs but none responded.

I believe that this author is sincere in her undertaking but this article is too one sided.

I agree that most muslims in the west are civilized and not prone to violence. But if you read between the lines, when she disguised herself as a muslim, people, even those close to her, dared not criticize her and that in itself is a problem.

How can you ask someone to trust a muslim when you cannot even debate or openly criticize one.

Also why don’t the author go to live in an Islamic country, even for one week, disguised as a christian and let’s see if they treat her the same way the people in the west is treating the muslims.

And for those people going to comment and say that I’m a kid or whatever, know that I’m a former muslim and I’m glad that I live in the west. I studied the Quran as a kid and that is one hate book. I have been taught to ignore the Kuffars. I have been told that Jews are pigs and should be killed.

Excellent article and great work! However, I would
like to see a continuation so you can tell
people about what you learned about n from
the Muslim community!
Again thanks for all your hard work

Peace :)
It was wonderful reading this article. Thanks a lot for your efforts. May Allah open your ways in this world, fill your life with joy, happiness and success and give you Paradise in this world and paradise in the Hereafter.
I myself reverted to Islam and I was very very lucky to grow up in an amazing environment, where starting with my old christian community to my neighbors, everyone embrassed me as a new muslim sister :) Thanks be to Allah!
I LOVE being a muslim and servant of ALLAH! I’m sure you encouraged a loooot of people, the way you gave me a smile in my face :)
peace lin-haleema

Ah, if only everyone had your curiosity, openness, and courage…. Best of luck with your career in journalism! It will be difficult, but I am sure you will make an impact as long as you stick to your principles.

Hajj B 300: I think the author was just saying that Islam is not her religion, that’s why she does not “agree with the practice of”…

As a non-Muslim woman who has Muslim co-workers and friends here in Canada I applaud Cassidy for her courage and her willingness to step out of the norm. First of all, the non-Muslims who chose to ignore what she was doing (in hopes that it would go away perhaps?) what you are afraid of? This was your opportunity to engage in a discussion about something that looms darkly over Americans, and in a safe environment. Muslim women, why are you offended by her test? It was superficial, yes, nontheless, she stresses at the beginning Hajj B that this was done for her own personal reasons, to gain a greater understanding of the Muslim woman’s experience wearing a Hijab? I hope that the Muslim community near Cassidy sees her little experiment as a step towards her desire to learn more about the Islamic world, for in her I see a wonderful ally. I sense from her meeting with Muslim women first and telling of her intentions, as respectful.

A few years ago I had pondered the idea of leaving my house and home to become a homeless person… for a week, a day, or a month, I was unsure. My intention was to write about it, and also to experience what they experience. Then it dawned on me, I could not do this experience justice because at any time I could bailout and go home, to my house, the food in the cupboard, the comfortable bed that I sleep in. When I had heard that Cassidy had worn a hijab for a month in order to get a sense of being a Muslim woman I immediately assocated it with my own niave idea. I do not read into her article any expectation of this sort. She wanted to understand how it felt to wear a hijab, she does not say she covered the rest of her body (leaving face, hands and feet the only visible parts) she does not say she bound her breasts and went without make-up.

I hope that folks of the Muslim and non-Muslim communities take advantage of the identified events and get together. I have found that in the last 2 years of friendship with a Muslim woman who wears her hijab beautifully and of her own choice, that I have learned more than ever imagined. Generousity, wisdom, warmth, and spiritualy grounded are all words I would use to describe her and others I have met. I have no desire to embrace the dress code of a Muslim woman (which is optional for most by the way), it is not a slam against the faith, I am one of those 60’s women who has fought in Canada for the right to wear what she chooses, and I will maintain that right. thanks

I appreciate your effort, your openness and work to remove misconceptions and intolerance about Islam. I feel though that your comment that you do not agree with the practice of hijab says that you yourself do not have real understanding of it, and may have misconceptions that you may need to clear up. I found this article and your experience to be rather shallow and more of a vehicle to make you feel good about your own self than about the actually getting into the depths of what an average Muslim women experiences in her daily life. I know that a lot of people have commented about how they have received inspiration from you and I would like to thank you for that…. But, and I want to make this very clear, WE DON’T NEED YOUR PITY!

Asalaam alaykum sis! I’m writing to thank you for your amazing article on Islam and wearing the hijab for a month. You have done an amazing thing for all Muslim believers. I have been lately contemplating whether or not to wear a hijab after my high school graduation this year. Because I grew up in a Christian family and community, I greatly fear what  my community will say and think about my choice. Your article has helped me greatly though. I have decided to wear a hijab, and I party thank you for that! And i thank you for standing up for all Muslim believers. You have given hope to all Muslims! Wearing a hijab does not limit or repress a Muslim women, it gives her greater strength and confidence! So thank you and may Allah bless you! Inshallah!

Sent from my iPhone