“My crown, my sword:” Life as a hijabi at ETHS
January 25, 2021
Humans are nothing if not storytellers. The stories that we tell, the things that we place faith in and will into existence, guide us through the world that surrounds us; they give us hope in dark places, offer a rock to stabilize us in periods of doubt. Over time, stories are codified into customs, laws, traditions stretching into the depths of history, connecting people to their ancestors, their family, their faith, themselves.
The hijab does just this.
“Hijab is a symbol of my faith, my religion because women are the representatives of Islam since you can tell if they wear the hijab, that they are Muslims,” junior Sajeda Yagoub says. “It’s just a reminder that I’m a Muslim and that there are certain standards that I have to hold myself up to regarding modesty and character.”
While the precise meaning and importance of hijab, literally meaning ‘curtain’ in Arabic and also translated as ‘hiding’ and ‘obstructing,’ varies from person to person and community to community, it is generally viewed as a sign of modesty, both before others and before God, as well as a signifier of the beliefs that a hijabi carries.
“Hijab is connected to modesty, number one. Modesty can be a physical type of modesty, where it’s a whole dress code… That’s the easier side of modesty for me, covering the physical; the harder side is controlling my thoughts, controlling my reactions to people. That is the part that I am more focused on developing now,” history teacher and ETHS alumni Yosra Yehia says.
“It’s a constant reminder of the morals and values that I want to live by. Oftentimes, when people see a girl wearing a hijab, they apply their views to what morals and values that girl should have, but I think, for many girls, it’s the other way; it’s symbolizing that you’re on a journey, and the first step of that journey is identifying for yourself what values you want to carry with you every day.”
These values may be religious and theological—many other faiths have traditions focused on maintaining modesty including branches of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity—but are adapted to fit the particular needs of the individual and evolve over time.
“There are rules, guidelines on how to live your life. Being a good person, being forgiving, understanding, not forcing stuff on other people, being very thankful for the stuff you have…. That’s in my mind all the time,” Yagoub says. “If I ever feel bad, I try not to complain about what I don’t have and to be thankful for what I have. I try to be as forgiving or as kind as I can—which can be hard sometimes because people are annoying—but Islam just influences how I act. It’s really in the way you talk, the way you hold yourself, the confidence you have and the kindness in the way you treat other people and the way you treat yourself.”
Yehia describes wearing the hijab as a ‘journey,’ and, like any journey of self-discovery, there are struggles along the road—struggles increased by the Islamophobia that permeates American culture and media, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“I started wearing hijab in middle school; I went to Chute. That was difficult, because I started in seventh grade, and people already knew me. When I put it on, I could tell people were taken aback; there was a period of isolation, I would say, because I didn’t know how to react to their reactions,” junior Iman Williams says. “I remember I had a friend in sixth grade, and I would braid her hair. Then, all of a sudden, she just stopped talking to me. I remember some other kids stopped talking to me, but then they [came] back and started asking a lot of questions; I still get a lot of questions.”
William’s experience stands in sharp contrast with that of junior Soumia Kaltimi, who immigrated to the U.S. from Chad four years ago. Growing up in Chad and the Central African Republic, nations with substantially larger Muslim populations (52 percent and 19 percent respectively) than the U.S. (1 percent), Kaltimi was constantly surrounded by hijabi women of color who reflected her own identity.
“I come from a Muslim family. Growing up, I’ve been around people who’ve been mostly Muslim, but I moved to the U.S. about four years ago, and it’s very different. In the U.S., I barely see hijabis; back home, wherever I go, I see people who look like me,” Kaltimi says. “At ETHS, I barely can see people who look like me, especially being a person of color, a hijabi taking AP and honors classes. I just feel like, ‘Wow, so I’m really the only person.’”
This sentiment is echoed both by Williams and in Cook County’s demographics, which show that only four percent of county residents are Muslim compared to the 38 percent majority Catholic and 10 percent Protestant populations.
“I feel like we need more Black Muslims at our school, in our classrooms and just more Muslims in general. When I go into the hallways of ETHS, it’s diverse. I see everybody—I see Latinos, I see Black people, I see white people and Asians—but when I get into a classroom, it’s not what the hallway looks like, and it’s disappointing,” Williams says.
“[Hijab has] become something that I didn’t expect it to be: in a crowd of people, or even at school, I stand out. That willingness, that I have to stand out, just shows me that I’m so proud to be Muslim and I’m not scared of the hate or stares I might get,” senior Laiba Idrees says.
Lack of representation is a challenge for many hijabi students and presents other obstacles that non-hijabi students are unlikely to encounter. One such challenge comes with changing for PE classes.
“[I] used to talk [to a friend] about gym class and how you have to change. Freshman year, it was all girls, so we could take off our hijabs. But, during sophomore year we had to wear leggings in the heat, which is hard if it’s really hot and stuff like that. ETHS offers all-girls classes during freshman year for PE, but if they could do it more for all grade levels, it would be really good; not only for Muslims but for any girls who are comfortable just being with girls,” Kaltimi says.
“During sophomore year, I had PE. A couple of weeks after we started that class, we had the swimming unit. At this point, the class was starting to settle in, and people were making new friends. Since I couldn’t participate in the unit, I was transferred over to another sophomore class for a couple of weeks, while my original class was doing the swimming unit. In this new class, I was the new girl, and it was kind of awkward at first, but I slowly began to get used to it. After my original gym class was done with the swimming unit, I transferred back. During the swimming unit, everyone got really close and operated as a normal class. People had their own groups, and I was, once again, the new kid. I think the school needs to find a way for hijabis to do something while their class is doing the swimming unit because that was a really big problem for me,” Idrees says.
Another challenge faced by some hijabi students, as well as other religious Muslims, is finding space to fulfill salah, the five daily prayers, of which dhuhr and asr (the noon and afternoon prayers) sometimes take place during school hours.
“At ETHS, it was hard to find a place to go pray, because there wouldn’t be an open space. One time, when we had marching band practice, I would go to the music library, which is like a backroom, and pray in there,” Yagoub says.
“When I was in school, usually my prayers were during lunch or study hour. So, I just went, and I had a friend who would pray in the meditation room. The security guards were really cool about opening the door and making it a safe space for us to do what we need to do and leave,” Williams says.
One of the clearest challenges to hijabi students comes in the form of both macro-and microaggressions aimed at their Muslim identity.
“Some people like when they ask questions, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t know what to say,’ and I say, ‘Just spit it out. You don’t have to be tiptoeing around it,’” Williams says. “I did have one kid say, kind of under his breath, ‘Do you have a bomb under there?’ What goes through people’s minds to ask a question like that?”
Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, this form of aggression has not substantially diminished with time. In 2019, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding published its annual American Muslim Poll, which indicated a 17 percent increase in Islamophobia (as determined by violence against Muslims and responses to questions about Muslims and Islam) from the year prior, the same year that Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were sworn in as the first Muslim women to serve in Congress.
“Last year, when I was in math, my teacher asked me if English is my second language. She had already met both of my parents, who are American-born and speak English, and she knows me. I asked her ‘Why are you asking me this question?’” Williams says.
The teacher didn’t immediately respond before brushing it off and moving on. However, the incident disturbed Williams, and “a couple of months later, I went up to her and said ‘Why did you ask me that? That was offensive.’ When I talked to her about it, she made an excuse; she said HAC says it’s not your language. So, I went to the main office… and they said, ‘No, that’s not on HAC.’ My mom sent her an email, and it was a whole thing before she apologized. If English wasn’t my first language, what’s wrong with that? What does that have to do with you answering this question about the math problem that I’ve come to AM Support for?”
“A lot of the teachers at ETHS are really cool, and they do a lot of work around education, but, then, there are the teachers that don’t do that because they feel like they don’t need to. They have students in their class that are of color and that are Muslim, and they don’t even know how to react because they’re so used to being closed off from this world.”
While similar incidents are far from uncommon, Yehia believes that, since her time at ETHS, there has been a greater acceptance of Muslim individuals.
“When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to wear a hijab. I didn’t really have the courage at that age, and it was a different time. It was those first 10 years post 9/11—I was in high school in 2006–2010—so things were still fresh,” Yehia says. “One day, I told my cousin, ‘Hey, let’s just go to school tomorrow wearing our hijabs, and let’s see what our friends say.’ A lot of our friends liked it, but there was a boy in English class that I thought was my friend with, and he texted me from across the room saying ‘Why are you wearing that rag on your head?’ I feel like he was trying to be funny, but it hurt.”
“I know that ignorance like that will never die completely, but I just think that now there’s just a higher level of basic knowledge where everyone knows this is called a hijab. I was at Starbucks the other day, and some random guy complimented my hijab and asked me how much it was. He wasn’t Muslim, and we had a conversation. I never had those conversations even eight years ago when I started wearing hijab and definitely 15 years ago when I would watch my mom’s experiences.”
Yehia and Kaltimi both feel that ETHS in particular has positioned itself, through equity initiatives and more inclusive curriculums, to work towards changing commonly held perceptions of Islam, something that is clear through the questions asked by its students.
“I feel like the people at ETHS are very much open-minded and also know a lot of things about Islam and the culture, especially because of the Humanities class during freshman year. A lot of them already know what hijab is. While ignorant people call it a towel—there’s no way that looks like a towel—[people at ETHS] call it a hijab, which is a good thing,” Kaltimi says. “[In Humanities] students came up to me and asked me questions like ‘You guys really have to follow this and that?” and I explained it to them, and they were very understanding. They said, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool’ which was a good thing.”
“It’s just amazing to me,” Yehia says. “I’ve worked at a couple of other places and just the type of questions that people ask at ETHS shows that they’re coming from a place that’s already educated about religion, around religious garments. I’ve grown, as a Muslim woman, from so many of my conversations with non-Muslims at ETHS, and I’ve learned a little bit more about why I wear hijab through conversations with teachers and students.”
Systemic change is needed to fight against Islamophobia, and while the work needed to create this change can be intimidating, the hijab—proudly and publicly declaring and representing one’s identity to the world—can be a powerful weapon in the battle to achieve a more equitable world.
“Being a person of color and a hijabi, we have to fight for equal rights and not to be oppressed…. I regard the hijab as a crown. It’s empowerment, it’s my sword, it’s something that I can use to fight with whatever is going to come up to me. It’s something that I’m really, really proud of, and, as long as I’m wearing it, I feel like I’m the queen, I can do whatever I want to,” Kaltimi says. “I want to be seen as somebody who’s just a human being, not labeled as oppressed and stuff like this; I just want to be seen as me, not the thing that the media has put out there.”
“Hijab. To me, it means courage, because it’s taught me to be really outspoken because I’m literally wearing my heart on my sleeve. It’s definitely taught me to be fearless, and my parents have always instilled that in me,” Williams says. “I think with hijab-wearing in the climate that we’re all living in, it’s been a journey. I’m glad that I’m privileged enough that I made that choice to start wearing it, and I’ve had really supportive friends.”
Ultimately, the hijab is but one more piece in the complex web of being human. Something that represents who a person is but is molded to fit who they are and who they want to become. Hijab represents something different for every person. There is no one type of hijabi; everyone is who they are and evolves according to their own time.
“Women who wear hijab are not perfect, they make mistakes, and they should be allowed to make mistakes. They have emotions, and they should be allowed to react emotionally,” Yehia says. “If someone is in a different place in their journey… it means they’re trying, and they’re trying for themselves…. Understand that, know that and let people be on their own journeys.”