Removing the Hijab, the Guilt of It


Following the ruling by the European court of justice to allow employers to ban religious symbols in the workplace, three Muslim women in Spain, The Netherlands and the UK talk about their experiences of looking for work while wearing a hijab….

The hijab. I’m so torn. On one hand, I love my hats. Always have. I feel “complete” when I leave the house with the perfect hat on my head. I have a special place on the bedroom wall, special hat hooks, where I display my favorite hats and can easily choose the hat d’jour. My favorite hat right now was a birthday gift from my hubby. A gray vintage Stetson with a perfect blue feather, the gumshoe sort, not the cowboy. I love it. We found it at an indoor flea market and it’s a once in a lifetime. Each time I put it on, I am complete. The rain will not bother me. I’ll be perfectly warm. No matter what my hair is doing, I’m sheik. But what if I had to where the Stetson?

Imagine. You are a girl, grown up in which the hat qualifies respectability? The same way wearing “proper” shorts or skirt means you are “respectable.” Covering is a norm for all communities. Especially for women. Even the head and hair covered in “respectable form” isn’t so far removed from Western society. “Proper ladies” wore hats late into the 1900s. Even now, Catholic nuns to Mennonite women, cover their heads. The religious expectation is not exclusive to Muslim communities. Though, let it be said, Catholic nuns and Mennonite women, though shunned, will not be murdered or mutilated for shedding their religious covers.

As a young girl, I wore a hat to Sunday school each week and all the women and men and the pastor loved me for it. I felt special and accepted. They knew me as the girl in the hat. And I was a proper Baptist young lady. So what’s the rub?

Many years ago, before I had know what a hijab was, I worked for a woman who wore a hijab. I’d neither learned about a hijab nor Muslim culture in school. I’d neither read about it in the newspaper nor seen it on the news. I was in college and working as a summer coordinator for a county at-risk youth services agency in Pennsylvania. 

I complemented her. Her hijab had affected me. It was elegant and unique in the drab county government office. It was crisp and white. She was very beautiful, so different than everyone else. Dark eyes and warm skin. I’d never met, let alone worked, for anyone who looked, dressed, moved or spoke like her. She became my mystery, this professional, strong, unique woman leading our department. I knew I could never be her or even like her, but still, I knew somewhere deep inside that she held something I could not ascertain and for that reason I was then subservient, not only because I was her employee, but because I knew on some level that she knew more of the world than I did. And she knew she knew more than I did. She knew I knew it too. I was at her mercy in what counted. She had an experience of life and humanity that I would never know. And here we both were, working our hearts out for at-risk youth in our county. 

I garbled some sort of complement about her “scarf.” I like your scarf, it’s beautiful… or some awkward Westernized idiocy. To this day, I still wonder if the silent response she gave was pity or polite disdain. Either way, she tried to make me feel welcome. The grace of it.

Each time I put on my Stetson, I see her in the mirror as an unresolved cipher. And it echoes in each article I read about a woman wearing a hijab and a woman mutilated for not wearing the expectations of her community. 

If I were forced to give up my Stetson, I would refuse. I might likely die for it. I’m Scotch-Viking and feisty. I would be the ridiculous person fighting to the death for the right to wear my Stetson. And it’s all so subjective, the hats. My hat might be another’s hat for a far better reason.

Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, DIAGRAM, StoryQuarterly, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. Her digital intermedia has exhibited in New York, DC, Baltimore and Florence, Italy. She has won prizes and fellowships from Johns Hopkins, Aspen Writers Foundation, VCCA and Whidbey Writers and has been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, The &NOW Award, Lorian Hemingway, and multiple times for the Pushcart award. Rae earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach new media, technology for writers and creative writing and is founding editor and designer of Eckleburg. She also teaches and lectures in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa and The Eckleburg Workshops. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.

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What drives, inspires, feeds your artistic work?

My grandfather, born in Iran, moved to Lebanon where he and my grandmother gave birth to my father, and subsequently moved to the United States. My grandfather died young and my grandmother remarried a Catholic. This explains my loaded Christian name, and is a starting point for my fascination with religion. The first significant event that shaped me as a writer was The Satanic Verses controversy during my college years. Soon after, I had a Muslim fiancée, Ayesha, yet my agnosticism could not reconcile with her faith. Her life, as a war refugee and humanitarian, fascinate me, and we remain friends. Subsequent travels and jobs led me to Pakistan, Oman and the UAE, where I spent a year teaching at a government high school. While in the UAE I also taught evenings at a private school and met Ceza. The lives of Ayesha and Ceza, combined with my experiences with Islam, provide the basis for my current work in progress on Muslims as individuals in flux with the big picture, persecutions of Muslims, interfaith gestures, and the pressure the fatwa on Salman Rushdie places on writers confronting the dialectic between Islam and the West.

If you had to arm wrestle a famous writer, poet or artist, either living or dead, who would it be? Why? What would you say to distract your opponent and go for the win?

Salman Rushdie

When you are gone and all that is left is what others remember of you and your work, what would you like the world to remember?

The subjects, lives, people, and arguments that are the topics of my writing.


Caleb Powell co-authored, with David Shields, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, published by Knopf and also a film premiering in the spring of 2015 at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival. He blogs for the Karachi based Express Tribune. “Honor” is an excerpt from Ayesha and Ceza: Two Muslim Women. Other excerpts are forthcoming from Harpur Palate, New Madrid, Pleiades, Quarter After Eight, and Whiskey Island Magazine.