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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Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Missouri ReviewStoryQuarterlyMcSweeney’sHuffington PostBLIP MagazineGargoyle Magazineand Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, and Pushcart awards. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and Johns Hopkins as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of the university-housed literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.