Wearing a Hijab Changed the Way I See Myself, and the World

I am standing in front of the vanity mirror that once belonged to my parents. It’s black marble with gold lining. I’m staring at the reflection of my 15-year-old self, and I see a young version of my mother but with my father’s almond-shaped hazel eyes. Whenever I cover my hair, my face becomes both parents’ faces at the same time — a perfect mix. I wish I had learned how to love my brown eyes sooner.

I never thought I would be here, making this decision. I had never seen a woman with a head scarf reporting the news on American television. What would make me any different? I never wanted to risk not fulfilling my childhood dream to be a journalist.

This would be the first day I’d walk out of the house as a “hijabi.” I won’t tell you that I was ready. I don’t think anyone is ever ready to wear their truest selves on their sleeves or, in my case, on my head. Yet, it wasn’t something I thought too deeply about. It was simply my gut telling me, “You got this.” To this day, my intuition has never failed me.

I used to spend hours in front of this mirror and previous mirrors doing my hair in the morning, leaving iron burns on my little pale hands. I collected little red reminders of my efforts in becoming how I wished myself to be.

The drawers of this old armoire would soon hold dozens of scarves of all colors, patterns, and cuts, but today I take a thin rectangular black cotton scarf and a thin rectangular tan cotton scarf and intertwine them on my head, a style I saw one of my friends do on Facebook. I try to channel the strength my mother had when she stood in front of this same mirror in 1995 and made this same commitment. She chose to be a hijabi at 23 years old in Birmingham, Ala.

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My parents never mentioned wearing the hijab to me because wearing it must be a choice and I was so vocal about wanting to be a television reporter. Now, looking back on it, I realize they were also creating a space where I could find my own individuality. I went through so many phases — choosing looks as varied as American states. All the way from the head-to-toe gothic black to my emo-kid phase featuring a collection of Converse, denim jackets, and cowboy boots, to wearing pink silk skirts and vintage gold pointed-toe heels.

I was trying to find myself in a community, surrounded by girls with straight blond hair and those bright blue and green eyes that my colored contacts never seemed able to replicate. Me, the black-haired, brown-eyed sheep. Turning on the TV wasn’t much different. Except for Oprah, of course. My standards of beauty were rooted in what I knew and what I saw across the media. I believed I had to look like the people I saw represented on the screen in order to achieve. I couldn’t come up with another explanation for the lack of diversity.

But when and why did the tastemakers of our culture decide that if you’re “different,” then you can never be “beautiful” or “enough”? Why does our society choose to constantly feed into those detrimental narratives? And why is it so quick to satisfy itself with checklist diversity? Real inclusivity takes place in the mind and shows up at the decision-making table.
It challenges our previous notions of beauty, value, and representation. It shifts expectations and in turn shapes reality. 

Not only is it easy to miss beauty, but it’s equally easy to vilify an “other,” someone or something we are not familiar with. The same goes for people who make us uncomfortable because of their strange-sounding native tongue, their different-looking clothing, or even the color of their skin. But the vilification that starts as incuriosity, ignorance, and fear can quickly transform into danger, isolation, and life-threatening oppression. 

Recently, a white-supremacist terrorist attacked two New Zealand mosques in Christchurch, killing 50 people and injuring dozens more during Friday prayer. The first words the attacker heard as he entered the [Al Noor] mosque were: “Hello, brother.” Our community refers to each other as brother and sister. This elderly man would be the attacker’s first victim. 

People fear what they do not know.

If you are a part of a marginalized community, you have probably at some point been used to fill a diversity quota, to check all the right boxes. If you are not a part of a marginalized community, then I ask you to think about the rooms you sit in, the spaces you walk into where decisions are made. What do they look like? Have you ever noticed when there are only one or two minorities in the room? It’s the first thing I notice in almost every room I walk into.

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Our society’s standards of beauty, authenticity, and community suppress the true progression of our culture. There’s an incredible pool of potential that gets marginalized. We all miss out on the benefits of this reservoir of talent that gets set aside. Strength lies in the variety of things that make us each unique individuals. Nature, the purest form of beauty, knows that diversity is strength; we have yet to fully recognize and benefit from this natural truth. Our look, our style, our thoughts, and our beliefs, even our most vulnerable and painful experiences, they all strengthen us. Every one of us shares at least one common denominator with every other human — life itself. 

When I was working on my documentary and podcast, Sold in America: Inside Our Nation’s Sex Trade, I interviewed a sex worker who told me she had written an article expressing how she related to Muslim women who wear the hijab. People always try to dictate how we dress or act. Sex workers and hijabis — we share unexpected commonalities, oft-repeated story lines, frustrating ones. 

But such connections get missed when our stories are constantly told by people who do not understand these cultures. How much does society miss because way too often the ones relaying the news don’t know the people they’re talking about? 

It’s the same for the norms we’ve set for ourselves. What is beautiful? What is strong? What is enough? And what do we do if we don’t feel like we are any of the above? Do we push ourselves and others to the margins of our community? Do we stifle our productivity? Our perspectives? Our relationships? 

The answer is all of the above. 

We must shatter glass ceilings, and all the glass cases that have withheld acceptance, and sealed-off authenticity, holding them hostage for far too long. The people who deserve to be championed and celebrated are all around us — they always have been. They’ve been overlooked — their work and ideas claimed by others. That costs all of us. It’s time to study those people. Let’s overcome fear and spread curiosity. Sit with them. Listen. Learn from them. They might look and act differently from us, but if life has allowed you to cross paths, believe there is always a foundation of shared humanity. Beauty is the mindfulness and appreciation of our differences. Beauty is immeasurable. But you feel it if you choose to be open to its presence.

Build the bridge of commonality, and then keep building, because before you tell me the appearance of my scarf terrifies you, confuses you, or makes you uncomfortable, just remember that when you did your hair this morning, I did my hijab too.

Photographed by Anthony Maule. Styling: Laurel Pantin. Hair: Leonardo Manetti. Makeup: Deanna Melluso. Manicure: Yuko Wada. 

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April. 19.  

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