The Hijab Challenge
That’s the problem with journalism. You’ve got to keep the Muslims happy,” a nail technician at Gulf Coast Town Center said to me.
We had been discussing my major – journalism – when her remark cut the conversation short. It also sparked my determination to bring the Hijab Challenge to Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Hijab Challenge encourages U.S. women to experience Islamic culture by wearing a traditional scarf for one day to one week. Muslim women wear these headscarves to cover their hair and necks when in the presence of most males to whom they are not related.
There are many misconceptions in the United States about Muslims and their culture. In a country that is supposed to be built on freedom from religious oppression, Muslim women in particular tend to feel the brunt of discrimination. Displays of modesty and devotion to principle are often mistaken for cultural oppression or extremism.
According to the Muslim Women’s League, the proper term for the headscarf is hijab. It can be tied in a variety of ways, depending upon the woman and her interpretation of modesty as described in the Quran, the central religious text of Islam.
I chose to tie my scarf in a waterfall style that covered my hair and neck. During the week of the experiment, I alternated between pink and purple hijabs. Before I knew it, I began accessorizing.
I found myself taking great pride in the way I looked. My hair, neck and chest (all things I usually left exposed) disappeared beneath the folds of my scarf and I began to appreciate the simplicity of leaving only my face visible. My conservative clothing and hijab were the polar opposite of my typical style. To my shock, I felt empowered.
Tiara Brown, an FGCU junior who also took part in the experiment, experienced similar feelings of empowerment.
“So many people told me how beautiful I looked,” Brown said. “But I felt more beautiful, which I didn’t expect.”
As the week progressed, Brown and I, though acting individually, shared many experiences while wearing the hijab.
On the first day of the experiment, I walked to a lecture on campus and saw a student with whom I had attended high school. We are still friends and talk frequently. As I passed him in the hall, we locked eyes. At first I felt confident he would walk up to me to say hello. But as we made eye contact, his face showed no recognition of who I was, and his eyes snaked away from mine as he walked by.
I couldn’t believe he didn’t recognize my face. After all, it was the only thing exposed.
Brown had a similar experience on her second day. FGCU junior Sam Robinson looked her in the eyes, and although they had met in the same spot countless times, Robinson did not recognize her.
What would possess a young Jewish woman to don the garb of a Muslim woman?
For Kalhan Foley Rosenblatt, it was an attempt to see the world through the lens of another culture.
“I’m a big supporter of Israel but I’m an even bigger supporter of peace and understanding,” says Rosenblatt, who wore the traditional Muslim headscarf, the hijab, for four days last October. Her friend, Tiara Brown, of New Port Richey, joined her in the experiment for 2 ½ days.
The goal of the project, known as the Hijab Challenge, is to give non-Muslim women the opportunity to experience the world as Muslim women do.
Dressed in their hijabs, the FGCU juniors visited Target and Marshall’s in Gulf Coast Town Center, strolled the halls of Southwest Florida International Airport, attended classes and dined out with friends. Brown led a campus tour.
As Rosenblatt recounts, there was plenty of material for a story as people peppered them with questions, teasing and, in some cases, taunts.
Brown found that generally honors and graduate students tended to be more supportive than younger students. Both women discovered that it was easier talking to strangers than friends about their outfits and motivations.
Two months later, friends were still commenting about it in person and on Facebook.
Looking back, both women view it as a valuable experiment, one that changed their perspectives and those of many with whom they came in contact.
— Karen Feldman