In a quiet enclave of Old Union an hour before the vigil ceremony for Malala Yusufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani activist and Taliban gun victim, Nausheen Mahmood ’14 spoke emphatically about her journey with her hijab.
“The hijab is liberating in that people take you seriously and listen to what you have to say,” said Mahmood, the vice president of the Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU).
The hijab is a traditional veil that covers the hair and neck and is worn by some Muslim women.
According to Vice President of the Muslim Students Awareness Network (MSAN) Hana Al-Henaid ’14, the conversation surrounding the hijab is not just about the hijab, but rather about the person who is or isn’t wearing it.
Al-Henaid and Mahmood both wear the hijab on campus out of personal choice. For these women, born and raised in California, the hijab means dressing and behaving modestly. It sets boundaries to enable decorum in social interactions.
Al-Henaid first puts her hijab on before she leaves for class and only takes it off again in the privacy of her room. However, before coming to Stanford, she had to modify her routine. For instance, she wears long sleeves, pants and a scarf to the gym, since the facilities are not all-female.
Mahmood remembers having to cover herself from head to toe in physical education class during middle school in Cupertino, Calif. Initially, Mahmood often became frustrated when she had to wear layers of T-shirts and sweatpants. However, she grew accustomed to the heat by constantly reminding herself of the commitment she had made in fourth grade.
“I actually came to the nice realization that heat is something I need to deal with, and I need to remember the bigger picture of why I am doing this,” Mahmood said.
“It takes off a layer of superficiality. More personally, it’s my daily connection to God,” she added.
According to Al-Henaid, there is no simple answer to what a hijab is. In fact, Mahmood explains that the more conversations she has with other hijabis from all walks of life on campus, the more she learns about the garment.
“At Stanford there are multiple opinions on the matter,” Al-Henaid said. “It comes along with being in a new place away from your family and getting to question your values independently.”
During her freshman year, Al-Henaid was the only hijabi to take part in the “Hijabi Monologues,” a Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project (STAMP) production in conjunction with MSAN. Written by Sahar Ullah, the monologues showcased episodes in the lives of hijabis at Stanford. Despite never having acted before, Al-Henaid explains that she was drawn to the “very human role” in the monologue about the writer’s own experience.
“I was just coming from high school, so all my memories were very fresh,” Al-Henaid said. “The monologue described the writer’s high school experience of male friends acting as her ‘hijabi protectors.’ Ironically, in my freshman dorm, all the girls also ended up playing the part of my protectors.”
However, college is not the first time that these two hijabis have had to answer questions about publicly portraying their faith. Al-Henaid was already used to these countless questions before college.
“Some people may view the hijab as a license for subordination, but that connection is completely flawed,” Mahmood said. “Hijabi women are completely breaking that norm here, achieving great things but keeping in line to what they committed to.”
According to Mahmood, the general consensus is that Stanford assures hijabis a comfortable feeling of acceptance for which they are grateful. Al-Henaid admits to often asking herself how her attitude towards the hijab would differ if she lived in a country that mandated it like Iran. However, Mahmood differentiates between tolerance and understanding.
“Everyone comes with their own preconceptions about the hijab, which is why MSAN has organized events…to provide the Stanford community with a forum in which they can hear voices from a spectrum of Muslim women at Stanford and their individual views on hijab” said Mahta Baghoolizadeh ’13, president of MSAN.
“We don’t fully understand the devotion associated with wearing the hijab,” said
Ramzi Salti, lecturer in Arabic language and literature.
Yet while some may suffer from a lack of awareness, discrimination as experienced outside of Stanford is largely unheard of on campus.
According to Salti, hijabi women have been accosted and followed on public buses in Palo Alto. Before arriving at Stanford, even Mahmood and Al-Henaid experienced slurs such as “towel-head,” “terrorist,” and “Osama.”
“These stereotypes are created outside campus. Stanford is not immune,” Mahmood said.
For this, Salti blames the lack of Muslim representation in the media, which he argues tends to “demonize Islam.” Salti points to other symbolic religious garments, like the Jewish kippah or the Christian cross, that have not attracted similar levels of public outcry.
“After 9/11, I had seen stuff about Islam on TV and I knew that wasn’t what we were about,” Mahmood said. “I thought that if I wore the hijab people would be able to associate my religion with me, rather than what they saw on TV.”
According to Salti, the headscarf has now become emblematic of a Muslim identity that was increasingly challenged after 9/11.
“When I was 14, it was a way of life,” Al-Henaid said. “But now it’s turned into me representing someone who is more than myself, into representing my religion even though I can’t speak for a billion people. It’s both burdensome and empowering.”
For Al-Henaid and Mahmood, the dialogue surrounding the hijab within the Muslim community at Stanford is laden with socioeconomic, geographic and gender diversity. However, organizations such as MSAN and ISSU seek to thrust that conversation into a larger space through which everyone can participate.
“The hijab is not something to be afraid of, and it’s not something to be hateful towards,” Mahmood said. “We all have different religions, we all wear different things and we all have different names, but we are all individuals.”