Little did I know when I decided to wear the hijab 13 years ago, against my parents’ will, that I would find myself in a position where I’ve had to prove that I can wear a veil and still have an open mind, not only to foreigners I communicate with as part of my job as a diplomatic editor, but also to some Egyptian Muslims.
After the toppling of former President Mohamed Morsi, I don’t know why exactly, but tens of my work colleagues decided to take off their hijab, which for me was perfectly fine; I do think it’s a personal freedom to do what you want with yourself as long as you hurt no one. Little by little, I started receiving comments from some of them and also from senior male co-workers like “when are you going to take off yours?” “You know we were so young when we decided to do something like this, maybe you should consider it too,” and “You would look ten times better with your hair showing, the hijab is truly ugly, a girl’s beauty and elegance are buried the moment they wear that piece of cloth.”
I know that their comments are not meant to insult me in any way, but nonetheless, I found myself struggling to defend my choice, and having to assert I’m still convinced that I should wear it and that I’m actually proud of it, because it’s part of my identity, and who I am. If and when I decide to take it off, it would be regardless of what others would think of me.
I remember when I traveled to the U.S. three years ago for a short visit on an invitation from the state department, what struck me the most was the attitude of Americans towards my hijab. The first hour I arrived in Washington D.C., I kept getting greetings of “salaam alaikum”kfrom complete strangers in the street. And when I went to Texas on the same trip, people invited me to music clubs to enjoy jazz with them not seeing my headscarf as a barrier, unlike some music clubs in Cairo that will not admit females who wear the veil!
Also in Egypt, some big companies and institutions prefer to employ women without hijab, in fact some corporations, specially those focused on advertisement industry ban the veil in the workplace, and some restaurants and hotels require waitresses to take it off during work hours.
On the other hand, working around foreigners has been a great privilege for me for meeting people from all walks of life only adds to one’s knowledge and life experience as the verse in Quran sums it up “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.”
Sometimes wearing the hijab does create an awkward atmosphere among some foreigners, as they get confused regarding their behavior around women who wear hijab, and don’t know whether to shake hands with you. Sometimes diplomats are told before deploying not to touch Muslim women, or drink alcohol in your presence out of fear that by doing so that are offending you, which can create a sense of unease. Of course not all foreigners act the same, but I’m no longer surprised when some diplomats, and Egyptians who work in foreign embassies act more at ease with my colleagues who do not wear hijab .
I remember a senior Muslim Egyptian media officer in a European embassy in Cairo, congratulated a colleague who newly took off the veil and told her it was too late of a step and she should have done it earlier. I do not mind her doing that, after all it is what she thinks, but from the way she treats me, I can tell the difference is because of me wearing the hijab.
It’s understandable with the rise of the wave of extremism that people would look with a suspicious eye to those who wear hijab, but amidst all this let . As some of us claim to be open-minded and capable of accepting all people regardless of their color, religion or race, then why do we deny others their right to express themselves only to prove that we are modern and cool?
For all I know, I could have a change of heart one day and decide to take off my hijab, but I would make sure not to defend my choice by belittling other people’s choices. Until then what I would like others to understand about women who wear hijab is that it , and it’s not a barrier that’s meant to keep people away, it’s a choice.