On being “Cool” and Hijabi

So I’ve been feeling particularly “uncool” these days.   I’m not even sure I was ever really cool – but I’ve recently felt like I’ve hit an all time low in the “cool” category.   To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s cool to even use the word “cool” anymore.  🙂  (What are kids using these days? ) *sigh*  I mean how cool can you actually be when half your day is spent sniffing diaper clad bottoms and asking your kids to lower their voices more than your elementary school librarian?  I don’t know – there’s just something distinctly “uncool” about being a parent.  You can’t be cool sometimes and not others (can you?).  You’re either cool, or you’re not, right??? Or maybe there’s a ratio of sort, like you have to be cool at least 50% of the time to ACTUALLY be cool?  But even then…I’d lose.  I spend too much of my day doing uncool things (I say this as my son quickly wipes his nose on my shoulder…ugh.)

Then there’s been a surge in these hijabi fashionista type blogs lately that really just heighten my awareness of how much effort many Muslim women are putting into being trendy/chic/cool – and how much I’m not.  I have to admit, on some level, I enjoy them…and I get the trend in working to create an American/Muslim identity (more on that in a bit).  The result has created an increasing number in online stores that cater to muslim women – which I love.   I love the fact that there are so many more options that allow a person to express themselves while still looking put together and maintaining a certain amount of modesty.  The hijabi fashionista blogs though – I don’t know, I’m a little torn.   For me personally – I love things that are aesthetically pleasing.  I have a love/hate relationship with fashion because some of it is instinctively, intuitively beautiful, and some of it isn’t (for me).  Price and brand names are secondary.  I can love something that’s $30 and $300 equally as much.  I just love art and I love pretty things. 🙂   But I feel like there are 2 sides to this fashionista phenomenon.  (And here’s where I’m torn.)  Part of me enjoys watching the art behind it all – seeing it all come together.   Then the other part of me feels like, much like the rest of American culture, it’s creating a standard that people (Muslim girls/women in this case) might feel they need to meet, and I honestly don’t have the energy to put in that sort of effort (nor do I want to, or want to feel like I have to).  And part of me feels like, there’s something distinctly “uncool” about working that hard to be “cool” and then having to tell people “hey look at how cool I am.”  It’s like being humble and going around telling people how humble you are.  That’s how I feel about being fashionable and “cool”.  You are, or you aren’t.  But going around telling people how “cool” you are just seems a little weird to me.  Few people are able to pull it off gracefully – but the ones that do are worth watching I suppose.

Anyway back to the emergence of the hijabi fashionista phenomenon.  At first I thought it was a little weird…and excessive (and in some cases I still think that) but the more I think about it – the more I get it.  In a time and place where most people look down on who and what you are (i.e. Muslim hijab clad woman in the West), having a great pair of shoes or a nice bag, or a super outfit helps level the playing field a bit – at least on a superficial level.  It’s something our culture tends to admire, and it brings you up a notch in some people’s eyes.  I get it.  White folks might find that distinctly shallow, and it is – but when you’re not on the receiving end of discrimination – it’s easy to make that call.  I didn’t really get how racist people were until I stayed home.  Through college and even after when I worked, I was surrounded by educated people.  It wasn’t till I stayed home and encountered people from more diverse walks of life that I realized – most people’s first impressions of me are:

  1. I’m a foreigner
  2. I don’t speak english
  3. I’m uneducated
  4. I’m forced to dress this way (i.e. wear hijab)
  5. I stay home because I have been forced to

I’ve actually gone to court – in a suburban area – and had the judge talk to me like I didn’t understand.   After thoroughly charming the prosecutor and basically getting off with no points and a lowered fine for a speeding ticket, I had to go before the judge. Rather than just ask me up front if I spoke English or not – he assumed I didn’t and spoke to me like I was an idiot.  The court officer thought the judge’s reaction was very amusing when I responded in perfect English.  But situations like this sadly occur more often than you would think.   At one of my first jobs I had a coworker approach me a few months after we became friends and tell me, “You know, I used to feel really sorry for you.”  I was like why – and her response was, “because I thought you were so oppressed.”  So I asked her frankly, based on what?

  1. I am working (hence this job)
  2. I’m educated (and I was in the process of working on a graduate degree)
  3. I’ve traveled (certainly more than she had)
  4. I have friends and I go out
  5. I have interests I explore
  6. I have my own car/money, etc.

So I asked her, what part of my life do you find oppressive.  That I cover?  – well, that was my choice too.  So what’s left – and she had nothing to say.  She’s like, “I know – I just assumed when I first met you that because you were covered someone was making you do it”.   People see hijab as hard, and it can be hard at times (and not always for the reasons people think – it’s sometimes harder being on the receiving end of pitying or judgemental eyes than wearing long sleeves on a warm day).  But if you believe in something – you do it.  If you don’t believe in it, then it’s a non-issue, but you don’t make assumptions about a vegetarian because you feel it would be too hard for YOU to give up meat – even if you thought it was the craziest thing in the wold.  You respect the vegetarian for their choices, whether you agree or not, and you move on.  Parenting is hard, but you don’t find people telling a parent – “Well…this is really hard and stressing you out and you’re just not that good at it, so, just give it up.”  No, you keep working at it because although there are many many hard days, there is a joy and a personal journey that helps you learn more about who you really are, and who you want to be -that comes with choosing this path. People who make certain decisions for themselves do so  because they find a comfort or benefit in them, even if it’s hard at times.  Most things that are good for you or those around you aren’t easy (anyone who watches what they eat and exercises will tell you that).

Anyway, it’s safe to say that, if you are dressed well, people tend to have a better impression of you (hijab or not).  In our case – it helps our cause on some level.   People are already a little scared of you and less likely to approach you if you look different.  Moms generally don’t approach me at the playground.  I have to make the first move most of the time.  If you have a great pair of shoes or a nice bag in common – it melts the ice somewhat.  It makes you approachable – however superficial that may be.   It sends out an “I’m westernized” vibe – which is sad because many of us were born here or raised here our whole lives and western culture is a huge part of who we are.   Anyway, it’s tough being openly Muslim sometimes – so you do what you can to increase your appeal and confidence – whether consciously or subconsciously.   And this is just one way to arm yourself in a culture that generally doesn’t accept you with open arms.  I just think it’s sad that Muslim women have to work so hard to prove they are “normal” and just like everyone else.

The sad part is, even if you are deemed “cool” for managing to match your scarf to your outfit (which I never understood why that was such a big thing – people match their tops to their pants every day without getting a big pat on the back) – people assume you are the exception rather than the rule.  It’s a fortunate mishap that you happen to be someone worth liking and engaging – because that’s not what Muslim women are really like.  Your efforts become a reflection of you exclusively and never translate into something larger.  You don’t become a representation of what a Muslim woman is or can be – you become the exception to the rule.  Never mind that all my Muslim female friends are college educated and more often than not have a graduate degree.  Never mind that the median income and the average level of education for a Muslim American family is higher than that of the average middle-class American.   Never mind that most of our mothers are college educated professionals  (so education is not just a product of our generation or living in the West for that matter).  We come from a line of women where education was and still is deemed necessary.    But what people see in the media about who Muslim women are becomes their status quo – and you, in all your “coolness” are just a pleasant exception to the rule.  Don’t get me wrong – the Middle East and Muslim countries are plagued with issues.  But so are many poor third world countries, especially those that have suffered at the hands of colonialism.  They have a long way to go on all fronts, and unfortunately women bear the brunt of that burden – whether it’s sex slaves in southeast Asia, rapes in Rwanda, or the sexual harassment and women’s rights in places throughout the Middle East.  The Middle East just happens to get more media coverage than everyone else.

Anyway, I guess with age – I’ve started to feel a little more comfortable in my own skin – so the idea of working that hard to prove something to someone  – I just don’t know that I have it in me.  Maybe I’m lazy.  Maybe I really don’t have it in me to be “cool”.  ( And I know on some level there is a price to pay for not trying harder. ) But for fellow Muslim women – I feel like it can sometimes be a dangerous line to walk.   Becoming a slave to something – in this case fashion and/or stuff, I think it’s important to ask how empowering becoming a slave to anything (metaphorically or otherwise) is – and constantly remind ourselves (me first and foremost) that moderation and coming back to a middle ground is key.  My worry that in the quest for “cool”, the end result becomes less about art and beauty and more about subconsciously pleasing others and striving for acceptance in a culture that may not be ready or willing to whole heartedly accept you – and honestly – how empowering can that really be?

Blog on Islamic Art – Stars in Symmetry

So those of you who know me may (or may not) know that I’m a big fan of Islamic Art, Calligraphy and Architecture (amongst other things :)).  I’m admittedly pretty ignorant on the subject, but I find it so aesthetically pleasing, and welcome any and every opportunity to gawk in awe and amazement :).  In any case, while I was just googling some information on geometric patterns in Islamic art, I came across this blog:


It’s chock full of pretty pictures 🙂 and might teach me a thing or 2 in the meantime.  It’s just a really nice homage to the subject that I thought I would share with fellow Islamic Art lovers.

Enjoy :).

P.S.  These pictures aren’t necessarily from the blog.  I’ve only read a few entries, but these are just a few of the pictures in my “collection” of ones I’ve loved as I’ve browsed over the years.