The 1001 Tales of a Hijabi
Okay, so random incidents keep happening to me frequently, whether they’re positive, negative, or simply weird. Regardless which “category” the incident falls under, I feel I may as well one day publish some 1001 tales book. You know, like, 1001 Arabian Nights.
I am exposed to a…diversity of situations. Especially since I am a hijab-wearing woman. Among these situations are those inspired by xenophobia and orientalism. However, I can’t help finding a few of these xenophobic and/or orientalist inspired incidents slightly amusing. Plus some of them ended sort of positively? Since I seem to emanate some magical, invisible force that attracts people of multiple…attitudes (let’s just keep it to that), I’ve decided to share four of the many incidents that I felt were more spontaneous than others, but weren’t too toxic or frustrating. The four incidents in this article took place in the Canadian city of Montreal.
Story # 1: The Big Surprise
This happened in high school. I began wearing the hijab near the end of the school year in tenth grade. Before I wore the hijab, not everyone at my high school knew that I was Muslim and Arab.
Before the hijab I’ve been the subject of a diverse range of guesses about my ethnic and cultural background. I feel like I’ve been affiliated with ethnic groups and nationalities from everywhere except African and East Asian countries.
During my first hijab day, at one point I was at my locker when some guy standing not too far off behind me, heatedly said “Hey! What’s your problem?”
I turned around apprehensively, not knowing what to expect.
“Oh my God!” He exclaimed. He clasped his hand on his chest as if he was going to have a heart attack. He took a few steps back. It was that ninth grader who would sometimes make short conversation. His locker was across mine.
“Is…is that you?” he asked breathlessly.
“Who’s you?” I asked amusingly.
“Wait, is that you, Rana?” he asked, squinting his eyes, as if he was being blinded with a flashlight.
“Yes, it’s me. I don’t exactly look unrecognizable in the hijab,” I said laughing.
“Since….since when have you been Muslim? How is this possible?” he asked shockingly.
“I’ve always been Muslim,” I said, still laughing.
His hand was still clasped on his chest. He clearly was not recovering from his “heart attack.”
His face expression sort of looked like that….
“How come you never told me?” he asked blankly. It’s like he suddenly didn’t know what to think or feel anymore.
“You never asked,” I replied amusingly.
“I honestly thought you were French Quebecer or something…” he said awkwardly.
“Islam is my religion, but I’m a Palestinian Arab,” I explained.
“You’re full of surprises, aren’t you? This is too much…” He said even more awkwardly. He stared at me briefly in silence. It’s like he needed time to “process” my identities.
“Anyways, I apologize for snapping at you before. I thought you were some random Muslim girl breaking into Rana’s locker,” he said casually, breaking the silence. He smiled. I guess he “processed” my identities after all. He acted normally the next time he saw me.
I guess the below meme summarizes this story.
Story # 2: The “Explosion”
This happened around eight years ago when I first began working at a retail store. One of the store supervisors was some guy in his early thirties, whom I didn’t feel comfortable introducing myself to, nor bothered to make conversation with. I knew from the moment we made eye contact on my second day that he would eventually “explode.” He gave me the same look as others did before they “lost it.”
He definitely did “explode.” It happened during the end of my second week.
I walked by him while he stood near the front of the store. He eyed me furiously, then abruptly remarked in a passive-aggression tone, “Oh look at you covered from head to toe! Do you think you’re some she-seducing devil?”
I stopped in my tracks, then walked back towards him. I felt angry. I would’ve felt much more calm if he wasn’t a supervisor or if it happened outside the store. Also because I was already feeling exhausted from other microaggressions. His comment (although I’ve been addressed worse), was the last straw.
“And who said I wear the hijab because I think I’m some seducing devil?” I asked coldly. I stood with my arms crossed, glaring at him.
“Just look at you!” he snapped, his face turning red. “Look at how you’re dressed! Look at how you’re oppressing yourself! I can’t even see the shape of your body properly, I can’t even see your arms!”
“Why do you feel entitled to see more?” I asked irritably. If it was possible for fire sparks to shoot out of people’s eyes, they would’ve definitely shot out of mine.
“Wearing the hijab was my choice. I do it for religious reasons,” I continued, trying to calm my voice.
“Even if it was a so-called choice, you’re still oppressing yourself!” he spat aggressively, his face turning redder.
“Please do keep preaching about how oppressed I am even though you’re not a woman, and neither are you Muslim,” I said sarcastically.
“Well, why do you cover like that? Muslim men don’t,” He said triumphantly. By the look on his face, you would’ve thought he won some scientific debate.
“Name me at least one culture, religion or society where men and women are expected or required to dress exactly the same,” I responded matter-of-factly.
“But why do you cover yourself to such an extreme? I get it that men and women don’t have to dress identically, but your way is just extreme. It’s like, I can hardly see your body,” he said in exasperation, his eyes scanning my body from head to toe.
“For me it’s one form of spiritual expression. It’s not the only or most important thing in Islam, but it’s still there. I don’t do it to please or obey anyone,” I said defiantly.
There was a brief silence. I looked around the store. A few customers standing nearby weren’t even shopping anymore. They stood behind the racks of clothes watching us apprehensively. The other employees had no clue what was going on. Other than one employee at the cash serving customers, the rest were socializing behind a rack of clothes at the far end of the store.
I then sharply turned my gaze back to him when I felt someone slightly pull up the shirt sleeve on my left arm. He actually tried to do that….
“You’re being disrespectful,” I said harshly, pulling the sleeve back down. My eyes were fuming.
Good thing I wasn’t a dragon or this would’ve happened…well, maybe…
“I’m not trying to be disrespectful, I want to make a point. Why is it so terrible if people saw more skin on your arms?” he asked heatedly, his face turning no less redder than it was.
A vein throbbed at his neck. At that moment I thought of Vernon Dursley from the Harry Potter book series even though my supervisor looked nothing like him. I guess it had to do with the throbbing vein.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any throbbing veins from Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter movies…
I then said icily, “What’s terrible is not what people can or cannot see, it’s an attitude of entitlement. To touch them when unasked for, or to dictate what they can or cannot show. Believe what you want about the hijab, but you have no right to dictate your views to me, nor are you entitled to try pulling up my sleeve like that!”
There was a brief moment of silence as we both stared fiercely at each other. A look of both calm and surprise then flashed across his face. Maybe he realized that he went too far. Surprisingly, he then spoke gently.
“I’m only trying to help you!” he said kindly all of a sudden. He gave me a fatherly look, as if I was some child in need of a saviour.
“I don’t need your help. I can take care of myself,” I said boldly. I continued to eye him fiercely.
The conversation did not end there though. He started bashing the very existence of religion, argued that all of the world’s problems are due to religion, and spent a great deal talking about religious extremists. The only difference was that he no longer spoke to me aggressively. I also did not feel as attacked despite his inflammatory remarks. Two employees eventually noticed us talking and stood, one on each of side of us. They didn’t interfere or join the conversation, but they did watch us cautiously.
Just imagine if Morpheus from The Matrix actually joined our conversation to say that….
It would be tiresome to write out everything else he said, but to conclude this story, he was friendly towards me the next time I worked with him. He only worked for another week or so after the “explosion” before he quit. In fact, he became so friendly that he even once washed his personal coffee mug and filled it with water for me when he saw I couldn’t find a cup to drink with.
Story # 3: All Because of a Smile…
This happened two years ago when I got onto a city bus. I smiled at the bus driver as I went up the stairs. He smiled back. The bus was crowded to a point where I was forced to stand close to where the mid-thirties looking bus driver sat. Out of all microaggression and “random stranger” stories, this time it was my smile that opened a “can of worms.”
“You have a nice smile,” The bus driver remarked kindly, while keeping his eyes on the road.
“Thank you,” I replied politely.
He then made a few amusing remarks about how unpredictable the weather in Montreal can be and I expressed agreement. He then steered the conversation back to my smile.
“See how nice your smile is? You give off a friendly aura,” He continued kindly. He briefly turned his head to glance at me. “What I don’t get is why you’re so friendly, but other women who wear the hijab aren’t.” An austere expression suddenly dawned on his face as he stared ahead.
Although the bus was crowded with passengers, it was mostly quiet. I’m pretty sure at least a few people standing behind me heard snippets or more of the conversation to follow.
“How do you know there aren’t other friendly, hijab-wearing women?” I asked, trying not to sound too astonished.
“Well the other day another woman wearing the hijab got on the bus and she didn’t seem friendly,” He retorted. He briefly glanced at me again, trying to read my face expression. Let’s just say I was still taken aback how the conversation started with my smile and now shifted to this…
“Why did you get the impression that she’s not friendly?” I asked, attempting to sound curious.
“Well she wasn’t like you. I mean you smiled, and you seem sociable,” He argued, staring ahead, his face growing sterner.
“Yeah, well everyone’s different,” I said. “I still don’t get why you think she’s unfriendly…”
“Well she didn’t smile. She looked too serious and didn’t give off a friendly vibe. She didn’t even make eye contact,” he said gravely. His face, while staring ahead, reached its climax of sternness.
I guess this sort of sums up his face expression. Walter White from the TV show, Breaking Bad, would’ve been proud.
“Sounds like that’s how most people act when they get on city buses. Let’s be honest; how many people standing behind me on this bus right now said hello or smiled at you when they got on? Or even if they made eye contact?” I inquired.
“Well, I guess you’re right…” he responded oddly. “But still…I still think it’s different…” At this point he started to look uncomfortable and continued to look ahead.
“In what way?” I asked curiously.
“Well before you, I never came across any friendly, sociable women who wear the hijab…”
“Let me guess, I’m the first hijabi you’ve ever interacted with? I’m the first hijabi you’ve ever spoken to?” I said amusingly, while smiling.
“Well spoken to, yeah…But I mean I’ve seen other women with the hijab in public, and they seem really oppressed. The other day this woman who wears the hijab walked by with a man who I assume is her husband. Her husband looked threatening. She didn’t make eye contact with me as she walked by; probably because I’m a strange man or else her husband would get mad,” he explained cynically, like he was revealing some earth-shattering conspiracy. The stern face expression returned, except he briefly turned his head to look at me at one point, to assess my reaction.
“And you were able to theorize all that based on two strangers who briefly walked by and you never saw again?” I asked hypothetically.
“Well, it’s obvious…” He looked uncomfortable once again.
“I don’t think Hollywood and other corporate media should be seen as the number one, reliable source…”
“Maybe I’m wrong about that Muslim couple, but there’s still truth to what I’m saying…”
“Look I’m not denying that there’s violence towards Muslim women, but you can’t assume what situation someone is in or what their personality is like simply based on their religious or cultural background. Violence affects women from all backgrounds. It’s also important to realize that violence towards women can’t be addressed with a black and white mindset such as the concept of nice guys versus bad guys…”
“I have a question: Why do so many Muslims hate us French Quebecers? It’s like, what’s the point of immigrating somewhere if you already hate the people of the place you’re immigrating to?” he asked suspiciously. The stern, “Walter White” face expression returned.
“Based on my experience with the Montreal Muslim community, and obviously there’s exceptions, there’s actually a lot of pressure to be a law-abiding citizen and to avoid acting in a way that perpetuates stereotypes. Practically all the Muslims I know are still happy that they migrated here despite any obstacles they may face. But there’s also a reason why some people end up with certain mindsets. Ever thought of marginalization? Or bullying? Or discrimination? Not everyone reacts the same way to these issues, especially if they’re isolated individuals…”
“If they don’t hate us, then why the face veil?” he asked even more suspiciously. His stern, “Walter White” face expression remained fixated ahead.
“First of all, it’s called the niqab. Only a minority of Muslim women wear it. I don’t see how dressing a certain way means you hate an entire people…”
“Yeah well, when you immigrate somewhere, you’re supposed to assimilate into that place’s culture. The niqab simply isn’t part of Quebec or Canadian society,” he said adamantly. He looked at me once again to read my face expression. I raised an eyebrow.
“I wonder what First Nations people would say about assimilation into other’s cultures. I’d also like to ask them right now about whether anyone thought their cultures were superior to everyone else’s…”
“Well…” He trailed off awkwardly. He relaxed his face. He then abruptly changed the conversation by posing questions about the Islamic perspective on marriage and relationships. I answered them, then had to get off at the next bus stop. He thanked me warmly for conversing with him as I went down the bus stairs. I never saw him
Story # 4: The Orientalist
This happened during my college years. I’d say this incident was one of the weirdest I’ve experienced.
There was an atrium space booked on campus for Islamic Awareness Day, which was organized by a Muslim student club. I was standing near a table, when some guy I didn’t know walked up to me and cheerfully said “Nice, there’s Islamic Awareness Day!”
He then introduced himself and made friendly conversation. Then out of nowhere, he remarked “I think Islam is interesting. I wouldn’t mind converting to it.”
“Why is that?” I asked curiously.
“To be honest, I’ve always been fascinated that Islam permits a man to have up to four wives. If converting to Islam means I can have up to four wives, then hell, yeah!” he said excitedly with a huge smile.
“Uh, it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s a lot of things to account for…”
“Well it’s always been a fantasy of mine to have more than one wife. And not just with any girl. I’ve always had a thing for Middle Eastern girls…” his voice trailed off as he stared dreamily into empty space.
“Where are you from by the way?” he asked happily, looking back at me again.
“Palestine,” I replied casually.
“Palestine is definitely on my list,” he said flirtatiously with a wink.
“Excuse me?” I asked uncertainly.
“I would totally convert to Islam if it meant having four wives. One of them would definitely be Palestinian. The other three would be from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. This is my ultimate fantasy!” He exclaimed passionately, his eyes widening.
“Well then…It seems you’re only fantasizing about marrying women that originate from countries that are the most demonized in the media…”
“Oh, it’s more than that!” He continued enthusiastically. “I know how women from those countries look like. They’re just gorgeous.”
“Well…good luck in your…quest…to marry four wives, one from each of those countries…It’s a miracle if you find even one Muslim woman that will be okay with the idea of sharing a husband…”
“It can’t be that complicated, right?” he asked eagerly, his face lighting up.
I took a deep breath, and gave him a puzzled look. I began with, “Actually it is. The majority of Muslim women simply don’t like the idea of sharing a husband…”
I then pretty much gave a long speech. Among the things I said was that having more than one wife is not an act of worship in Islam. Islam permits it, but it’s not encouraged under normal circumstances, especially if there’s no reason other than lust and romance. I also explained that prior to Islam, some Bedouin Arabs would marry up to a dozen wives, if not even more. Islam restricted that practice by limiting the maximum number of wives to four. It also stressed on treating all wives equally, both financially and emotionally, and that if a man was unable to do so, then he is obliged to remain monogamous.
I then spoke about how a disproportionate number of men died due to war at the time of the Prophet, leaving behind wives and children. To financially and psychologically support those women and children, the Prophet and a few of his companions did marry more than one wife. It was seen as a way of keeping a community together, by ensuring everyone’s needs were met and their rights protected. I then gave another mini-lecture about how Islam did ban some cultural norms, but it only restricted or limited others due to the cultural and economic fabric of the Prophet’s society.
I’m surprised he didn’t interrupt me during my “speech.” He actually listened attentively, but the more I spoke, the less excited he looked.
“Awwww, why did you have to ruin it for me?” He asked disappointingly, looking slightly crestfallen.
“I’m not done,” I continued, slightly amused. “Islam gives women the right to reject polygamy by stipulating it in their marriage contract. Also, some scholars argue that if there are laws that forbid polygamy in certain countries, then a Muslim man is obliged to obey those laws because polygamy is not an act of worship.”
“You’re ruining my ultimate fantasy!” he exclaimed, laughing.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” I uttered, suppressing a smile.
“Well I still have a thing for Middle Eastern girls. You’ll never take that from me,” he said flirtatiously, then winked.
“So you’re Palestinian…Nice,” he said, winking some more.
“Well, it looks like my work is done here. I gotta go,” I said hurriedly.
I left the table and walked over to a friend. He didn’t follow me, and left shortly afterwards. I also never saw him again. I still wonder to this day though whether he was actually serious or just some guy that felt like trolling a Muslim event. I guess I’ll never find out.
If he indeed was serious, I wonder if he started fantasizing about Middle Eastern girls since Disney’s Aladdin came out. The scene where Jasmine seduces Jafar comes to mind.
This was probably his favourite scene. It was the spark….
Will I continue to encounter spontaneous situations that root from xenophobia and orientalism? I probably will.
To be continued…