For one day, four Rochester women volunteered to wear a hijab—the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women—to work, school, Even Starbucks, all while being filmed for Community Interfaith Dialogue in Islam’s (CIDI) newest documentary, “Hijab for a Day.”
CIDI was founded by Regina Mustafa in 2014 to meet a need and provide an opportunity for a reliable resource on Islam and interfaith conversation. The organization is grounded in information being mutually shared, so doing the hijab project was a natural next step.
“This kind of thing has been done in other cities,” Mustafa remarks, “but I hadn’t heard of it being done in Rochester, especially one that was well-documented.” With the help of a Rochester Downtown Alliance grant, the documentary will now be a full-fledged community event, hosted by the Rochester Civic Theatre.
Illuminating the Hijab
In the Muslim community, Mustafa explains there are multiple interpretations of hijab, making its meaning complex. On one side of the spectrum, hijab is law; both Iran and Saudi Arabia mandate that women wear hijab in public. On the other side, there are Muslims who do not believe their religion demands it. There are also women who choose to cover. This choice, Mustafa points out, is often mistaken as a sign of oppression instead of religious expression.
Hijab is meant to convey a sense of decorum; Mustafa describes her own choice to cover as “a modest and humble way, and feminine way, of presenting myself in the public space.” This “covering” is not only humbling, but dignifying. Mustafa adds that this tradition of covering is not unique to Islam. Women (and men) in Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Mennonite and even pagan traditions wore some form of head covering, some of which are still worn today.
And while Mustafa feels the hijab is an obligation of Islam, she asserts, “Whether or not you cover your hair should not be a determining factor of how religious you are.” But this does not negate the idea that wearing hijab is a symbol, whether for religious or personal expression, as the women of this project discovered.
A Feminine Perspective
Before the women were dressed in hijab, Mustafa noticed their similar anxieties; however, their reactions to themselves in hijab were distinctly unique. This response was no accident according to Mustafa. She explains the project was less about the difficulties of hijab and more about how these women came to see themselves. Participant Pam Whitfield, after seeing her reflection, said, “I saw a woman from the Old Testament,” but also added that she felt the hijab “gave me more autonomy and some space from society.” One of the participants became emotional, realizing how much the hijab went against her habit of trying to please others. For someone used to blending in, this deliberate personal choice was impactful.
On a larger scale, the hijab also challenges the expectations of feminine appearance in Western culture. It confronts the idea that modesty and femininity are mutually exclusive and illustrates what is, and is not, for the public eye. Mustafa states, “Body issues, eating disorders… that is so much more of a threat to our well-being, our society, than a piece of fabric over your hair.”
From those who wear it every day to those who wore it just for one, hijab can represent empowerment, bravery and, yes, femininity. Mustafa makes sure to add, “And it can be a lot of fun.”
Share in the Experience
“Hijab for a Day” debuts September 14 on the main stage of the Rochester Civic Theatre. The event will feature the documentary as well as poetry, essays, original music, slam poetry and interpretive dance performed by some of the film’s own participants. This event is free to the public; however, reservations are recommended.
Explore with CIDI
- Monthly interfaith talk shows at the Rochester Public Library
- Classes, lectures and blog posts about observing places of worship
- Go to cidimn.org to find out more or find them on Facebook and Twitter.
Grace Murray is a student who uses writing as an excuse to talk with fascinating people.