The hijab is not a symbol of oppression – it stands for respect for Allah and oneself, and is often seen as empowering by those who wear it.

Many Muslim women and girls around the world choose to veil their hair, necks and upper chests, and dress modestly, as one of the tenets of Islam. What does this tradition mean, and why is it practiced in nations that are not predominantly Muslim?

To explore these topics, Siena’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) recently hosted a panel discussion as well as an opportunity for Siena women to try the hijab themselves in allyship with their Muslim sisters.

Hijab is actually a set of codes related to modesty, privacy and morality, of which the head veil is only one example. While nearly a quarter of Muslim women in America wear the scarf or other forms of hijab dress, this religious and cultural practice has taken on negative connotations since the early 2000s, primarily as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“My hijab is a badge of honor,” said Aleyna Serap '19 at the March 24 virtual panel. “It helps me emphasize my inner qualities and realize that God gives me value in relation to Him.”

For those who think the hijab is oppressive for women, its proud wearers assured their listeners that it is quite the other way around.

“Women are so often objectified and marketed in our society, said Serap. “My hijab allows me to live my truth that beauty is in the heart, and not our outer selves.”

Elham Malik ’22 said her parents were actually hesitant to let her wear the hijab at first; they were worried she could be the target of negative attention.

“I actually consider it a source of confidence, and a rebellion against Western beauty standards,” she said. “I find my liberty in myself, not in how I dress for men.”

Mouda al-Zaydan ’23 said Muslim women in this country face a range of challenges when they cover, and often prepare themselves for some pushback.

“I’m already discriminated against because of my gender, and because of my ethnicity,” she said. “So, on one hand the hijab can be one more thing I have to worry about when I leave the house, However, I see it as a crown, and I embrace the potential for interaction with people about it.” 

Theologia Sofi ’23 believes the media and pop culture play a large role in perpetuating negative stereotypes about Muslims. 

“Allowing the media to control the narrative on this is inexcusable,” she said, while Sana Shehzad ’24 noted that news reports and movies are often the only exposure many Americans have to Muslims. 

“We have more to offer society than a guilty dopamine trip,” she said.

All the women noted that wearing the hijab is a matter of choice for each Muslim woman, and that it does not necessarily indicate how religious the wearer is.

“This is not about being perfect or being holy,” said Serap. “We all go through struggles,” while Malik added, “What empowers some women doesn’t empower all women.”

“It’s my chance to disprove the horrible things that are said about my religion, and the misperceptions that Muslim women can’t speak for ourselves.”

Hijabi women are teachers, physicians, lawyers, engineers and more. Islamic cultures were among the first in the world to found universities and to allow women the right to vote, inherit property and make decisions on their own behalf. The panelists shared that the veil can be used as a tool to oppress, just as many verses in the Bible have been used to justify slavery or the silencing of women. 

“If the cultures are regressive, it is usually not because of their religion but because of their politics and economics,” said Serap. “Muslim nations had women as leaders long ago; that was erased because of colonization.” 

Modern day attempts to ban the hijab because they make non-Muslims uncomfortable are, said Sofi, “highly ironic.”

“You are taking away the woman’s choice, her rights,” she said.

At an outdoor event the following day, the MSA students gifted cotton scarves in hues of rose, lavender, sage and ocher and helped hijab newbies put them on properly. 

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam, and about Muslim women and why we wear the scarf,” said Malik, “but this experience allows people to understand that we’re just like everyone else.”

A table set up outside the SSU featured gift bags with the scarves and information about hijab.

“I think that this event was a great experience for Siena students,” said Nyla Green '22. “It helped students better understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Being educated on the hijab and what it means to the women who wear it is an important part of being an ally.”

Jordan Dunn '21 said, “Wearing a hijab for the first time was daunting. Having never worn it before, I didn't know how to place it. Yet, all of the girls that day were so helpful and kind, and seeing their smiles as they saw a fellow Siena sister stand in solidarity with them made every ounce of my nerves disappear. I am happy that I stopped by that day, it helped to sweep away any misinformed connotation I may have once had about what the hijab means to these young women.”