Uncovering the Hijab: Talking with Stuyvesant’s Muslim Students
Reading Time: 6 minutes
In an increasingly diversified world, the mixture of different cultures has led to the growth of both toleration and fear-led rebuttals of globalization. As Islam spreads and the Muslim population grows in the United States, Islamophobia grows along with it. The hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women, is a large point of contention; is it a symbol of patriarchal oppression, or is it a liberating and empowering emblem for women? For many of us, the hijab, worn by only a minority of Stuyvesant students, can seem like a mystery. Here is a look at some of Stuyvesant’s very own female Muslim students, and what they have to say about the hijab custom and their individual experiences of being Muslim at Stuyvesant.
“The entire idea behind a hijab is modesty and the idea that you don’t really need your physical appearance to appear as attractive to someone,” junior Subyeta Chowdhury explained. “The entire idea is [...] to be humble and show that my physical appearance, like my hair, even though it is a measure of beauty, [...] doesn’t measure everything about me.”
Chowdhury began wearing a hijab in the sixth grade. Even though no other women in her family wore a hijab, they all supported her choice. Chowdhury was inspired by the principles of modesty that were taught in the religious institution that she attended, which emphasized concealing one’s physical beauty in order to emphasize inner characteristics.
Chowdhury’s experience of wearing a hijab at Stuyvesant is different from when wearing one at her middle school. Unlike at her middle school, where many of her classmates were also Muslim, Stuyvesant is “much bigger and it’s much rarer to find someone [who] wears a hijab,” she said. “It [does] feel out of place certain times. And I felt like every time someone saw me from Stuy, they would have kind of a stigma or a perception of me that I was kind of less, in any way.”
Chowdhury specified that during physical education, wearing a different uniform made her feel out of place and judged by the other students. Even outside of Stuyvesant, she sometimes feels awkward or uncomfortable wearing her hijab. “I’ve gotten weird stares before from people on the subway,” she shared. “I’ve been called names.”
Furthermore, non-Muslim students’ perceptions of their peers who do wear hijabs have made Chowdhury question her own decision to wear one. “I did consider, ‘I should probably stop wearing one,’ because I always felt every time someone saw me, they [thought] ‘Oh, she’s probably stupid,’” Chowdhury said. “There’s just this stigma.”
At the end of the day, however, Chowdhury is confident and proud of her decision to wear a hijab, regardless of what others might think or say. “No regrets,” she exclaimed. “I am considering changing the style, though.”
“Hijab is a word in Arabic that means a cover, or a wall, or a barrier,” junior Yasmeen Hassan defined. “It’s a way to show you are proud to be a Muslim and represent the Muslim race.”
Though hijabs are generally associated with a head covering, their concept applies to the whole body. “When you are wearing a hijab, it’s not only just wearing a headscarf,” she explained. “It’s also wearing loose clothing that doesn’t show your body figure. It’s just a cover for your body to protect you from other people.”
Hassan began wearing a hijab in seventh grade, shortly after she got her period (as is customary in Muslim tradition). “It was my choice. My parents are pretty religious and they would have wanted me to wear it eventually, but I started wearing it on my own, and they were okay with that,” she said.
In contrast with Chowdhury’s transition to high school, Hassan felt that she blended in more at Stuyvesant than in her middle school, Christa McAuliffe. She stated, “Here [at Stuyvesant] there are obviously a lot more hijabis because it’s a bigger school.”
Though Hassan feels comfortable wearing a hijab at Stuyvesant, this is not always the case everywhere she goes. She explained that strangers, not friends or even acquaintances, treat her differently because of her hijab. “I was running to catch the bus because I was late, and these three white guys were just screaming, ‘Yeah, go run away from the police.’ It was kind of scary, but it makes me want to sort of wear [a hijab more], to show people that Muslims aren’t bad—that they’re actually good people,” she recalled.
Despite facing Islamophobia, Hassan is proud of her tradition and encourages other Muslim women to embrace wearing the hijab. “Don’t force someone to wear [a hijab] or take it off,” she clarified. “They will get on the right path eventually.”
Junior Afsana Ahmed is one of many Muslim women at Stuyvesant who do not wear a hijab. “I chose not to wear a hijab because I don’t feel like I’m Muslim enough to wear one,” she explained. Ahmed wore a hijab during her freshman year, but does not wear one anymore. “My parents told me to wear the hijab once I started high school to show that I am Muslim,” she explained. Her parents were initially disappointed when they learned that Ahmed decided that she no longer wanted to wear the hijab, but they are much more accepting now.
When Ahmed wore a hijab, she felt people treated her differently compared to when she did not. She recalls more jokes being made about her Muslim identity when she wore a hijab. “Now that I don’t wear a hijab, I don’t get as many looks from people on the street. People just treat me more like a normal person,” Ahmed said.
Former Muslim Student Association member Zaakirah Rahman (‘19) has worn a hijab since the summer after fifth grade. Like most girls, she made her decision to wear a hijab when she reached womanhood. “It just felt like a step [I] was ready to take,” she explained.
The strength of the hijabi women around her greatly inspired and empowered Rahman when she was younger. “I remember I spent a lot of time with this one cousin. She was also a hijabi. I remember I used to think, ‘Oh, she’s this really religious person,’ but then I realized that there’s a lot more to her, like she was a really outgoing person,” Rahman recalled. “Even though there might be a social stigma about a person wearing a hijab like, ‘They’re probably going to be super religious or isolated [or] they’re not going to be able to talk to people,’ that’s not true at all.”
She also shared a moment of strength exhibited by her mother: “One of my earliest moments is leaving the supermarket with my mom, and she wears a hijab, and someone told her, ‘Go back to the country you came from,’ and she was like, ‘No, you go back,’” Rahman reminisced. “I was like, ‘Yeah mom.’”
These experiences, among others, inspired Rahman’s decision to wear a hijab. She learned that even though hijabis might receive strange or condescending looks, “they still are these strong people who still go about their day, doing their things,” she stated.
Though the hijab is a symbol of strength for Rahman, she has felt uncomfortable wearing it in multiple occurrences, including at Stuyvesant. “Recently, this kid in my class was just randomly like, ‘Oh, you’re fasting right?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and he [was] like, ‘Oh, isn’t it true that you break your fast if you’re bleeding?’” Rahman recounted. This interaction, along with instances when she was singled out by her teachers or classmates for being the only hijabi in the class, made Rahman feel uneasy as a hijabi.
The lens through which one views the hijab, including location and identity, changes the meaning behind it. For Chowdhury, Hassan, and Rahman, the hijab is a tangible symbol of their Islamic identity. They see the hijab as empowering as it is their choice to wear it, and it allows them to maintain control over their body. For Ahmed, the choice to not wear a hijab was hers to make.
However, in certain parts of the world, such as France and Saudi Arabia, that choice is stripped from the individual. Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri elaborated, “The extent that women have worn it [has] varied over time from periods of veiling, from laws being stricter about veiling to women choosing to veil, to times of [veiling] essentially being prohibited.” In this sense, the hijab can be an oppressive tool for leaders to exert their power to control their people’s lives, namely their clothing and faith. Unfortunately, even at Stuyvesant, all four hijabis could recount times they felt uncomfortable in their hijabs.
While the hijab can represent different things for different people, it is clear that the hijab is a meaningful and essential part of Islamic life and tradition.