While in the fourth grade 12 years ago, Masoumeh Mohammadkhani was told to remove her hijab for the singing of the Pledge of Allegiance. One of her classmates confused the religious veil for a hat.
While Mohammadkhani quickly clarified that her hijab was not a hat, she was nevertheless shocked by this comment.
“It was the first time I realized that it could become a problem,” Mohammadkhani, a 21-year-old NYU psychology major from Sayreville, N.J., said.
While all references to her hijab were not as explicit as her classmate’s, Mohammadkhani noticed subtle biases in her daily life.
During a typical trip to the mall she was often ignored by sales people, which she attributes to them either not wanting to offend her by suggesting clothing she would not have felt comfortable wearing, or to a genuine bias against Islam.
“It was 50/50,” she said. “You could tell.”
She faced the same isolation on sports teams. Her coaches never directly discouraged Mohammadkhani from dressing modestly, however, her needs were not accommodated like those of the other student athletes.
“Everyone had the standard uniform and I had to go buy extra Under Armour. It didn’t come out of the athletic department’s pocket,” she said and continued, “I had to buy everything myself.”
She never anticipated this type of discrimination when her mother inspired her to wear the hijab and conservative clothing at nine-years-old.
“I really loved my mom, and she was always such a source of inspiration because I thought she was so smart and she was my role model…I wanted to wear one so I could be just like her,” Mohammadkhani said.
Although she primarily wore the hijab to emulate her mother, Mohammadkhani’s parents made sure that their daughter was aware of the veil’s religious significance, which she happily embraced.
Hijab literally means “barrier” or “veil,” and is a way for Islamic women to demonstrate their reverence to God. Verse 24:30 of The Qur’an instructs Muslim women to “guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof…”
Although this verse does not specifically mention women’s hair, some Islamic women do interpret the line to mean that their heads require covering as a sign of respect for themselves and others.
While Mohammadkhani understood the religious context behind her hijab, she said that she was less aware of how people’s perception of her would change and, at the time, was just excited to imitate her mother.
“I think I was really unaware of societal standards,” Mohammadkhani said.
However, two years after she began wearing the hijab, Mohammadkhani began to reevaluate her religious beliefs.
As an increasingly independent 11-year-old, she no longer felt obligated to demonstrate her piety through her hijab. Mohammadkhani said she realized she could still be a faithful Muslim despite what she wore.
“I focused on a different part of [Islam] than dressing modestly,” she said and continued, “Being good to others, doing what you can to progress human society and helping out those in need.”
Although she was inclined to stop wearing the hijab as she matured and her religious beliefs evolved, Mohammadkhani continued to wear one until she was 14-years-old. She did not want to be questioned by kids at school for the sudden change. More importantly, she did not want to disappoint her family.
It wasn’t until she transferred to a high school in another town that she finally chose to remove the hijab and dress in a more typically American fashion.
Despite her personal decision to abandon the hijab, she respects American-Muslim girls who choose to cover their hair.
“I admire how much strength they have because it’s not the easiest thing,” she said.
Through her firsthand experience, Mohammadkhani knows how much the hijab is judged and misunderstood, especially in Western cultures.
She also finds it ironic that the West views the hijab as a form of oppression.
“It’s funny, because in [Muslim] cultures they think it’s oppressive that half-naked women are used in advertisements for things that are completely unrelated, like burgers,” she said.
She believes that it would be equally oppressive to encourage a Muslim woman who personally chooses to wear a hijab to dress in a more provocative, modernized fashion simply because of Western misconception.
Seven years after this transition, Mohammadkhani, who currently sports platinum blonde hair styled into an edgy bob, still does not wear the hijab.
However, her dual perspective has reinforced her belief that the hijab should be accepted, despite individual differences in religious affiliation and levels of devotion.