As a Muslim-American mom who grew up in Pakistan, talking to my 8-year-old daughter comes with many minefields. I often speak to her in my native Urdu and she responds in English, which results in much being lost to translation. I can’t relate to her struggles as much as I’d like to because I have no idea what it’s like to be a child in America, and I have no clue about the specific challenges she may face in school. As a result, my American-born children often look at me the same way the rest of America does: as an outsider.
Yet because she is only 8, my daughter still needs her mommy in a very real way. I’m still someone she looks up to and wants to hang out with, and whenever she has a question about something, I'm the first person she asks. Perhaps the most frequent topic she asks me about is my hijab. She isn't interested in a theological debate, or a lecture about Muslim cultural traditions. Her questions are mostly practical.
"Why do you wear it?"," she often asks me. "What happens if you don't wear it? Does it get hot?" And perhaps the most frequently asked question: "Will I have to wear it when I get older?"
Growing up, I did not wear hijab. My parents taught me about religion, but their lessons were more about cultural traditions than steeped in faith. After I underwent a religious born-again experience in my teens and early twenties, which began during my last few years in Pakistan and continued in the United States while I was in college, I started wearing hijab. My parents weren’t happy about it, and my friends thought my decision was strange. But after I moved to the United States, I realized that in a land of strangers, this piece of fabric would be my identity.
By the time my children were born, the hijab was a permanent fixture on my head. When she was 2 or 3 years old, my daughter would wrap my colorful scarves around her head and parade up and down with a proud smile on her little face. She dressed up in my hijab the same way a little girl wears her mother’s high heels, or a little boy his father’s dress shirt. She looked up to me, and she wanted to emulate my style.
When the San Bernardino shooting occurred, she watched with horror as the image of Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooter, flashed on the screen again and again. Finally she turned to me and said, “Amma, that woman is wearing the hijab just like you!”
Now that she's 8 years old, she is less excited about the hijab. She doesn’t like the fact that it messes with her hairstyle, or that the other girls in her school don’t wear it. She has to wear it during our daily prayers, and when she wears it she pantomimes desperately fanning herself, as if the five minutes in a hijab are extreme torture in a hot desert. She also realizes its negative connotations, particularly when she sees fundamentalist Muslim women on the news. When the San Bernardino shooting occurred, she watched with horror as the image of Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooter, flashed on the screen again and again. Finally she turned to me and said, “Amma, that woman is wearing the hijab just like you!”
That was a worrying time for our family, as is every terrorist attack, but it gave me the opportunity to sit down with my children and explain our religion to them in a way that made sense to their scared little hearts. I talked to my daughter about the hijab being a symbol of piety and devotion, and I said that the terrorist on our television screen did not truly understand the significance of it. I helped her realize that our actions and not the clothes we wear determine whether we are good or bad.
Ultimately, she calmed down. But the sad truth is that the media portrayal of hijab as a symbol of oppression has a tremendous effect on girls growing up Muslim in Europe and America. In the United Kingdom, for instance, one 2007 study determined that 91% of depictions of Muslim women in the media were negative. I can only imagine how my daughter feels when she sees these images on television, or how her self-esteem suffers as a result.
I recognize that many Muslim-American girls my daughter's age have a love-hate relationship with the hijab. Americans assume that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab, or that religion and assimilation cannot mesh. They see the hijab as a sign that Muslim women are oppressed, not as a symbol of Muslim women's faith. They hear the political challenges in France where the full-face veil has been banned, and equate hijab with anti-liberal values. For a first-generation girl just trying to fit in, these are very real problems.
Knowing how one-dimensional the depictions of Muslim women are in the United States, I often share with her stories of Muslim women who achieved success while wearing the hijab, like Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American fencer who competed at the 2016 Olympics. I often tell her the history of the hijab, and how the veil as a symbol of modesty is not just specific to Islam. (Early Christian women were also encouraged to cover their hair as a sign of modesty, as are modern Orthodox women today.)
Wearing hijab has had a powerful effect on how I see myself and how I interact with others. If a piece of fabric can have just as powerful an effect on her, then I will always encourage her to find her journey towards it.
I tell her that wearing hijab doesn't have to feel oppressive; in fact, for many women, it can be liberating. According to a study from Great Britain, wearing the hijab seems to improve body image among girls and young women, as women who wore hijab had "more positive body image, lower internalization of media messages about beauty standards, and placed less importance on appearance" than women who did not. Still, I assure her that when she reaches adolescence, I will never force her to wear hijab. If she feels uncomfortable about covering herself, she can wait and see how she feels, or just try out the hijab on occasion.
Generally speaking, I make sure she sees the opportunities available to her as a young woman in the United States. I encourage her to pursue hobbies and subjects that may not be traditionally viewed as feminine: math, science camp. While all American girls need to break free of reductive gender stereotypes, Muslim girls needs it even more. I also want to ensure I'm always available to answer her most difficult questions. Her concern about the San Bernardino shooter prompted me to write an article about how to talk to children about terrorism when the “bad guys” look just like them (or, in this case, just like their mother).
Recently, I have seen my daughter taking my advice about hijab to heart. When we go to the mall or to a relative’s house, she will casually swing a scarf around her neck. Her head is still uncovered, but at least she is trying out how the fabric feels, and trying to decide whether it embraces her or strangles her. When she does this, it makes my heart sing, because it means she is listening to me, but she also wants to be her own person. And really, isn't that what every mother wants?
At 8 years old, my daughter is too young for the hijab. It will be a while before she decides to accept it, if she chooses to accept it at all. I don't think I would be hurt if my daughter chose not to wear hijab. But if she did, I would be thrilled that she decided to adopt an essential part of our family faith. Wearing hijab has had a powerful effect on how I see myself and how I interact with others. If a piece of fabric can have just as powerful an effect on her, then I will always encourage her to find her journey towards it.