Hijab Undercover


A headscarf shows less, but reveals more — as Cassidy Herrington found out when she donned one for a project.

HILTON ALS, AN AFRICAN AMERICAN writer, says our worldview and sense of ‘otherness’ is created in our mother’s lap. Mother’s lap is protective and familiar. Leaving this worldview can be uncomfortable, but I can assure you that the rewards are much greater.


Last year, I climbed out of my ‘lap’ and wore a hijab, the Muslim headscarf. I thought this temporary modification of my appearance would bring me closer to an understanding of the Muslim community. But in retrospect, I learned more about my place in the world.

In short, one piece of fabric is all it takes to turn perspectives upside-down.

The hijab is a contested, sacred and sometimes controversial symbol. But it is just a symbol. It is a symbol of Islam, a misconstrued, misunderstood religion that represents the most diverse population of people in the world—a population of more than one billion.

I realised the best way to identify with Muslims was to take a walk in their shoes. Last October, I covered my head with a gauze scarf and grappled with the perceptions of strangers, peers and even my own family. Because of perceptions, I even struggled to write this column. My experience with the hijab was personal, but I hope sharing what I saw will open a critical conversation. My hijab silenced, but simultaneously, my hijab brought unforgettable words.


In the first column I wrote that semester, I compared college to an adage about a clock: ‘We see the face of a clock, but rarely do we see what operates behind it.’ At the time, I did not realise how seriously I needed to act on my own words—as a journalist, a woman and a human.

A few weeks after I wrote that piece, a guest columnist addressed Islamophobic sentiments regarding the proposed ‘ground zero’ mosque. The writer was Muslim, and she received a flurry of feedback. The comments online accumulated like a swarm of mindless pests. The collective opinion equated Islam to violence and terrorism.

In response to her column, one comment said, ‘[The writer] asks us to trust Islam. Given our collective experience, and given Islam’s history, I have to wonder what planet she thinks we are on.’

Although I did not know the voices behind these anonymous posts, I felt involuntarily linked to them because I, like them, am not Muslim. I wanted to connect people. Almost instinctively, I decided that a hijab was necessary. A hijab could help me use my affiliation with ‘white’ non-Muslims to build rapport with the Muslim community and, at the same time, show non-Muslims the truth from an unheard voice. Above all, I wanted to see and feel the standard lifestyle for so many women around the world—because I am curious, and that is why I am a journalist.

Before I took this step, I decided to propose my idea to the women who wear headscarves every day. Little did I know, a room full of strangers would quickly become my greatest source of encouragement and would make this project more attainable.

The Handshake

Initially, I worried about how the Muslim community would perceive a non-Muslim in a hijab, so I needed their approval before I would start trying on scarves. A month before I started my project, I went to a Muslim Student Association (MSA) meeting to introduce myself.

When I opened the door to the meeting room, I was incredibly nervous. To erase any sign of uncertainty, I interjected to a girl seated across the room, ‘Meeting starts at seven, right?’ The girl, it turned out, was Heba Suleiman, the MSA president. After I explained my plan, her face lit up. ‘That is an amazing idea,’ she said.

I felt my tension and built-up anxiety melt away. In the minutes following, I introduced myself to the whole group with assalammu’alaikum, and although I was half-prepared for it, I was alarmed to hear dozens of waailaikumsalam in response.

Before I left, several girls approached me. I will not forget what one girl said, ‘This gives me hope.’ Another girl said, ‘I’m Muslim, and I couldn’t even do that.’ It did not hit me until then that this project would be about more than covering my hair. I would be representing a community and a faith, and consequentially, I needed to be fully conscious of my actions while in hijab.

First Steps ‘Undercover’

Two weeks later, I met Heba and her friend Leanna for coffee, and they showed me how to wrap a hijab. The girls were incredibly helpful, more so than they probably realised. Although this project was my personal undertaking, I knew I would not be alone. This thought helped me later when I felt like ripping off the hijab and quitting.

Responses to my hijab were subtle or nonexistent. I noticed passing glances diverted to the ground, but overall, everything felt the same. Near the end of the month, a classmate pointed out that a boy had been staring at me, much to my oblivion. The hijab became a part of me, and until I turned my head and felt a gentle tug, I forgot it was there.

For the most part, I carried out life as usual while in hijab. I rode my bike and felt the sensation of wind whipping under my headscarf. I walked past storefront windows, caught a glimpse of a foreign reflection and had to frequently remind myself that the girl was me. Hijab became part of my morning routine. On one morning, I biked to class and turned around because I realised I had left without it. At the end of the day, I laughed at my ‘hijab hair’ pressed flat against my scalp.

The hijab sometimes made me uneasy. I went to the grocery store and felt people dodge me in the aisles—or was that just my imagination?


I recognise that every exchange I had and every occurrence I reported may be an assumption or over-analysis because few of my encounters were transparent. The truth is, however, that very few of my peers said anything about the hijab. My classmates who I’ve sat next to for over a year, my professors and my friends from high school—no one addressed the obvious, and it hurt. I felt separated from the people who know me best, or so I thought. A gap in conversation exists, and it is not just surrounding my situation.

Once, I turned on the news to see Juan Williams, a former NPR (National Public Radio) news analyst fired for his commentary about Muslim airline passengers. Williams had said, ‘If I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.’

His statement revealed an internalised fear. And I saw this fear when my colleagues dodged the topic. When I went back to ask why, several said it was too ‘touchy’ or insensitive to bring up. A hijab is just a symbol, like a cross, a star or the American flag. I am still the same Cassidy Herrington—I did not change my identity, but I was treated like a separate entity.

Talk Is Not Cheap

When someone mentioned my hijab without my provocation, I immediately felt at ease. A barista at my usual coffee shop politely asked, ‘Are you veiling?’ A friend in the newsroom asked, ‘Are your ears cold?’ But my favourite account involves a back-story.

I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and I garnered an appetite for them when I was young. My childhood home neighboured my third ‘grandmother’. She was the most loving second-generation Lebanese woman and an exceptional cook – not an exaggeration. She could get me to eat leafy vegetables when I was a child zealot of noodles and cheese. I remember knocking on her back door when I was five, asking for Tupperware brimming with tabouleh.

When King Tut’s opened on Limestone, my school year swiftly improved to a fabulously garlicky degree. At least once a week, I stopped by to pick up the tabouleh, hummus or falafel to medicate my case of newsroom munchies. Five days after I started this experiment, the owner, Ashraf Yousef, stopped me before I went inside.

‘I heard about your project, and I like it,’ he said. ‘And you look beautiful in your hijab.’

This encounter was by far the best. And it made my shawarma sandwich taste particularly delicious. I went back on my last day to thank him, and Ashraf said, ‘I’m just giving my honest opinion. With the hijab, you look beautiful. It makes your face look better.’

Ashraf asked if I would wear the hijab to his restaurant when the project was over. I nodded, smiled and took a crunchy mouthful of fattoush.

False Patriotism

I did not receive intentional, flagrant anti-Muslim responses. I did, however, receive an e-mail allegedly ‘intended’ for another reader. The e-mail was titled ‘My New Ringtone’. When I opened the audio file, the Muslim prayer to Mecca was abruptly silenced by three gunshots and the US national anthem.

Emmet Louis ‘Bobo’ Till was an African American boy who at 14 years old was murdered in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman in 1955.

I spoke to the sender of the e-mail. He said, ‘It was just a joke.’ Here lies a problem with phobias and intolerance—joking about them does not make them less of an issue. When was it ever okay to joke about hatred and persecution? Was it acceptable when Jews were grotesquely drawn in Nazi cartoons? Or when Emmet Till was brutally murdered?

The e-mail is unfortunate evidence that many people inaccurately perceive Islam as violent or as ‘the other’. A Gallup poll taken in November 2009 found that 43 percent of Americans feel at least ‘a little’ prejudice against Muslims. And if you need further confirmation that Islamophobia exists, consult with conservative commentator Ann Coulter or hawkish Republican Newt Gingrich.


I have been asked, ‘Will you wear the hijab when it’s over?’ Initially, I did not think I would—because I am not Muslim, and I do not personally believe in the hijab. Now that I see it hanging on my wall and I am able to reflect on the strength it gave me, I think that, yes, when I need the headscarf, I might wear it.

Post-9/11, among other comments:

  • Ann Coulter, an American lawyer and political commentator, remarked ‘not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims—at least [the 9/11 ones]’
  • Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, campaigned against the building of Park51—the ‘ground zero mosque’ in New York City

Ashraf said, ‘A non-Muslim woman who wears a hijab is just wearing a headscarf.’ And apparently, my face ‘looks better’. Appearances aside, when I wore the hijab, I felt confident and focused. I wore the hijab to a news conference for Rand Paul [a Republican senator], and although an event coordinator stopped me – just me plus an elusive blogger – to check my credentials, I felt I accurately represented myself as an intelligent, determined journalist. I was not concerned with how I looked. Rather, I was focused on gathering the story.

So now, I return to my first column of that year. I have asked the questions, and I have reached across the circles. Now, it is your turn. You do not have to wear a hijab for a month to change someone’s life or yours. The Masjid Bilal Islamic Center and the Muslim Student Association in the UK host social and Islamic events. These are opportunities for non-Muslims to become better informed and make meaningful connections.

I want to thank Heba for being a friend and a resource of help, and to Ashraf Yousef and King Tut’s for the delicious food and the inspiration. Finally, I apologise to the individuals who feel I have ‘lied’ to them about my identity or who do not agree with this project. I hope this clears things up—you have the truth now, and I hope you find use for it.

Why are we so afraid to talk about this? We are not at war with Islam. In fact, Muslim soldiers are defending this country. Making jokes about terrorism is not going to make the situation less serious. Simply ‘tolerating’ someone’s presence is not enough.

If you turn on the news, you will inevitably hear the prefix ‘extremist’ when describing Islam. What you see and hear from the media is fallible—if you want the truth, talk to a Muslim.

Cassidy Herrington is a journalism and international studies junior at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.

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