For many people, the hijab is a symbol of oppression and divisiveness. It’s a visible target that often bears the brunt of a larger debate about Islam in the West.
World Hijab Day is designed to counteract these controversies. It encourages non-Muslim women (or even Muslim women who do not ordinarily wear one) to don the hijab and experience what it’s like to do so, as part of a bid to foster better understanding.
Originated by New York woman Nazma Khan, the movement has been organised almost solely over social networking sites. It has attracted interest from Muslims and non-Muslims in more than 50 countries across the world.
“Growing up in the Bronx, in NYC, I experienced a great deal of discrimination due to my hijab,” says organiser Khan, who moved to New York from Bangladesh aged 11. She was the only “hijabi” (a word for someone who wears the headscarf) in her school.
“In middle school I was ‘Batman’ or ‘ninja,'” she says.
“When I moved on to college it was just after 9/11, so they would call me Osama Bin Laden or terrorist. It was awful.
“I figured the only way to end discrimination is if we ask our fellow sisters to experience hijab themselves.”
Khan had no idea the concept would result in support from all over the world. She says she has been contacted by people in dozens of countries, including the UK, Australia, India, Pakistan, France and Germany. The group’s literature has been translated into 22 languages.
It was social networking that got Jess Rhodes involved. Her friend Widyan Al Ubudy lives in Australia and asked her Facebook friends to participate.
“My parents, their natural reaction was to wonder if this was a good idea,” says Rhodes, who decided to wear her hijab for a month.
“They were worried I would be attacked in the street because of a lack of tolerance.”
Rhodes herself was concerned about the reaction, but after eight days of wearing the headscarf she has actually been surprised by how positive it has been.