Last Spring, I put on the hijab. For one week, I woke up every morning, and despite the fact that the sun had only just remembered to shine and most Harvard students were shedding their clothes, I pinned a scarf to my head and dressed myself so that nothing but my face and hands were bare. I was in a typical costume for a Muslim woman in the West, if there is in fact such a thing, except for one detail. Instead of the regular bonnet that is worn to keep hair neat and hidden under the veil, I tied a do-rag around my head because CVS keeps do-rags in stock and not bonnets for Muslims.
In some ways I was trying to put myself in the shoes of a Muslim woman in the West who chose to wear the hijab. Of course, there were many limitations to this project, and wearing the headscarf by my own choice for the short span of a week only presented a small set of data relative to the general experience of a person in that position. But in any case, this was not a complete description of what I was trying to accomplish. I had been intrigued by something so simple as a piece of cloth.
The hijab has been used as a symbol of nationalism in countries other than this one and as a symbol of oppression in countries including this one. Encompassed in this scarf, tied this way, are powerful ideas of faith, piety and identity: ideas I wanted to engage through simply playing with a piece of cloth. As a child puts a toy in her mouth in order to know it better, I put the scarf on my head to come as viscerally close as I could to understanding this symbol.