Story highlights

World Hijab Day seeks to raise awareness about modest Muslim dress

The organizer says many women wear hijabs by choice, not because they're forced to

The headscarf is a way of expressing modesty, a key tenet of the Muslim faith

CNN  — 

To some, the hijab is a symbol of female oppression and Islamic fundamentalism.

But to Nazma Khan, a Muslim who moved from Bangladesh to New York at age 11, the headscarf is a symbol of her religious belief in beauty through modesty.

“Modesty is part of our Islamic faith,” Khan wrote in an email. “No one should be discriminated (against) for following their faith.”

So Khan started World Hijab Day to build empathy for this perspective and to encourage non-Muslims, and Muslims who don’t normally wear a hijab, to try it out. The Arabic word hijab refers not just to a headscarf but to modest dress and behavior in general.

“Our goal is to foster global religious tolerance and understanding through hijab awareness. Many women get discriminated (against) simply because they choose to wear the hijab,” Khan said. “Hopefully, this event will make people realize that women who wear the hijab are just like anyone else. They’re not oppressed or are forced to wear it. They just simply want to follow their faith by being modest, just like Mary (mother of Jesus).”

For the first time in its three-year run, Sunday’s World Hijab Day became a trending topic on social media as women supported the effort in events worldwide and shared images tagged #WorldHijabDay.

“Covering up should be a free choice! I may not be Muslim or religious but I support the beauty a hijab can bring to a woman,” said one woman who shared an image through the World Hijab Day website.

The concept of modesty is not unique to Islam. Other religions, including Judaism and Christianity, embrace the concept. Still, public expression of hijab can be controversial and often misunderstood – especially in the United States – despite being protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of religion.

My Take: My hijab is my hoodie

Many hijabis, or wearers of hijabs, are stigmatized for the practice, Khan said, speaking from experience. After moving with her family to the U.S., she says, she was taunted and called names for wearing hijab to school. The harassment continued into high school and college and became worse after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I always faced the following question: ‘Why don’t you ever dress normal?’ ” she said. “I constantly lived in fear as I was called names such as Osama, terrorist, etc. It was a total nightmare.”

In summer 2011, after friends from around the world shared similar stories of harassment, Khan began pondering solutions.

“I kept on thinking how can I help them and myself?” she said. “I thought if I could invite other women (Muslim & non-Muslims) to walk in my shoes just for one day, perhaps, things would change.”

This year, “ambassadors” in 33 countries organized World Hijab Day events. Organizers in Canada, for example, invited the public to try on hijabs at a mall in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Kiran Malik-Khan, the organizer of that event, made the choice to start covering her head four years ago after a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Born in Pakistan and raised in New Jersey, the 37-year-old United Way employee has practiced Islam all her life. The spiritual journey moved her to embrace her faith in a deeper way through hijab.

“I did it because I wanted to do it. It’s progress for me as a Muslim woman, the next step in my faith,” said Khan (no relation to Nazma Khan).

“It’s moving forward religiously. If you’re raised in Islam, then you want to embrace everything it says. For me, personally, that progress was doing the hijab.”

She became involved in hijab activism in 2014, when Quebec’s national assembly began hearings on a secular charter to ban overt religious symbols in the public-sector workplace. She felt compelled to start speaking up in her community to help others understand that, for people like her, the hijab is a choice, not an imposition.

“If we keep living in our silos, we will never be able to break down barriers and stereotypes,” she said. “Social justice is not a spectator sport, so if we don’t work for it, nothing will change.”