To Hijab or Not To Hijab?

Isn’t that a question?

Hijab simultaneously brings up a lot of questions about the oppression of women in Western society. We here in America, via the media, are led to believe that it is a form of patriarchal dominance, that along with the modest wear of an abaya (the long dress-like outerwear seen often in Middle Eastern culture), it is a way to bind women to be docile, and obedient. That there is no way that it could provide freedom for a woman. But the beauty truly is in how men should be lowering their gaze first, as per the Qu’ran.

There is a freedom in wearing the hijab. First off, the obvious – you surely don’t have to worry about a bad hair day when you wear hijab ;). But in all seriousness, there are basically two instances in general when you find women to wear the hijab – family/country of residence insistence, and personal choice.

In the case of residing in a country or growing up in a family where hijab is viewed as obligatory, I can see where someone may feel trapped if that isn’t the genuine way a woman feels that she needs to practice her religion. The truth is that the choice of wearing the headcover is just that – a choice. If it is what you believe in your own personal Islamic faith, then by all means, let it bring you closer to God. My personal upbringing wasn’t quite that strict with being required to wear it, my parents believed it was a choice that I could make on my own. (I acknowledge there are other nations where it is not a choice to cover – being killed for not covering is surely a fear. This is truly a privilege I am granted by my parents and by being an American.) You cover your hair to pray, but other than that, I had a choice.

I was born an American, raised in a Pakistani-Muslim household. My parents did not insist that I wear hijab, but I was told what I could & could not wear, I was told how to dress modestly, that we did not wear sleeveless clothing (some Pakistani families are culturally less restrictive), tight jeans were not allowed, dresses were discontinued by 3rd grade (and ALL I wore were dresses, I *am* your traditionally feminine girly girl)… I remember throwing tantrums at 6 years of age, insisting that “I’m American! Why can’t I wear shorts & a bikini?!” to my mother. This culture clash is probably the most significant one I’ve had – the reconciliation of my nationalism with what was expected of me as a Muslim of Pakistani descent.

But you can’t create a small Pakistan in the middle of America when you have a daughter that has a brain that works. The most important 3 lbs you never need to lose are right behind the eyes that give you the sight to accurately assess the world. And so, as the scientist I am, I constantly questioned all that was presented to me.

You CAN be a scientist and believe in the Almighty. My relationship with God is my own, it is for me to have conversations with Him. I may not be your typical Muslim, but the intent with which I live my life is for Him alone to judge, not humans. That said, I made the decision to wear hijab my first year in high school.

Like many other American youth, I decided to reinvent myself freshman year of high school. New school, and my friends from Sunday School (yes, we have Islamic school teachings on the weekends – I attended public school) were going to be at my high school. I was a quieter student (mainly because I wasn’t in classes with others my own age, due to PEG, the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted) and cultural tradition was a quite strong presence in my life. I remember making a plan with one of my Pakistani Muslim family friends to start wearing hijab together that year – I was so excited! There weren’t many Pakistani kids in my school system (so few! Two boys until high school, I grew up in a very white small town) so it was nice to have one girl friend there (and she left after first year).

I remember coming to school in hijab that first day, and went to find my friend. I was slightly crestfallen as her tresses flowed freely. “What happened to both of us starting to wear hijab together?!” I asked, exasperated. This wasn’t something I was trying to do by myself! I was ostracizing myself even more, since I was already not in any classes with students my own grade. And she wasn’t my ally? My partner in crime? “I decided not to,” she said, very calmly, as she emptied out her locker to go home. “But what about me?” I thought.

I returned home, wondering what to do.

Well, I thought to myself, I’ve already started this. I’m in it. I’m still going to do this.

But I was going to do it my way. I needed to do it in pieces. My personality now is pretty all-or-none; if I’m doing something, it’s go hard or go home. So I would wear it to school, the scariest place, to get the hardest part over with – dealing with my peers. Then after school, I wouldn’t have to wear it at home (you do not have to cover in front of men considered mahram – those that you cannot marry, like your father and your brother) and if I went to the grocery store afterwards, I wouldn’t wear it.

This worked pretty well for me. There were days I would wear it, and days I would not (like picture day, I wasn’t quite there yet). This was MY journey, and I could take it the way I wanted to.

One day, my family and I went to the Six Flags Great Adventure theme park. As we were waiting on line to get on a ride, there were two older women near us wearing hijab and full abaya. My father said, Aysha, why aren’t you wearing your hijab? Look, those women over there are! I was prescient enough at 13 years of age to know that no matter what my father said, this was my choice. My decision in how to practice. In life.

I was a runner since 6th grade (600m was considered a distance event at that age!), and one of the upperclassmen that was in my calculus class first year ran on the cross country team. I wanted to join but my mother truly believed I would break in half trying to run 3.1 miles at a time and forbade it. Looking at me back then, barely 80 lbs soaking wet, I guess I couldn’t blame her. (I’ve since run a marathon 🙂 ) The same upperclassmen raced track & field, and I remember walking out to the cinder track that first practice. When I got out of school and to track practice, I would sometimes wear the hijab. Hijab or no hijab, I was at home instantly.

I ran the 800m (~half mile) & 1600m (~mile) races to start. I don’t remember running the 3200m first year. County relays came along. I readied myself to be the anchor leg on our 4×800. I was a solid 2:50ish runner for the 800. I got the baton and ran like my life depended on it. It was a championship, after all. I took those very seriously, even at a young age & being nothing quite so special.

Trying to catch the girl ahead of me, I kept her in my line of sight, got really close on the first lap, and then she walked off after crossing the line. What?! I thought to myself. She was on her last lap! I was chasing her on the wrong lap!

Undeterred, I took that last lap like I never did before, went after another girl who was just too far ahead of me to reach. I crossed the line, and went to the bleachers where our coaches were. Started to grab my sweats to go cool down, and my (female) Coach said, “Wow. Aysha, you just ran a 2:36. That broke freshman record if you weren’t anchoring a relay. Where did that come from?” Girls freshman record was 2:39.

I was shocked. Bewildered. No way. The other freshmen girls would always race faster than me. Immediately, my teammates started congratulating me on breaking the freshman record. Except our top freshman 800m girl (2:41)- she insisted on repeating to everyone willing to listen, “It doesn’t count, it was a relay. She didn’t break the record.” (She dropped running track & field after that season, never racing me again. I would come to learn throughout high school that no matter how kind you are to others, some athletes don’t like being bested in sport. And instead of taking on the challenge, they then quit. It happened a couple more times after that.)

I realized maybe I could be good at this running thing. Me, the girl that was pathetically nonathletic otherwise. Me, the girl that could never ace gym class. Couldn’t catch a ball, couldn’t throw it, couldn’t kick it, couldn’t make a basket, couldn’t contact it with a bat or a tennis racket… but I could put one foot in front of the other faster than others for longer distances.

On our ride home after breaking the record, my same female coach laughingly commented, “You know, you could be so much faster if you didn’t wear that stupid thing on your head.” I sheepishly grinned in response, not quite knowing what to say. Unlike many others, what others say to me about my physical self doesn’t quite hurt me – as the prototypical ugly duckling, in all honesty I happily was a very confident nerd because of my brain. I was pretty well aware it’s always been what’s inside that counts, and so long as I am a kind human being, I can sleep easy. It’s probably why I can handle hearing that I’m too fat, too skinny, too much muscle, not toned enough on a daily basis in the modeling industry. Who cares what someone says? It shouldn’t make you turn around and change your physical appearance. It shouldn’t make you question who YOU truly are You are more than your phenotype. You, and you alone, need to dictate your own physical happiness. And I was happy running.

I’d genuinely forgotten that comment until a very recent conversation about running companies, hijabs, and racing. Looking back on it, as it usually is, it is ignorance that precipitates these comments. It is an insecurity on the part of the speaker. Like I said, I grew up in a white town. I never really felt the color of my skin, I saw myself as the same as the rest of my peers. Should I have said something back then? Maybe. But honestly, it really didn’t upset me. Should I ever be upset if a part of what someone says is true? Surely I could shave some time off if I didn’t wear the headscarf. But is it what should limit me? No. Would I stand for it today if I wore hijab? Absolutely not. Calling anything that is religious ‘stupid’ is insulting. You are free to practice your faith in the United States. There is currently more education today about women in Islam; rather than being a quiet minority, we have voices that are being heard – in sport and in life. If not, I’m hoping to change that. Ignorance is never an excuse. If you don’t know why someone practices the way that they do, ask them. I am a strong woman today, one that stands up for myself on many levels. One that isn’t content to watch the world without speaking out.

The last day of school, I was having a conversation with my friend in G&T (Gifted & Talented) and I realized I couldn’t be the example of a Muslim that wearing hijab would require me to be. I simply was not there yet. I took my hijab off that day in class, amidst a few gasps in the room. “Aysha, wait… you’re not allowed to do that, are you?” I would learn in college that no matter what I looked like, and how mistaken I was for other ethnicities and cultures, it was always my responsibility to enlighten others about the true Islam, the religion that I know, not the bastardization that has occurred due to extremism. It is hard to watch so many atrocities carried out in the world in the name of religion, any religion, but especially the one that I know to be truly beautiful and peaceful at its core.

Removing the hijab that last day of school was a weight off my shoulders. I appreciate having the choice in how to practice my faith as I wish, without fear of death as a punishment. I was aware that I am human, and I would make mistakes in my life, and I didn’t want them attributed to being indicative of all Muslims. I am secure in the knowledge that I pray, I fast, I worship God on my own accord. I don’t need to wear the hijab to feel fully engaged in my faith and belief systems. Who knows? Maybe one day I will.

But I don’t need to showcase that to the world in order for me to know the truth.

My thoughts on hijab as a female Muslim athlete that has competed and trained both with & without hijab will come. For the record, I am pro-Nike with Nike Pro Hijab. I think it’s one of the best moves I have ever seen a sports company make. Drawing attention to women in sport in countries and communities where women may not realize it’s possible to be a competitive or recreational athlete is revolutionary and necessary. And Nike can bring a level of presence that no other company can.

As for my friend from freshman year? She wears hijab fully now 🙂

Educate, don’t hate.

One love. Run love. Xo.


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Aysha is a sometimes writer, full-time cheerleader for #TrackNation who has an affinity for modeling on high-fashion runways in Vogue and formerly coached Olympian Kara Goucher on the art of the selfie in her spare time. Her educational background involves a serious love of science and medicine, with a dual-degree in Cell Biology & Neuroscience/Psychology, and accompanying research in Stem Cell Biology. Founder of #MuslimModelsMatter, #StrongInMyMakeup & an advocate for #RunnersAgainstCheating, Aysha believes that #StrongLooksDifferentOnEveryone & won't hesitate to remind others of this truth. She is based in NJ/NYC and currently coached by Rob DeCarlo. Her most epic run was her first marathon, NYC 2013. But her heart is rooted in racing 5ks, cross country and as a miler on the track, where she happily earned 2 NCCWMA silver medals representing the United States in the 1500m & 800m August of 2017. Current dreams include racing at the Olympic Trials exhibitions one day. Oh, and a BQ/Boston Marathon when she backs off the return to speed. You can tweet her some love and contact her with @ModelAyshaMirza.

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