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‘Undercover’ in hijab: unveiling one month later

1 November 2010 General 34 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

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, the rewards are much greater.

Last month, 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.

Simplified, 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 people.

I realized the best way to identify with Muslims was to take a walk in their shoes. On Oct. 1, 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 this semester, I compared college to an alarm clock saying, “we see the face of a clock, but rarely do we see what operates behind it.” At the time, I did not realize 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 am not Muslim. I wanted to connect people, and 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 Islamic 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’m curious, and that’s why I’m 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 its approval before I would start trying on scarves. On Sept. 16, I went to a Muslim Student Association 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 7, right?”  The girl, it turns 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 an “asalaam alaykum,” and although I was half-prepared for it, I was alarmed to hear dozens of “wa aylaykum asalam” 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 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 than they probably realized. Although this project was my personal undertaking, I knew I wouldn’t 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, and on one morning I biked to class and turned around because I realized I 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 recognize every exchange I had and every occurrence I report may be an assumption or over analysis because few of my encounters were transparent. The truth is, however, very few of my peers said anything about the hijab. My classmates
I’ve sat next to for more than 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 the conversation exists, and it’s not just surrounding my situation.

Just over a week ago, I turned on the news to see Juan Williams, a former NPR news analyst fired for commentary about Islam. Williams 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 internalized 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 a just symbol, like a cross, a star or an American flag. I am still the same Cassidy Herrington — I didn’t 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 stop politely asked, “Are you veiling?” A friend in the newsroom asked, “Are your ears cold?”

My favorite account involves a back-story.

I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and I garnered an appetite when I was young. My childhood home neighbored my “third grandmother,” the most loving second-generation Lebanese woman and 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, hummos or falafel to medicate my case of the newsroom munchies.

On Oct. 21, 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 Yousef said, “I’m just giving my honest opinion, with the hijab, you look beautiful. It makes your face look better.”

Yousef 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 U.S. national anthem.

I spoke to the sender of the e-mail, and he said, “It was just a joke.” Here lies a problem with phobias and intolerance — joking about it doesn’t make it 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 last November found 43 percent of Americans feel at least a “little” prejudice against Muslims. And if you need further confirmation that Islamophobia exists, consult Ann Coulter or Newt Gingrich.

I’ve been asked, “Will you wear the hijab when it’s over?” and initially, I didn’t think I would — because I’m not Muslim, I don’t personally believe in hijab. Now that I see it hanging on my wall and I am able to reflect on the strength it gave me, I think, yes, when I need the headscarf, I might wear it.

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, and although an event coordinator stopped me (just me, except for one 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, but rather, I was focused on gathering the story.

So now, I return to my first column of the year. I’ve asked the questions, and I’ve reached across the circles. Now, it’s your turn. You don’t have to wear a hijab for a month to change someone’s life or yours. The Masjid Bilial Islamic Center will host a “get to know your neighbors” on Nov. 7, and UK’s Muslim Student Association is having “The Hajj” on Nov. 8. These are opportunities for non-Muslims to be better informed and make meaningful connections.

I want to thank Heba for being a friend and a resource for help. Thank you to Ashraf Yousef and King Tut for the delicious food and the inspiration. Finally, I apologize to the individuals who feel I have “lied” to them about my identity or who do not agree with this project. I hope this page 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. E-mail

Original post: ‘Undercover’ in hijab: unveiling one month later



  1. Thank you so much for your insightful and encouraging article. I am a white convert (revert) to Islam who lives in a plains state. I have not worn the hijab mostly because there are few Muslims in this state and because I think it would be dangerous to do so. I admire your courage and strength for undertaking this project as a non-Muslim.

  2. A lovely piece! Thank you for doing this and for writing about it. I have many Muslim friends (I am a jew) and the bigotry abroad today hurts me deeply.

  3. Thank you for this. I am a white Muslim revert, and I can totally relate to this piece!

    My twin brother thinks I’m always “imagining” people looking at me or acting different, and maybe I am. But then….maybe I’m not. I started covering while living in Columbia, MD, and it was easier because of the diversity. I have since moved back to Central PA where I grew up, and the vibe here is….different. There are a fair amount of people (usually white women around my age) who smile at me very generously, but I do get the “stink eye” from a few people (usually older folks).

    May Allah (God) help us all and guide us all in the right way.

  4. p.s. you do look very pretty with the hijab on!

  5. Simply amazing. I’m speechless about your piece. Great job and all the best.

  6. A great job May Allah send more like minded people who tell the truth by feeling it themselves.a great job and very well done too.

  7. i admire ur courage. iam a muslim and i respect what u did and even though i dont wear hijab but i grew up in america and my mom wore it so she realtes to it. but i have to say that living in the states wasnt so hard because no body gave me ahard time about being muslim. maybe because i wasnt wearing the hijab…but not everybody is against islam and u proved that to me. and btw u look great in the hejab.

  8. thank you so much. it is a one the best article i have read. MASHALLAH you did a great job

  9. amazing!

  10. You’ve done a great job.
    Thank you so very much :)

  11. Well wriitten experience. May many readers take the best of this article and develop more awareness–an understanding of Islam as a religion of Peace (giving to the self within)not simply a mere media constructional view of hatred. It is but the Perfect way to respect all; mankind and the universe.

  12. Very inspiring idea/ piece, I really enjoyed reading it. I am not fully committed myself to the Muslim faith yet (I am on my way hamdillah), however I am reading more and more about it everyday and really loving it. I have spoken to other Muslims and they never leave me wondering about the answers to my questions. Anyway thanks for the encouragement to dig deeper. Great job!

  13. I admire your intelligence, insight, and courage! I wish more people would remember we are all of the human race, brothers and sisters that share the same house(earth), and “walk in anothers’ shoes” before prejudging each other and acting inaccurately. I wish there was a safe way we could all be less scared of each other and get along and help each other more. Excellent Journalism!

  14. Thank You for being open minded and taking a step. This article was awesome.

  15. Great article! So brave of you to take such a step.

  16. You have a lot of courage and I’m sure have inspired many others. I’m a muslim and still don’t have the strength of wearing one. By the way, you truly look beautiful with it on.

  17. very inspiring. you seem like a passionate journalist; i love that.

  18. you have taken the saying put yourself in the other person’s shoe to a whole new level. Fantastic ethic and article.

  19. You say in your article that none of your classmates, friends, or professors mentioned or acknowledged your hijab and that it hurt your feelings, and that you “felt separated from the people who knew you best.” This reaction made me pause, simply because I know that if one of my acquaintances suddenly began wearing the hijab, I wouldn’t know whether she would want me to ask her about it, or if she’d prefer that I didn’t mention it and just accept it for what it is. I would most likely not talk to her about it at all because I would feel like I was singling her out and marking her as “different” from everyone else. If she chooses to wear a hijab, that’s her business, right? I would feel rude asking her why she was wearing it all of a sudden, especially if I didn’t know her all that well. I don’t mean to project, especially since I’m not familiar with your classmates, but perhaps that’s what they were thinking, and they didn’t mean to make you feel ignored.
    In short, this has made me think about what is the best response to someone I know starting to wear the hijab, and I’m not sure of the answer. Should I bring it up, or just let it be? Is there anyone out there who has personal experience with this and can offer me some advice?

    Thank you, Ms. Herrington, for a thought-provoking article.

  20. Thank you so much for doing it and being open-minded!!!Great Job. May ALLAH give you the reward(Ameen)

  21. Salam Cassidy,
    I’ve been seeing a lot of journalists taking a walk in a hijabi’s shoes. It’s really amazing and I think it must have been a great experience for you. I am also a convert (it seems like there are so many of us!) whose blonde locks are now hidden beneath a sparkly hijab. It’s been a challenging journey for me as my friends and family have come to grips with my new religious convictions and consequently my new wardrobe. Sometimes I wish they would try on the hijab like you did to see it’s not as awful as they all think it is. In fact, I feel it has been the most liberating choice I’ve made and my confidence has grown immensely since I started donning it. I’m sure you felt that when you wore it too :)
    Keep up the great writing and good luck in your future endeavors!

  22. MashAllah. I am a 16 year old muslim girl, and you encoureged me to do something i’ve always been afraid of doing! Next time im going to the mall i will wear the hijab a couple of times to see how it feels, and InshAllah i will like it and start wearing it full time. I am really appreciative of what you did, because at school people always approach me about my religion and they always ask me about hijab and why i dont wear one, this question is alwayd very hard to answer so i tell them i dont feel ready to start now when im ready i will. Some people think that parents force there daughters to wear one i get angry when they think that and i say no just because on the news muslims are portrayed as extremists doesnt mean we are! Well i love thid article alot and i hope people will understand the true meaning of hijab.

  23. A job well done! Thank you so much for doing this!

  24. What an interesting idea and awesome experiment. I will be sharing this with my students when we talk about interfaith connections.

  25. Cassidy, love what you did but I am also interested in finding out about the reactions of your professors and entourage after you took off the Hijjab. It would be great if you could write about it. Thank you for sharing your experience with us and wish you the best.

  26. Great Project Cassidy, I salute you.

  27. Very pretty indeed, Ashraf was not kidding
    I wish you has engaged people while wearing Hijab. It seems to me that you just went about your business without actually “provoking” or teasing a story out.

  28. first of all, thnk you very much for your effort, and for your advice to ask a muslim about islam not the media.
    i have a question for you, you only tried the Hijab ( as u said, a symbol, headscarf for nonmuslims) and u had this positive feelings, but i would like to know if u realized that the hijab is not just a symbol, it is like a way of living, a collection of behavioral attitudes, that are ofcourse never hostile to the “other” ? didn’t you feel ,while wearing the Hijab, that you have more privacy and are more protected as a nice lady. did u read Quran? thank u again.

  29. You look unequivocally better without the hijab.

  30. Well done!! It’s funny muslim or not the feeling once one begins to cover are very similar. I felt what you decribed when I put my Hijab on at the age of 21.
    It was a real shame quite a few people that I thought I knew well, fell gently away from me like leaves from a tree when there is a little breeze of change. It’s like they thought I was a different person, maybe I was. A confident person that did not NEED to hide behind her appearance, I did’nt have to I was so much more.

  31. Do you think a KKK robe would NOT evoke a negative response?

  32. Mashallah, you really do look beautiful in the headscarf.

    If you want to wear it and not be Muslim, I think you should! Back in the day there was a culture of head covering, in some ways it’s a shame we’ve lost that.

  33. Muslim Ummah will always be thankful for your efforts to dig the truth. We can never pay you back the hardship you had undergoing this project but we can always pray for you to stay more stronger and confident in your job. Offcourse your job is to bring truth to the masses.

    Someone truly said: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

    God Bless

  34. Firstly, MashaAllah you really do look absolutely beautiful in the hijab. I really admire what you did, it really inspired me. I’m a Muslim myself and haven’t yet found the strength and courage to put myself out there and wear it. It’s something that takes a lot of guts and I salute you for it. It’s really hard when you’re someone who likes to blend into the background and not be noticed and all of a sudden you’re the one who stands out in a crowd and attracts all this attention to yourself. Also, wearing the hijab instantly gives people an invitation to judge you based on your appearance, which is really scary. InshaAllah I’ll have the courage to soon start wearing it. I’m thinking of starting when I start university because it’s somewhere you csn re-invent yourself and be whoever you want to be without people who know you judging you. Well done again and good luck for the future!

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