Q & A: The Practice of Hijab

April 16, 2008

Jameelah Medina is a 29-year old Muslim-American woman, born and raised in Southern California. Ms. Medina is pursuing her PhD in education at Claremont Graduate University and works as a business trainer. Ms. Medina has been a practicing Muslim her entire life, and as a part of her religious practice, she wears a hijab (headscarf).

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On December 7, 2005, while commuting to work, Ms. Medina was arrested at the Pomona Station of the commuter rail for having an invalid train pass. She was verbally harassed by the police officer who drove her to the West Valley Detention Center, and was forced by local deputies to remove her hijab while she was in custody.

In December 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Ms. Medina's behalf. In this interview with Selene Kaye, of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Ms. Medina talks about the practice of wearing hijab and her experience in jail.

Q: At what age did you start wearing the hijab?
A: I started wearing the hijab when I was about 19 years old. I did not fully understand it, but I wanted to wear it. After 9/11, I took off my hijab because of harassment I was facing, but after a couple of years, I put it back on in 2003. At the time I had studied a lot about it and searched my heart for my hijab truth.

Q: Was it your own choice?
A: hijab was absolutely my own choice. I know we sometimes assume or hear about girls who are forced to wear the hijab; however, my family and my community never pressured me don the hijab. Actually, my mother would have preferred me not to wear it. She feared for my safety and my mental and social wellbeing.

Q: What were your reasons for wearing it?
A: I decide to wear the hijab again once it felt right in my heart. I came to understand what the Qur'an meant when it says to cover up what does not ordinarily appear. I came to see how hijab was indeed a screen behind which I could protect my physical attributes from view. As a woman, I felt it was such a privilege to be able to wear the hijab because it also served to remind me of my faith. I think it is difficult for people to understand how a woman can view her hair and neck as sexual parts of her body similar to her genitalia. However, this is how I feel about my hair and neck. Throughout history and literature, the hair of a woman is sensualized -- the longer it is, the better and the sexier. The woman's neck has also been eroticized and touted as an erogenous zone in literature and even in films. I did not want to be sensualized and eroticized; I just wanted to be human. I wanted to be free from unwanted advances from men, and I also wanted to feel in charge of my own femininity and create my own empowerment as the gatekeeper of my own body, not a slave to mainstream standards of beauty, and my own mind, not subject to rampant body image and self esteem issues. With all this said, it all goes back to maintaining my sense of privacy and not making public what I perceive as intimate.

Q: Did you always know that you would wear a hijab?
A: I did not always know I would wear the hijab, but I always felt I would. Even when I was younger, I would cover my hair with hats and other head gear. Although I felt I would always end up wearing hijab, I ran from it. It was not what I wanted. My mother was deeply affected (negatively) when she wore hijab in the 1970s, so I also think I inherited her aversion to it and I also adopted stereotypes about what "kind" of woman wears a hijab. I am very strong-willed and vocal; as a youngster, I thought my character was inconsistent with wearing hijab. As I studied hijab more, read the Qur'an more, and asked for clarity, I realized that my ideas of hijab as a tool of domestication, oppression, and subjugation of women was coming from the human mind that inserted patriarchy into Islam for selfish needs. I had to distinguish between cultural Islam and real Islam. I learned to understand hijab in the context of Islam while excluding patriarchal arguments from my mind. It was a difficult task to weed the patriarchy out of my understanding of Islam, but once I did this, I saw the divine wisdom in hijab and I felt empowered and deeply moved to wear it.

Q: Do many of your family members wear a hijab?
A: Most of my extended family is Christian. My parents and paternal grandmother are all converts to Islam from Christianity. My mother wore the hijab for a while, but no one else in my family wears it.

Q: What does wearing the hijab mean to you?
A: I think I covered this one. :-) In one word: Freedom!

Q: Why is it important to you?
A: It is important to me to feel covered appropriately. Hijab is something very personal to me and I do not think it should be worn by every woman; we each have our own truth. It is also important because it reminds me that I am a Muslim; I like that.

Q: How did it impact you when you were forced to remove your hijab in jail?
A: Immediately before I was forced to remove my hijab, I felt fearful, stressed, unsafe, and I really could not believe it was about to happen. When I was forced to remove my hijab, I felt embarrassment, injustice, shame, powerlessness, anger, and even rage. Most of all, I felt utterly humiliated and violated. The next day, I felt a sense of mobility like I had to file the complaint and take some action.

Q: Two and a half years later, how do you think that experience has impacted your life and you as a person?
A: Two and a half years after it all, I still have many of the same feelings, but I have most certainly learned that the shame is on those who violated my rights, not on me. I had to let go of the shame because it was emotionally debilitating and no amount of shame could work its way into the past to prevent or change any of what happened to me. I still feel embarrassed and that I was humiliated, but I try to find the blessings in all adversity. I know that it had to be me that went through it because another woman may not have come forward in the end due to lack of support, English skills, or other resources. It took me a long time to get over my pride, and that in itself was an enormous gift and blessing. I had a tug-of-war in my mind for months and months before finally deciding that the injustice that was done was far more important than anyone knowing that I was arrested and had been in jail. I also feel that this situation has re-awakened the activist in me. I was very politically active in college, but apathy gripped me. Now, I am back to writing my congressman, assembly woman, newspaper editors, TV stations; signing petitions; and back out on the streets participating in protests and other calls to action.

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