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Finding Freedom as an American Hijabi in Amman

By: Kawther Berhanu

February 22, 2018

As a hijabi woman that has lived most her life in America, I am always acutely aware of the fabric that is draped around my head. At times it has made me a vulnerable target of Islamophobia, but that is only a small portion of the challenge I frequently find with it. Wearing the hijab in the United States is like walking around as a Muslim billboard, and it has often made me a spokesperson for an entire faith. My actions, opinions, and interests are attributed to over a billion other people on this Earth—which can be a blessing in some ways but overwhelming in others.

However, studying in a majority Muslim country has shifted my role as the tokenized Muslim spokeswoman. In Amman, Jordan, most women wear the hijab. I have to say being in the majority in this sense is such a new experience. I can be comfortable acting freely without having to constantly be playing defense against this narrative that so desperately tries to label me as an oppressed woman who needs to be saved. I don’t have to mentally prepare articulate and witty explanations for why I’m not comfortable going out for drinks. Don’t get me wrong: I love sharing my narrative and experiences regarding my faith and culture. But let me tell you it can be exhausting—especially when you’re constantly being tokenized.

So being in an environment where I "blend in" is such a departure from what I am accustomed to. And being surrounded by people that look like me doing a range of things feels…odd. For example, ordering fries at the McDonald's beside my university and noting that half their service crew was comprised of hijabis, driving past four hijabi police officers directing traffic, seeing hijabis working at the MAC counter in the mall, or hijabi women hanging out at a hookah lounge, smoking and chatting with friends. I find myself marveled while the locals don’t so much as bat an eye. Back in the United States, things like a hijabi police officer would go viral on Twitter or be a huge point of conversation, whereas here it’s well within the ordinary.

Popular discourse in the West has promoted the notion that wearing the hijab is the result of some form of oppression and that it is in direct opposition with feminism. Back in the United States, if someone spoke about a hijabi being liberated, it would be assumed that she stopped wearing the headscarf. The hijab is a personal an act of worship to God, and it is a choice that I continue to make, but here it is one I can make without thinking of the baggage associated with the politicization of my faith. And it’s empowering.

One can pursue careers without having to be hyperconscious of what holding certain religious identities in that workplace will mean. The Western orientalist obsession and borderline political fetishization of the hijab does not have nearly as strong of a hold on the society here as it does back in the United States. I think this enables women, particularly women that wear the headscarf, to be able to not let the external communities’ obsession with the piece of fabric to outshine the rest of her identity. Being in such a space allows for people who appear outwardly religious to gain greater understandings of their personhood outside of their religious garments in the most refreshing way. Perhaps this is a result of the familiarity that comes from having a large number of people who present themselves in this way, or maybe it is because the population is significantly better-versed in terms of various religious traditions (Christian and Muslim). Regardless, hijabis seem to be given the space for complexities. And for now, I'm basking in this newly afforded nuance.

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Finding Freedom as an American Hijabi in Amman