Catalina Garzon subconsciously touched the pink hijab on her head as she walked to her class at the University of South Florida. She watched as person after person either avoided her gaze or quickly looked away. She smiled, but they ignored her. Were they really acting like this because she covered her hair? Until she tried wearing one for a day, Garzon never understood the effect a hijab had on day-to-day living.
Garzon, a sociology major at USF, realized there seemed to be more hate brewing than love on campus, especially with the infamously hateful speakers outside of Cooper Hall yelling at the passers-by. So on Jan. 28, she held an event to peacefully hold signs saying, “Love thy neighbor.” There, she met Nouf Fetais, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and engineering major.
“When I saw her, I was kind of scared because I didn’t want her to think I was trying to convert her,” said Fetais. “But when I showed another friend of mine how to wear a hijab, Catalina seemed interested, so I invited her to World Hijab Day’s Facebook page.”
After wearing one on World Hijab Day on Feb. 1, Garzon posted on her own Facebook page that she wanted to continue wearing her pink hijab that Fetais gave to her, but wondered if that would be too disrespectful. While a couple people criticized her, she mostly received encouragement.
During World Hijab Day, and at least a handful of times afterward, Garzon discovered what Fetais and other female Muslim students experience on campus.
“I noticed less eye contact,” said Garzon, looking over to Fetais, who was nodding. “Usually when I’m on campus, I get lots of human interaction — hello, compliments, short conversation, usually from people I don’t know, and they’re the ones who initiate it. But when I was wearing a hijab, I didn’t get that. If people did make eye contact with me, they looked away really quickly, and it was kind of surprising.”
Muslim women are expected to start wearing a hijab when they reach puberty, although it’s the woman’s right to decide when and if they do so. Some common reasons for wearing a hijab are believing it is mandated by Islam, valuing the modesty it encourages, or simply liking that it identifies them as Muslim.
While the Muslim friends that Garzon made were supportive, other people were not. She noticed the people who had a problem with it were atheists, Christians, Catholics and non-Muslims.
“I had some people look at me twice like, ‘Is that a white girl wearing a hijab?’ basically,” she said. This was in addition to social media hate she received, she said.
Garzon learned that veiling oneself — such as wearing a hijab — dates back further than Islamic uses. Christians, Jews and Catholics wore head coverings for different reasons, but mainly for modesty.
“Muslim culture…they adapted the hijab; they did not invent the hijab,” Garzon said. That was when Garzon decided it was OK to wear it and that she would wear it for her own reasons.
Today people may wear a hijab or headscarf for other reasons, like fashion, or as a cancer survivor. Women like Garzon may do it to have control, feel confident, or for other personal reasons.
“When does a hijab or headscarf become religious and symbolic?” asked Garzon.
Garzon views the hijab as representing modesty and giving women the opportunity to be in control of how men view them. More importantly, she finds that it unveils a whole new perspective.
“What I find most beautiful of the hijab … when you cover, you see the face clearly and the eyes. I believe everyone is beautiful and unique,” Garzon said as she touched her face and demonstrated with her jacket’s hood. “When you’re able to see the face, you can see movements, the bone structure, the creases when you smile, when you’re excited or contemplating … When you eliminate one part of the picture [the hair], the other part becomes more significant.”
Garzon and Fetais hope other people realize the different ways women are treated when they wear a hijab and the stigma surrounding it. Garzon also hopes to start a support group for non-Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab.