The Muslim Link Conducts Hijab Wearing Experiment at Maryland Mall
“I thought I would be paranoid,” said Lily Motabar, a non-Muslim rising junior at Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland. “I was right.”
Motabar recently agreed to conduct a social experiment for The Muslim Link. For one day, she would walk into a mall and shop as a hijab-wearing Muslim, in America.
At first, she was hesitant about the experiment. She was worried that she didn’t know how to act as a Muslim wearing a hijab (headscarf). The challenge was to walk into a mall and shop at Victoria’s Secret and Hot Topic.
Post-9/11 America has grown very suspicious of Muslims and especially those wearing the headscarf. These women challenge American cultural norms. A quick search on The Urban Dictionary defines the hijab as “a sign of the dark ages.”
Yet, many American Muslims wear hijab full-time. This experiment sought to explore how American Muslims feel wearing the hijab in a society where it is abnormal.
Motabar put on a soft pink hijab with the help of Ladan Mohamed, a Muslim and rising sophomore at Northwest High School who regularly wears the hijab. Following the full Islamic requirements of the hijab, Lily also wore clothes fully covering her arms and legs, even in the burning summer temperature.
She then set off on her mission, alone and very nervous. She didn’t see any other women wearing the hijab so she felt “weird,” she said. But even though a few people stared, after a while she felt like a normal shopper.
As part of the experiment, Motabar sought directions to Victoria’s Secret and Hot Topic from regular shoppers, and then she engaged the store clerks in conversation.
“The hardest part was finding the stores,” Motabar said with a laugh. This was only because the people she asked did not know the location of the stores either.
Motabar said the experience felt very strange and uncomfortable for her because it was her first time ever wearing a hijab. Motabar said she felt “out of her element,” but someone wearing it full time would obviously get used to the feeling and the heat. She also said with a laugh that she “felt sacrilegious for doing it.”
Inside the stores, the clerks were very eager to help. She was treated as a normal shopper. However, there was one exception. While in Victoria’s Secret, Motabar was speaking to one female store clerk about bathing suits. A nearby male clerk, hearing Motabar’s questions, gave her a very bewildered look, she said. According to Motabar, the look on his face said, “Why do you want the bathing suits?”
Motabar’s main concern was the heat. She was not used to wearing that much clothing in the summer and felt very uncomfortable.
“I was really really warm, and I was sweating a lot because it was hot,” she said.
Immediately after the experiment, she asked if she could take the hijab off because she couldn’t bear the heat. After taking off the hijab Motabar said she had high respect for Ladan Mohamed because of her wearing the hijab full-time in the summer. Motabar said she could never do that.
Motabar described the experience overall by saying “it felt…normal.” She felt very accepted by the people around her.
But how could a hijab-wearing Muslim woman walk around normally when it is seen as such a strange thing by society? The hijab-wearing Muslims interviewed for this story said that America has become very accustomed to seeing the hijab. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, about 430,000 Muslim women wear some form of the hijab.
Mohamed said people in the area see so many Muslim women wearing the hijab that they’ve become used to it.
“If they don’t understand [it], they get that it’s religious,” Mohamed said. A lot of people ask Mohamed about her hijab, not as an insult, but through honest curiosity, she said.
Narmin Anwar, a data analyst who also wears the hijab full-time, said that a lot of fellow Americans “treat [her] like everyone else.” There are people with different opinions on the hijab, she said, and some look at her hijab and think, “Let me give her a chance.”
But both Mohamed and Anwar acknowledged that there is also a negative side. Mohamed feels she stands out from others and is seen as abnormal. And Anwar described how some people may look at her and think “terrorist” or see her as a threat.
But Mohamed and Motabar both agreed that the people around Motabar accepted and treated her nicely because Maryland, and the entire D.C. area, is one of the most diverse regions in America. In fact, while waiting for Motabar, Mohamed saw several Muslim women wearing hijabs who were shopping. But if hijabs are so well accepted in the D.C. area, then why is there a negative stigma in the country at all?
Anwar said the stigma exists because of the bad actions that other Muslims have done. After 9/11, the picture of a terrorist became a picture of a Muslim. But the stigma is weakening because America is having more direct contact with American Muslims who denounce the terrorist activities of others, Anwar said. Mohamed said that the negativity towards Muslims cannot go away completely, but it can lessen enough to build respect for Muslims.
When asked if she could wear the hijab full-time, Motabar said, “In winter, yeah.” She said that although she felt weird doing the project, she now understands the hijab-wearing Muslim a little bit more. Motabar was enthusiastic in encouraging others to try the experiment.
“Go for it,” she said. “If you want to try something different, go for it. It might be life changing for you, it might not be. But you should definitely try it.”