On 1 February 2013, I started a global movement called World Hijab Day in the hope for a more tolerant world where we can coexist irrespective of our faith or race. On this day, I openly invite women of all faiths to wear the Muslim head covering the hijab for a day. The idea came from my personal experience. After moving from Bangalesh to New York City with my family at the age of 11, I hardly spoke a world of English and was the only person wearing a hijab in my school.
Because of that simple piece of fabric, I was abused verbally and physically throughout junior and high school. Just walking from one class to another, students would push or kick me in the middle of the hallway, or joyfully wait outside my classroom to pull off my hijab. Some of my scariest moments as a child were as I left school for the day, when students would surround me on the streets to make fun of my hijab and spit at me. If I came across group of teenagers on the street, I would cross the street to get to the other side. I still do that sometimes, even though I'm an adult now. I guess the effect of some incidents last a lifetime.
After 9/11, things got even worse and everyday life became quite hard. For example, once I went to a local pharmacy, a woman looked at me and shouted out, "You terrorist, Osama Bin Laden!". It was even worse on the streets of NYC. I was chased many times.
The looks that I used to get from the fellow passengers when I was using public transport made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Some of them refused to sit next to me or would intentionally knock into me. I felt helpless, and I lived in fear.
Fast forward to 2010 and I decided to launch an online hijab store. I choose to wear a hijab because it allows me to make a statement about my identity as a Muslim woman, but that choice came at a cost. I wanted other women to have a support system and somewhere to share their experiences – and women from around the world shared their stories with me. One teenage girl from the UK told me about how kids in the her class would chew gum and spit it at her hijab to make everyone laugh. I received many messages from women who faced discrimination at work, were refused jobs and were even fired because of their headscarf.
I thought about how I could help these women. In order to try and change that same experience for another isolated and terrified child, or the hardships faced unfairly by many Muslim women across the globe due to their hijab, I asked women in all faiths to join me for a day.
The movement was launched using social media, and the response was unbelievable. In just eight days, 67 countries responded to my call. Women from different religious backgrounds including Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Hindu and atheists took part in World Hijab Day. By 2015, people from more than 200 countries participated. The reach on my World Hijab Day Facebook fan page surpassed 11 million people.
This global movement has been endorsed by celebrities and prominent political figures such as Dr Amina Sambo, wife of the vice-president of Nigeria, and world-renowned Muslim scholar Mufti Ismail Menk. In addition, events are being hosted worldwide by World Hijab Day Ambassadors and volunteers to educate, engage and inspire the public at large. These events range from a Peace Walk in Ghana, a theatrical play in Trinidad and Tobago, interfaith dialogue at a Church in New York, non-Muslim assemblywomen trying on the hijab at a Parliament in the Philippines, to a non-Muslim fourth-grader educating her classmates about the hijab in Canada.
With the political and social climate today, we need a movement that unites us instead of dividing us because of ignorant rhetoric. Only when we walk in the shoes of others can we truly understand and appreciate their values and struggles. My hope for this day is that it promotes peace, tolerance and coexistence – which, sadly, our world is in desperate need of.
Here are some testimonies of some past World Hijab Day participants:
"I participated in World Hijab Day and it was a good experience that I will repeat. I live in a very small, very Christian town. There were some strange looks and people were staring at me – and then looking away quickly when they realised I saw them looking. A few people seemed surprised that I spoke English. The fact that I was wearing hijab gave me the opportunity to talk to my stepchildren about respect, difference and peace."
Talya Leodari, Jewish, US
"Wearing the Hijab was an incredibly powerful experience. I felt liberated from society's view that dictates the latest fashion trends – in fact, never did I feel as regal as I did today. I stood tall with my head held high and felt in control of my image, beautiful and strong. Today, I wore the hijab in honour of my student, and her mother, who reminded me that one simple gesture can positively impact upon someone else's life. Thank you for granting me with this unforgettable experience!"
Cyndy, Catholic, US
"My daughter Emma (eight years old), sporting her favourite scarf. She said she got called names, but she kept wearing it and it didn't seem to bother her. We are Christians but love our Muslim sisters! She wants to involve her school next year."
Kerri-Jo Stewart, Canada
"I greatly respect women who wear hijab every day. I found it quite comfortable actually, and the anonymity was kind of nice. It was a good experience. I'm still confused however as to why some people seem to equate hijab with oppression. I found nothing oppressive about covering my head at all – on the contrary, it was liberating not having to constantly worry about my hair."
Tia StoneJaa, US
"It's commonly believed that wearing a veil is a form of sexual discrimination. I didn't find it to be so. To my surprise, the veil was strangely liberating – an unapologetic form of self-expression."
Joe Galvez, Catholic, Philippines