MY LIFE IN FIVE HIJABS
BY LAYLA SHAIKLEYART BY AQSA NAVEED
My name is Layla Shaikley. I am your average American- Muslim woman and I wear a hijab.
I started wearing one when I was in middle school. As the political atmosphere shifted in the years that followed, so did my hijab.
I’d like to say that my hijab has matured over these past two decades, but it has also been transformed: into a message, a symbol, and a burden that I’ve had to bear.
But no other item so clearly tells the story of my life, from my earliest years to my adulthood today.
This is that story.
The Jet Black (1996-2001)
In 1996, I was 11 years old. On a warm California day in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I visited my local skate park with a lopsided hijab on my head, too unskilled with safety pins to make it stick. I dropped into my first half-pipe that afternoon, earning the unreserved respect of the skate park. Skateboarding helped me make a name for myself in my tiny community; I had a place within the unspoken hierarchy of teenage skaters.
Outside of the skate park, I lived in a carefully constructed bubble crafted by my parents, one with closely guarded access points and extreme vetting upon entry. My Iraqi father stressed the importance of education, reminding us that he’d left a dangerous country in hopes of finding safety and limitless opportunity for his family. Like my identity as a young Muslim-American back then, my black cotton hijab was mostly devoid of political or cultural baggage. I loved my black cotton hijab—it was a symbol of liberation, a symbol of feminism. My teenage self refused to be objectified, and the hijab allowed me to make that point clear. As a feminist, I wanted to be valued for my intellect, abilities, and personality—not for how I looked. After September of 2001, this would change.
The Leopard Print(2001-2004)
On the morning of September 11, my mom burst into my room crying. America had been attacked, and she could not get ahold of my brother. He lived a few miles from the Pentagon. I rubbed my eyes as a blurry new reality set in. My mom had founded an Islamic school, attended by 300 students. The first bell was supposed to ring in an hour. Not willing to risk backlash, she canceled school that day.
It was only after a car zoomed past me and told me to go back to where I came from later that week that I realized things had changed. I was unwelcome. Unsettled by the wave of post-9/11 hate crimes, I swapped out my black hijab for a less threatening leopard-print scarf. I now used my hijab to highlight my fun and quirky side, like a colorful cast hiding a broken bone. I hoped a printed scarf would make me look harmless and unthreatening. Instead I learned the implications of that one piece of fabric: I was seen as violently oppressed, voiceless, submissive, pitiful, lacking agency, and naïvely desexualized—that, or forcefully hypersexualized. It was a stark contrast from how I viewed myself: delusionally optimistic, painstakingly curious, confident, athletic, entertaining (albeit awkwardly so), imprudently adventurous.
It was in my leopard-print hijab that I sat in an American Airlines terminal to hear a local news PSA warning of a bomb threat. My eyes were glued to the TV as I raced through a list of loved ones in my head that I’d planned to alert. It was only after the segment was over that I looked down to see most of the travelers in the terminal staring at me, their faces filled with contempt.
The Turban (2004-2008)
As time pushed the 9/11 attacks further into memory, the hurt of many Americans calcified into rage. An Iranian nail salon owner in NYC was beaten with a hammer and racial slurs were recklessly scribbled on her salon walls. An Islamic center in Florida received a note that read, “Kill them all in the name of Allah.” A Tennessee mosque was firebombed with Molotov cocktails.
As hate crimes toward Muslims increased, I began to experiment with anonymity. The turban, the beanie, the hat—I tried them all. Many of my friends removed their hijabs altogether. Others persisted, despite the advice of relatives. I was in college, and on the days when I felt too fatigued to carry the weight of a misunderstood faith on my shoulders, I opted for a hood. On other days I felt guilty for leaving my fellow hijabi tribe out in the cold. I felt as if I alone was responsible for changing other people’s minds.
One day my mother was stopped at the grocery store. “Why would anyone employ you with that on your head?” seethed a lady handing out samples. “Actually, I'm hiring a secretary, if you know of a worthy candidate,” my mom replied, handing the lady a business card that, despite an amalgamation of prestigious letters—DDS, PhD, an MS—still failed to communicate her most selfless accomplishments: mother of six. Wife. Volunteer. School principal. “I'm so sorry,” the lady offered, clutching my mom’s business card in her hand.
One down, America. Three hundred million to go.
The American Flag (2008-2016)
Obama ushered in a new era. Muslim-Americans across the country were starting to feel welcome again and the American-flag hijab was my staple. It actually wasn’t until I was abroad that I realized how much I had re-embraced my American identity. I was in Germany and a fellow backpacker asked me where I was headed next. “Home,” I said. “America.” For the first time in seven years, I knew where I belonged—and I was going back to where I came from.
Then, in April of 2013, I spent a sunny New England morning cheering on Boston Marathon runners. I’d moved to Boston a few years prior for school and found a second home in that oldest of American cities. I left the marathon early because of a looming thesis deadline, but just before three in the afternoon two bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring hundreds. I stood frozen as thousands of dazed people streamed over the bridge that connects the Boston Marathon finish line to MIT. But this wasn’t like 9/11—something had changed. I no longer had to carry the burden of defending myself at the expense of mourning. Now I was able to grieve for my city and help rebuild without feeling like a target for hate.
The Whatever-I- Damn-Well-Feel-Like Hijab (2017-present)
The Whatever- I-Damn- Well-Feel- Like Hijab (2017-present)
2017 was a year of disasters, natural and man-made. Donald Trump fanned the flames of hate toward Muslims, Latinos, and the transgender community. Nativist policies tore apart families and whole communities. On January 20, my heart sank as Trump was inaugurated—hate crimes against Muslims had surged during his campaign. I could only darkly worry about the damage a man who believed there was “no real assimilation” for American Muslims could do.
Faced with the choice of hiding my identity, I choose instead to be secure in it, unwilling to let misguided hate dictate my choices of headwear. And I haven’t been alone in this choice. Halima Aden was the first American hijabi supermodel to grace the cover of Allure. Mattel announced the release of the first hijabi Barbie after American Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad. Nike started selling a sports hijab. Hijabi influencers picked up millions of followers. News platforms for and by Muslim women populated the web. And turban tutorials on YouTube have only grown in number.
And today, as I write this, I’m wearing a black cotton hijab. Because I am American, I am Muslim, and I am unapologetic. I will wear whatever hijab I damn well feel like.