As a Muslim woman I choose to wear a headscarf, known as the hijab, because it symbolizes the core beliefs and ethics of Islam that I hold close to my heart.
Having said that, I’ve always known that the headscarf conceals identifying characteristics that allow people to recognize those of us who decide to wear the hijab (we call ourselves hijabi).
Recognizing people from their hair style seems to make a BIG difference in how people identify human beings from one another, but I didn’t realize it until this moment in my life …
“It was you….” a man said to me for the third time as he walked away from me.
I was at a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in Tennessee in 2006 and as I had done every year, I would pop into as many lectures as I could possibly squeeze in and then in-between sessions sit in the lobby taking ridiculously copious notes while at the same time people watching.
During the conference I never once saw one other hijabi and was never approached by anyone to really unpack everything we had just heard or seen together.
I remember it being a lonely conference.
(As an aside, I’m told the hijab is sometimes a seemingly insurmountable barrier to people approaching me. But I believe if you make an effort to meet me, a lot of preconceptions are squashed: I speak English and I’m pretty funny. But that’s a subject for another time.)
So, imagine my eagerness when a gentleman comes up to me. We had both just come out of a session together and I had asked some questions so I thought he wanted to share insights from what we had just heard.
“Hi!” he said with an elated smile.
“Hey!” I said with an even MORE elated grin. I had my notes ready to exchange and was making my way to a table in the hallway preparing what I already imagined was going to be an epic exchange of ideas.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
Still smiling like a fool, I replied, “What?”
“We had dinner last year. It’s me, Mike!”
Tilting my head and squinting – still smiling -”Um, no…I don’t think we’ve met…”
“In Chicago, we went to the same opening dinner. We talked – you told me about teaching in NYC….”
This man was SO sure it was me.
I didn’t know how to break the fact that: 1) I’d never been to an NCTE in Chicago and 2) I’d never taught outside of Michigan at this point.
I decided to soften the blow with a joke: “That’s definitely not me but I know that we must all look alike with this …” I said as I pointed to my headscarf.
His smile quickly faded, “It was you. I know it was.”
He started stepping back: “It was you….it WAS you…”
Still smiling, I shook my head no. As he finally disappeared into the crowd, I sat down, alone at a table made for two, laid out all my worksheets, notes and pamphlets.
After about two minutes of solo reflection, I realized I should have said I was that hijabi teacher from NYC – at least I’d have gotten someone to bounce ideas off of.