Some Muslim women cover their heads, and some don’t—either way, they get asked questions. Elena and Harv speak to writer and entrepreneur Mariam Nouser about her experiences both wearing and not wearing a hijab. Also, journalist Amira Elghawaby tells us why she might actually like to hear more questions about her headscarf from strangers.
Please note that this episode contains accounts of Islamophobic incidents and hate speech.
By Nasima (@Moosleemargh)
Nasima is a British Bangladeshi from London. Her illustrations focus on the representation of hijab-wearing, Muslim women in ordinary situations in an attempt to normalise them against the constant politics and policing of hijab. Her other hobbies include collecting dark lipsticks, binge watching TV, and forever wishing she had a cat.
Mariam is a blogger, entrepreneur, and mental health advocate based in Toronto, Canada. She is the founder of Infinitely Classic, a clothing brand with ethical apparel featuring text in Arabic. She was the former president of the Muslim Students Association at Ryerson University.
Amira is a journalist and human rights advocate based in Ottawa, Canada. She is an expert on issues of media representation, hate crimes, and human rights, whose work has appeared in publications such as the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. She is a former director of communications at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).
Resources & Other Information
The Sisters Project is a photography and journalistic project that highlights all types of Muslim women and their lives. Creator Alia Youssef works to combat negative stigmas about Muslim women around Canada, ultimately creating a safe space for these women and their different identities.
A downloadable resource for Muslim women who may experience Islamophobic violence. It features definitions for terms like Islamophobia, gendered Islamophobia and anti-black racism. Also includes discussions on the impact of Islamophobia and tips to how to recover from its violence, or how to take action as bystander.
A Canadian organization which works to empower Muslim women by developing an active Muslim community that openly address challenges of integration and social development.
A website featuring articles by and for young Muslim women from around the world. Aims to change mainstream narratives about Islam and undo media stereotypes about Muslims.
A not-for-profit organization that works to provide equity, equality and empowerment for all Canadian Muslim women. Their projects, reports and toolkits educate and promote health and justice for Muslim women.
Voice 1: People kept asking me “So why did you put it on?”, “You looked so beautiful,” “Your hair is so nice”. Like, “Did your dad make you wear it?”
Voice 2: I always say it’s the little old lady who’s giving me stink eye that gives me the impression that I am responsible for every single terrible thing that’s ever done by a Muslim.
Elena Hudgins Lyle: Harv, I hear you have a special connection to today's topic. Harvinder Wadhwa: Absolutely and I'm very, very excited about it. And of course Elena, you can see me, but our listeners can't.
Harv: So let me tell them that I wear a turban.
Elena: For the benefit of radio, Harv is six foot tall, he has six pack abs, stunning.
Harv: Good keep going Elena, keep going.
Elena: All right, turban.
Harv: But the interesting thing about the turban is it's considered a deeply religious symbol, but that I'm an atheist.
Elena: Why do you still do that then?
Harv: Because my dad did it, his dad did it, and his dad did it.
Elena: So you have cultural tie to it and a family tie to it?
Harv: Absolutely, I feel it gives me a sense of community. I wear it more for cultural reasons.
Elena: Hmm. This episode you're getting two questions for the price—free—of one. We're talking about “Why do you wear a headscarf?” and “Why don't you wear a headscarf?”, questions that get asked to Muslim women.
Harv: People are curious and that's great.
Elena: But there are some questions you just shouldn't ask or at least not like that.
Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadhwa.
Elena: I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.
Harv: And this is Inappropriate Questions.
Elena: Let’s get inappropriate!
[Theme music ends]
Elena: This episode we’re speaking to Mariam Nouser. Mariam is a blogger, a mental health advocate and entrepreneur. She's the former president of the Muslim Students Association at her university. She also founded Infinitely Classic, an ethical apparel brand that features designs in Arabic and she's written a lot about her experiences as a Muslim woman both wearing and not wearing the hijab.
So Mariam, you have experience on both sides of the question we're talking about. Would you like to tell us about a time you were asked “Why do you wear a headscarf?” or “Why don’t you wear a headscarf?”
Mariam Nouser: So I've been wearing the hijab for a total of five years. I started wearing it just before university in 2013, and I took it off the following year after I experienced a traumatic Islamophobic attack. And I took off for eight months, and I put it back on in 2015 and I've been wearing that for four years now. And yea, so the question of “Why do I wear the hijab?” is probably more prominent than “Why I don't wear the hijab?” because I have the privilege of passing as white when I'm in spaces, when I'm not wearing the hijab.
Mariam: Because I am quite fair. And so people don't presume that I am Muslim.
But people ask me a lot especially “Why did I put it on?”, “Why do I wear it?” and my answer to that is ever since I was about 16 years old, I always wanted to proclaim my identity as a Muslim person. I've always been a faithful person and very in touch with my beliefs. And people kept asking me “So why did you put it on?”. Like, “You looked so beautiful”, “Your hair is so nice”, “Did your dad make you wear it?”, “Does that mean you're not gonna come and hang out with us anymore?” “Does that mean you’re gonna do this, going to do that?” And just...they’re more concerned of how—how I was going to treat them just because I wore a cloth on my head and I wore more modest clothing than what I decided to do for myself. And I remember family friends of my grandmother used to ask me like “You don't have to choose Islam, Islam’s a hard religion, your mom's family's Christian, why don’t you choose that faith, it’s really easy.” And I said “You know what, I find I resonate more with the Islamic faith. And while I appreciate all faiths of any kind, I feel like Islam was the the right choice for me and I feel more at peace.”
Harv: Before we go any further, you said you faced an Islamophobic attack. Would you want to share a little bit more on that?
Mariam: Yeah for sure, I have shared it many times. So it's, I've experienced Islamophobia on many different levels, mostly microaggressions, but there’s two blatant attacks that happened to me a year apart that really have changed me and my mentality towards the hijab. So I was on the subway, I used to commute from Etobicoke, and I noticed this woman was staring at me in a really weird way. I heard her murmur something but I didn't make much of it. So I said, whatever, I’m just going to go to the door that I get off at and I'm just gonna get ready to get off and change trains. And all of a sudden I felt something wet on my neck.
Elena: Oh my gosh.
Mariam: And I'm like “What is this?” I didn’t touch it, so I just pulled my scarf away from me and I looked and I said, “That's definitely spit.” And she said “Go back to where you came from, you're not, you don't belong here.” I'm like, “Well I'm from Etobicoke, so you want to send me back to Etobicoke, I will surely go to Etobicoke tonight.”
Elena: Actually half an hour away.
Mariam: Yeah, and before I was getting off she started like pulling at my hijab a little bit and luckily I had pins on that didn’t make it fall off because then my hair would show. And luckily the doors to Bloor-Yonge opened so I got out.
Harv: And no one said a word?
Mariam: No one said a word that time. But my second time, somebody said a word. So that time was when I put the hijab back on and this is in the Fall of 2015. And I was with two of my friends, they’re South Asian, visible Muslim—we’re all Muslim actually—and this guy's like “I wish I had a gun so I can shoot you all. You don't deserve to be here.”
Mariam: And I said “What is, what is your problem? Like I didn't say a word to you.” And he seemed a bit drunk so I, even though that's not acceptable, I feel like he was not in his senses. But that time, it was so funny. Imagine this: a white man coming down the car because he saw what was happening and he's wearing a huge cross and he's like, “Don't worry guys, this guy's an idiot. You go back to where you came from, these people deserve to be here as well. And you’re the terrorist, not them.” And so he got off at Spadina and I filed a police report. They didn't find the guy because of course the camera was broken in that car.
Elena: Of course.
Harv: So we are not in as civilized city as we claim to be?
Mariam: Yeah, I would say.
Elena: When someone asks you why you wear your hijab, why, why are they asking this sort of the trying to get at?
Mariam: They’re trying to understand why hijab was said in the Quran to wear. And hijab is not just clothing but it's like your modesty.
Mariam: And modesty comes also from action, right?
So I think people ask me because they're just curious or they’re nosy or they really want to see if I’m oppressed. Because people think they are a part of my liberation when I'm already liberated.
Mariam: And the thing is hijab—while some women are forced to wear it by their families—is a choice. It is a choice of ours and our faith and a cloth is not gonna make me a good or a bad person. You know, it's what's in my heart, what’s in my brain, how I treat people, my work ethic. That's what I'm going to be judged on when I leave this world.
Harv: Let's go one step back, why do you think wearing hijab for you is important? You said it makes you a better Muslim if I heard it correctly.
Mariam: I don't think it makes me a better Muslim.
Harv: Okay, better person, better person.
Mariam: I don't think it makes me a better person either. I just think it's a way for me to proclaim me as a Muslim. And I feel like because I'm representing—“representing” in quotes—a large group of people by wearing this thing around my head and wearing modest clothing, that I need to work on myself and be cognizant of what I'm doing on an everyday basis. I can't just be like, “Oh I don't care, let me do whatever I want today, and I don't care if it affects other people, I just care about what I'm doing.” I’ve become really in tune of how I'm representing my religion.
Elena: On the flip side, when you weren't wearing the hijab, were there ever questions about why you didn't wear it, assumptions about who you were as a Muslim because you were a Muslim but you didn't wear this the signifier, this piece of cloth?
Mariam: Yea, so when I took it off for that eight months, definitely a lot of Muslims asked me the question like, “Why did you take it off?” like, “Are you denouncing Islam?” like, “Are you still a Muslim?” Muslims assume that, “Oh they're not practicing, oh they don't pray, oh they don't fast, oh they might eat pork or they drink alcohol, or they do this.”
Harv: What’s their problem?
Mariam: I don't know!
Mariam: I call them the aunties, the aunties are the ones that think this.
Harv: Aunties as in A-U-N-T-I-E-S?
Mariam: Yeah, aunties as in aunts.
Harv: All right, not A-N-T-I.
Elena: No, not anti.
Mariam: Like the aunties are the ones who, yeah.
Elena: What are the differences other than of course, the different responses you get from friends and family that you've talked about like, what do you, what have you noticed as different between those two experiences?
Mariam: Some of them are like how people treat me at work or how people treat me in general or how they value my opinion, how they include me in settings. It’s as simple as, I noticed when I’m on the GO train, nobody wants to sit beside me.
Elena: Oh my gosh.
Mariam: But which I don't mind because I want the room.
Elena: You know like “Your loss, I get to stretch out my legs.”
Harv: That's the beauty of the subway because a lot of people don't want to sit beside me, but there's so much limited seating that there are more people who just want a seat, they don't get care.
Mariam: Yeah, exactly.
Elena: My gosh.
Harv: I can empathize with that because when I used to take GO bus, I used to get the two seats.
Elena: My gosh. That's wild, that you notice a real difference there.
Harv: Oh god, yes.
Mariam: For sure.
Elena: My gosh.
Harv: This piece of cloth, this is the unifier between the right and the left. I don't know why both sides are so scared of this piece of cloth. If you look at Quebec and France and other Western countries who are vehemently opposed to wear niqab—am I hearing it right, at least that's my belief too—that they are looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't exist?
Harv: And at the same time, we will acknowledge that there will be some people who are being forced to wear that. So, in your opinion, what is the right solution?
Mariam: I think people need to stop policing women's bodies or people of colour’s bodies all the time. Because I just think it's horrible that people can't practice their beliefs or their comfort zone is being compromised because people are not comfortable with them wearing what they wear. Which is horrible, and I think it's, they’re making like something really hot and burning when it's not supposed to be, it's just like lukewarm.
Mariam: That’s my analogy, like you don't need to add fire to anything, or oil to fire like don't do that. There is nothing. It’s just, let them be, let them live with dignity and respect.
Fariha Ahmed: My name is Fariha Ahmed. So one day, I went to my supervisor’s office to ask if I could take some time off to celebrate Eid. It is a religious holiday that Muslims celebrate to commemorate the end of Ramadan. So my supervisor was very surprised that I wanted a day off because they didn’t know I was Muslim. And we eventually stumbled on the topic of headscarves. So my supervisor immediately said to me, “Oh good, you don’t wear one. It doesn’t suit your personality.” That phrase had so many implications behind it, such as, do Muslim women then behave a certain way? Are they more shy? Because I’m a really bubbly person, are they more restricted in some way? Am I therefore not good enough to wear a headscarf?
Elena: We'll be back with Mariam in a second. I'd like to share part of my conversation with Amira Elghawaby. Amira is an expert on issues of media representation, hate crimes and human rights. She's also the former Director of Communications at the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Here's Amira.
Elena: Why do you think someone, specifically a non-Muslim person or non-Muslim woman, might ask that question? Like, what are they getting at?
Amira Elghawaby: So you know, I think I actually would take a step back and say my experience now is that less and less people are asking the question at all. And in fact what I'm feeling is that there is a lot of assumptions that are just being made and left there, due to like the whole change in geopolitics that has occurred in the past 20 years, especially after 9/11. So now, sometimes you know, I feel that people are not asking the questions but certainly looking at me in a sort of a suspicious way, in an uncomfortable way. You know, every single time something happens involving Muslims it's negative. And you know, I always say, it's a little old lady who's giving me stink eye that gives me the impression that I am responsible for every single terrible thing that's ever done by a Muslim.
Amira: Which is very sad and so it's almost like, it’s not that I want an inappropriate question, but I would prefer that people came up to me and ask me to explain to them if they're sincere, so that they they can check their own assumptions, often negative.
Elena: Right, for sure. I wanted to go into some of the assumptions you were talking about, where do you think that might come from?
Amira: Well I mean the truth of the matter is there are countries in the world where Muslim women are forced to wear, you know, burqa. In some countries, like Afghanistan, we know that that was a very, you know, frequent image that we saw and it was horrific. It’s horrific to me. I actually once had a chance to try on one of the actual burqas that were being forced by the Taliban at the time, and it was the most suffocating thing I've ever like, I literally couldn't last like thirty seconds trying it on.
But at the end of the day, what’s very important for me as a human rights advocate to say is that, you know, I very much subscribe to this great saying by an author named Arundhati Roy who said, “It's not about whether or not a woman is wearing a burqa or not. Or headscarf or not. The essential point is, was there coercion? So, to coerce a woman to wear one, is just as bad as to coerce her not to not wear one, as is happening unfortunately in some European countries like France where women are not allowed to wear the headscarf. The idea is that what we should be thinking about as human rights advocates when we answer these questions is that no one should ever be forced to do anything. I mean, I think that's a fundamental, again going back to our general human rights principles, no one should be forced. And that's very much in line with my faith. That's very much in line with Islam. But as I said, going back to these images of burqas and women being forced, and women in Iran who are forced to wear it, you know against their will. And so for me, I totally understand people will have these assumptions. You know, especially when that’s often very frequently portrayed in pop culture. You know, these all, you know, leave a lasting impression. And I appreciate the opportunity to explain that again, when people want to know. Because of course, what they see on TV, what they see happening in certain countries where people are being forced to do something, I can understand that they would, that they might have that assumption.
Elena: Right. You're talking a lot about the change after 9/11. And I think most of us probably have some knowledge about what that entails, but do you want to just expand a bit more on how things have changed for Muslim women and for that kind of visibility after in the wake of 9/11?
Amira: Well yeah, I mean, I know that maybe some of your audience won't remember those days.
Elena: Fricking Gen Z or whatever.
Amira: I don't know, I don’t know. But so, just to say I mean basically obviously it was a horrific tragedy when 9/11 happened in New York. And it was very much a time of fear, of heightened anxiety. You know, women in headscarves were being verbally assaulted, assaulted. There were all sorts of negativity obviously, and none of that has really gone away. Many, many studies now have demonstrated that any terrorism related to, you know, where a Muslim may have been implicated, is far more likely to be reported on than any other kind of extremist activity like the alt-right or white supremacy. So in the public mind, I think one study demonstrated like, of all of the stories where 6% of the perpetrators were Muslim, the coverage was 86%, of all the coverage was about that 6% where Muslims were implicated. So in the public mind, it's like, “Whoa, all the bad stuff is happening and being committed by Muslims.” Versus like, being more balanced. It’s really, there's a lot of, you know, extremist activity that happens by all sorts of groups in our society unfortunately. But the one that gets the most sensationalized attention is Muslims. And so again, we as Muslim women who wear the headscarf, we carry that every time we step out of our house.
Elena: Right. Does culture or race really impact these assumptions?
Amira: Absolutely. I think there is, there are so many, so many layers and intersectionalities when we're talking about these types of issues. Like my head actually start spinning when I think about it. There's so much at play. Not only do we think about how Muslim women who wear a headscarf are interacting with, sort of, the general public. But also within our own Muslim communities, there's a lot of assumptions even there. There's unfortunately a lot of racism and intercommunity racism, anti-Black racism is an issue as well. So that adds some discomfort among Muslim women who are Black and who are a significant portion of our communities. And how they're interacting within the community and then also beyond, and they're facing both Islamophobia as well as anti-Black racism.
Elena: In your opinion, are questions like this about the headscarf inappropriate questions?
Amira: Inappropriate questions are those that are asked in a hateful, hurtful way. But the ones that are asked out of having a true sense of wanting to know, and better understand, and to be a better ally, I think those are always welcome. And I think we need to encourage people to ask them more and to strike up true, sincere conversations.
Voice 3 [Ayesha]: The conventional idea of who is a Muslim or what does a Muslim look like is built up a lot in people’s head, especially in the Western world. And something that I think also gets misconstrued a lot is the origin of women actually having to cover their heads. So, a lot of research has actually shown that it’s not an Islamic convention per se, it’s actually pre-Islamic, and we see this a lot with Christian nuns and Orthodox Jewish women as well. I think people also have an archetypal vision of a bearded man and veiled woman, and a lot of that is thanks to our media. So I think both the news and big budget Hollywood movies and TV shows, they just perpetuate this image. So sometimes when you don’t fit that vision, people get really confused. You know, the binaries drawn by so many people are just so easy. Like the West as being this holy grail of modernity, and feminism, and human rights. And Islam, all Muslims around the world, being backward and patriarchal.
Elena: We're back with Mariam Nouser. You started a brand called Infinitely Classic, which say you makes ethical clothing featuring Arabic text. What made you want to start this business?
Mariam: That had to do with my Muslim identity. As being an Arab Canadian, I wanted something to have the language of the Quran and have words that are in the Quran, on my shirts. Not all the shirts have it, but I wanted shirt that kind of had it. So my very popular one is my hope shirt, “Amal”. It’s like a geometric Islamic design, it has a pop like really bright colors. “Horeya”, which is freedom. We talk about freedom in many things that we do nowadays. “Iman”, which is faith. Those are like my top three that I sell.
Mariam: I wanted to empower people like myself to be proud of their roots and where they feel like they belong in the fashion world.
Elena: That's awesome.
Elena: Have you seen more Muslim women become part of the fashion world?
Mariam: Hijab fashion has become so big on Instagram, on YouTube. There are so many hijabi bloggers now, that it's become the norm for Muslim women to wear the hijab now.
Harv: Hm. I would I never thought of that.
Elena: Yeah, that's really interesting.
Mariam: It's a huge, huge industry now. If I’m not mistaken, it’s worth a billion dollars.
Harv: We could have built some wall with that money.
Elena: Wow, that’s so, so much irony going on right there, can you imagine—
Mariam: Imagine Trump hearing that right now, and be like…
Elena: “Oh, damnit.” Is there almost like an inverse pressure coming there? From, because we all face pressure from social media, except for Harv who got Instagram like two weeks ago.
Mariam: Congratulations, welcome to the world of Instagram.
Elena: Is that becoming almost a new factor in, you know, people's choice?
Mariam: Oh, for sure. A 100%.
Elena: A player in this kind of conversation of being forced, right?
Harv: And what choice?
Mariam: Both, I think it's both. Because just a lot of hijabi bloggers that, you know, are so popular. They have great lives that they show, they have great lives—it may not be true—but on Instagram and YouTube and people want to be just like them. So they're like, “Oh, I'm gonna wear hijab, I'm gonna do this, do that.” And at the same time there is a bunch of hijabi bloggers who took their hijab off recently, and people are feeling uplifted to take it off because it wasn’t their choice to wear it in the beginning.
Mariam: So I think it's a good thing in the sense that people are feeling empowered to choose whether they want to wear it or don't want to wear it. But at the same time it's also forcing girls to fit an ideal within their communities. That “Hey I am, I gotta be visibly Muslim” or “Hey, I don't got to be visibly Muslim.” It’s definitely 50/50 on that one.
Harv: Given the situation where we are today, with the all the hatred, with all those negative things, it’s not lukewarm. Let's face it. And some people who are appearing to be civilized inside, there are not civilized. So what would be your prescription? Other than people listening to our podcast.
Elena: Yes, yes, solve the world.
Mariam: Definitely listening. People first need to be willing to learn and unlearn bad behaviors and bad thoughts. It’s definitely hard because Islamophobia is rooted in so many other different forms of oppression.
Mariam: Anti-Black racism, other forms of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia. Because there are trans Muslims that we can't forget about. There are queer Muslims as well. And I feel like the work cannot be done just by those who are being oppressed. It's not up to us to be liberated. Or like, we shouldn't be putting our liberation in the hands of others. And we shouldn't be working for others just so they can accept us.
I get tired of explaining to people time and time and time again why I deserve to be at peace in my existence. And I think it's important for us to challenge our governments and challenge the society norms because most people are sheep. And they're gonna follow whatever is around them, so I feel like they need to see that this change happening on a grassroots, on an organizational level rather than just what are other people doing. People need to be led by example sadly, and it's a, it's a hard topic deeply rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy.
If you're looking for stuff more about Islam, look for resources that are made by Muslims. Research is definitely your best friend. Back in school they would say, try to work on the problem yourself. And if not, then you go ask for help, right?
Elena: Yeah, yeah.
Mariam: Same idea. You know, you're going to work on it yourself, then ask for help because some people don't like being asked questions.
Mariam: And some people feel like they're being like a taken advantage of, and you don't want to spark that emotion in anybody.
Elena: Right yeah. To end off going back to the questions we’re talking about, are these inappropriate questions?
Mariam: Half of me wants to say “Yeah, hell yeah, it is inappropriate”. But the other half is like, if somebody is really curious and wants to learn, then I'm okay with it. I really wish more people were well-intended and wanted to learn and want to ask questions.
Mariam: So I'm about fifty fifty on that. I think it's half inappropriate, half… I don't think it's appropriate, but I think it's half inappropriate, half tolerable, I’ll say.
Elena: Oh my gosh, we should just sell shirts with that.
Elena: We can partner up with Infinitely Classic.
Mariam: Definitely, yeah.
Elena: Where can our listeners find you? On social media or anywhere else, anything you’d like to plug?
Mariam: So I have a Facebook page, Mariam Nouser. N-O-U-S-E-R is my last name. Mariam with an “i”. And @mariamnouser both for Instagram and Twitter.
Elena: And your brand, your clothing brand.
Mariam: Yeah, everywhere. Infinitely Classic is on my website, infinitelyclassic.com. Infinitely Classic on Facebook and on Instagram, I don’t have a Twitter for that one.
Harv: Amazing, amazing.
Elena: Thanks so much for being here Mariam.
Mariam: Thank you.
Harv: It was a pleasure talking to you.
Mariam: You too.
[Theme music up]
Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadhwa.
Elena: And I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.
Harv: Thanks for getting inappropriate with us!
Elena: Thank you to our guests Mariam Nouser and Amira Elghawaby. You also heard voicenotes from Fariha Ahmed and Ayesha Talreja. As always, make sure to check out the accompanying webcomic for this episode at iqpodcast.com. This episode, it was illustrated by Nasima. You can find her @moosleemargh, that’s M-O-O-S-L-E-E-M-A-R-G-H on Instagram. Follow us on all the socials @IQ_Podcast and talk to us!
Harv: We want to hear from you!
Elena: The cool cats behind this podcast are Sabrina Bertsch, Erin Guerette, Cindy Long and myself.
Harv: And thank you to our interns and associates Nuha Khan, Pia Araneta, Fariha Ahmed and Hailey Krychman. We are supported by the Ryerson University Transmedia Zone.
Elena: An inappropriate question is like thinking it’s Saturday when it’s actually Sunday.