Nada Dibas had just finished wrapping a hijab with white and red flowers on Nina Harris, a non-Muslim student, when she smiled at her and said, “you look so beautiful.”
It wasn’t a sign of disrespect or appropriation. On the contrary, Harris was proudly wearing the hijab in solidarity with Muslim students across Southwestern College in honor of World Hijab Day on Feb. 1. World Hijab Day is a day to honor Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. It promotes religious tolerance and it invites non-Muslim women to experience what it’s like to wear the hijab.
Dibas, Southwestern College’s Muslim Student Association president, organized the event along Jaguar Walk and invited non-Muslim women to share in the experience of wearing the Islamic headscarf. For Dibas, wrapping hijabs around other female students was her way to empower their solidarity and to help shed misconceptions about the hijab and Muslims.
“Some women would come and try on a hijab and would just smile when they would see themselves,” Dibas said. “It warmed my heart to see women wear it in solidarity and ask questions about it.”
The Southwestern College Muslim Student Association (MSA) is an organization that provides a safe haven for all Muslim students on campus, and it provides a space for non-Muslim students to show their support and solidarity. The MSA hosts events, like World Hijab Day, to spread awareness of Muslims at Southwestern College, to give those Muslims a voice and to respectfully debunk common Muslim misconceptions.
“Muslims aren’t strangers,” Dibas said. “They’re not foreigners. Many of us are Americans. We’re just here like any other student, trying to get an education. Like others, we too have hopes and dreams.”
For World Hijab Day, Dibas brought in more than two dozen of her own personal hijabs (“It’s not even half the collection,” she joked) and offered to personally wrap them on her fellow female students. In addition to lending out her personal hijabs, Dibas and other members of the MSA answered questions about their religion. They provided information on the MSA and handed out a Q&A brochure on the hijab.
“We felt that it was really important, especially because of the negative rhetoric around Muslims right now,” she said. “Some people just don’t know. They’ve never met a Muslim, so we’re here saying ‘hi’ and answering questions.”
The hijab isn’t just a piece of clothing. It’s a lifestyle for Muslim women and many choose to wear it for different reasons. Donning the hijab is a personal and religious decision that honors their beliefs. It helps give them an identity as a Muslim woman to the rest of the world. For some women, the hijab downplays the importance of physical appearance and makes people value them for their mind, not their body. It’s also a symbol that they follow a lifestyle set out by their religion and the Qur’an that enforces values like being humble and kind.
“For me, I wear it as a devotion to my religion and as a devotion to God,” Dibas said. “Secondly, I feel liberated by the fact that I don’t have to reveal my body the way society expects me to. It also liberates me by knowing that my vision of beauty doesn’t have to comply with society’s. I can be beautiful without dressing the way the magazines tell me to. I can be my own version of beautiful. That’s empowering.”
Melissa Belen-Gonzalez is one of the most dedicated members of the MSA, Dibas said. Belen-Gonzalez, however, isn’t Muslim, but she joined the MSA to show her support to her friends. She wore her first hijab on World Hijab Day.
“It was a way to show that no matter what religion or race you associate with, it’s not hard to be respectful of other religions or cultures, even if you don’t know a lot about it,” Belen-Gonzalez said. “Everyone should keep an open mind. It’s not difficult to ask questions. They’re so open and friendly. They just want people to see them as human beings.”