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I Took Off My Hijab...

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Leena Suleiman

...by adding more layers -- a knit hat and a scarf around my neck, to be exact.

I didn't understand what was happening at first. People started talking to me more. Women would speak to me like I'd known them forever. Men would look at me like I was actually approachable. And I was made to feel like I was actually from this planet.

Maybe I was finally fitting in? Maybe I was no longer self-conscious about my unique dress code and my face lacking makeup?

But then it became fishy. The Muslim taxi drivers, who would almost always say "assalamu alaikum" and ask me where I'm from or if I'm single and refuse to allow me to pay for the fare, became cold and dry. I would simply give the address, and the only dialog thereafter would be at the time of payment. It was puzzling.

I started to reevaluate my character. Had I become unfriendly? Arrogant? But other people had become even nicer to me. I couldn't figure it out -- until, on my walk to work, I started passing by hijabis who wouldn't acknowledge my existence. Here is the unspoken code between hijabis: One stares until the other notices, and then both exchange salams. But it was now as if I were just another passerby, with no significance to the wrap around my head.

The wrap around my head.

Then it hit me: My knit hat and winter scarf covered my hijab entirely, and all that was visible was my eyes behind my wannabe-hipster glasses, and my skinny jeans tucked into my boots. They didn't even know I was Muslim.

I found this realization absolutely hilarious, and entertaining. I started paying more attention to the differences in the ways people treated me. It was fun feeling like everyone around me believed I belonged in their culture by default, and not to some grudgingly accepted piece of the diversity pie. It was a good feeling. I secretly started looking forward to venturing out into the cold to further explore what it means to be "normal."

I became even more confident walking in my city. My city. All the stares were not racialized anymore. I was addressed as "lady" and "little lady," something I had never heard before. Men would hold doors for me. Women would crack jokes with me. I became respectable, lovable, and accepted.

But did that mean that with my hijab I am not as respectable? Not as lovable? Not to be accepted? I immediately began to despise the inequality, and it dawned on me that I was now acting like someone who had been bullied for years and had finally been accepted by the mean girls. In fact, nothing had changed; I had simply crossed over to another world for one season.

The power of this experience lies in the fact that it was not an intentional experiment. It happened simply because of the Chiberian weather, which required me to cover as much of my body as possible with warm pieces of cloth. Apparently, the type of cloth you place or wrap around your head defines how you will be treated.

I had never realized that with my hijab, I am given less respect and love and am not as accepted. I had always thought that the type of treatment I am exposed to is just how the world is. I didn't know that people could be nicer.

Thank you, winter. Thank you, subzero temperatures.

I pray that one day, and soon, people will be familiar enough with all other cultures and beliefs that they are not afraid and do not have reservations, and that the thing that stands out to them is not the wrap around my head but the smile on my face.

This blog post originally appeared on Leena's personal blog.