Opinion: Empathy is key to the hijabi experience

You’re reading She, a series of opinions during Women’s History Month explaining the various issues that women face.

What does being a hijabi really mean? This question is intensely personal for me, since I have been a hijabi for nine years.

Hijabis are already comfortable with who we are. But we’re waiting on others to feel the same way. Some people approach us awkwardly or as if they are confronting us. 

I’m not saying to avoid speaking to hijabis, I’m saying be empathetic and thoughtful in the way you approach a hijabi if you have a question. Understanding what the hijab is and how to approach hijabis is an important step in fostering an inclusive community at UTA.  

In the simplest terms, a hijabi is a Muslim woman or girl who wears the head covering called a hijab. A hijab is the head-covering, and a hijabi is the woman who wears the head covering.   

I know at least one of you reading this has come across a hijabi on campus. About 38% of Muslim women in the U.S. wear the hijab in public at all times, according to a Pew Research Center survey.  

You probably don’t know how it feels as a hijabi to be the odd one out, especially in a classroom. You may not know the feeling of having to mentally prepare yourself each time before entering a classroom. Or purposely choosing to sit in the back corner desk so no one points you out. Or always being fearful of what students or professors might ask or say to you.

Even on days when I want to lay low or am not in the mood to deal with commentary, I feel like I’m being spotlighted. Since the hijab is expressed outwardly and visibly, hijabis have no control over how others might regard us.

It’s like the elephant in the room. 

But the elephant is my hijab. 

My favorite example was when a teacher directed the attention of the class toward me and asked, “Do you wear a gold medal under there?” 

That encounter made me feel uncomfortable and out of place. As a student, the last thing you want is to be pointed out by the teacher and have the whole class staring at you. It’s a feeling you have no control over. 

“My presence felt like a never-ending public service announcement,” hijabi journalist Saba Ali wrote in an article for The Washington Post. 

Being a hijabi feels exactly like that. 

Another example is when a professor asked me how it felt to be judged all the time. She assumed that I could speak for all hijabis. 

I stayed quiet for a little. Then I said each hijabi has their own personal experiences so I can’t speak for them.

In my experience, there are three ways you can be empathetic when speaking with a hijabi.

One, let her be in control of the conversation. If she wants to speak about her hijab, she will. Two, if you have a question about her hijab wait until after class to ask her. Most of the time she would be happy to answer any questions about her hijab. And three, have empathy.

Empathy means stepping into another person’s shoes and understanding or being aware of and being sensitive to the experience of others. Listening with empathy is an integral part of an inclusive culture, according to a Forbes article.  

Simply asking, “Can I ask you a question about your hijab?” makes such a difference. 

An example of when I felt in control of a conversation about the hijab is a time in one of my social work classes. My social work professor created an open and comfortable dialogue where anyone who wanted to speak could choose to do so.

I felt comfortable speaking because my professor created an open discussion. He was empathetic toward what anyone had to say and took the time to listen.

That was one of the only times I ever spoke about my hijab in a classroom.

That is what also led me to create Journal Hijabi, a podcast where I choose to speak about the hijab, my experiences and how they empower me. The hijab doesn’t always involve backlash or judgment.  

I’m proud of my hijab.

In the end, all it takes is empathy and an open dialogue where you can choose whether or not you want to speak to foster a more inclusive community at UTA.  


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