Nadia El-Awady, who you’ll recall as a science writer in Egypt who helped chronicle the revolution from Tahrir Square (she’s also organizing this year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha), tried an experiment:
I experimented last week. I took off my hijab — the headscarf many Muslim women wear to cover their hair.
I have been wearing a headscarf when I leave the privacy of my home for 25 years, since I was 17. That’s a long long time in human years.
I took my hijab off during a recent trip to Europe. I wanted to know what it would feel like. I wanted to know how people’s perceptions of me would change and how my perception of myself would change. …
I went to the breakfast hall and immediately felt that I was invisible. I had become accustomed to being noticed — just ever so slightly — as a woman wearing hijab in Europe. It was usually more evident in the breakfast hall in hotels: a woman wearing the hijab, walking into the restaurant all alone. It’s not all that common as you can imagine. For the first time in my traveling years, I wasn’t noticed. And I IMMEDIATELY missed the attention. I was a bit hurt, I must admit. …
It really was an interesting experience. When I started comparing how I thought I was perceived without the hijab and how I thought I was perceived with it, I truly could not find any significant difference. That completely shocked me. Apart from that one feeling of relative invisibility and lack of attention at the hotel breakfast hall, I was pretty much invisible no matter what I wore when I went out. I even tried wearing a short dress and heels. Nothing.
No matter what I wore, there were still the rude people, the nice people, and the we-could-care-less people. …
Two things did happen as I walked around these two European cities without the head scarf. But they were internal.
I felt that a Nadia I had known years ago reappeared. It was high school Nadia. Nadia before the hijab. It wasn’t that I had felt young again. It was more like I had figuratively peeled away some layers to bring back a person I was many many years ago. It was refreshing.
I also felt more feminine than I believe I’ve ever felt in my life. I felt more of a woman. Not that people reacted to me as more of a woman. But that I internally felt more feminine. It was exciting.
There’s more, and I encourage you to read it over at her place. It’s a fascinating and personal exploration of the reasons why women take the hijab off, but also the reasons why they put it (back) on.