Bangladeshi-American activist Nazma Khan is the trailblazer behind World Hijab Day (WHD) which takes place yearly on February 1. Her experiences of prejudice and harassment growing up in New York City, especially post 9/11, inspired Khan to create WHD. The goal of this annual awareness event is to educate others and peacefully fight bigotry and discrimination against all Muslims.
February 1, 2018, will mark the sixth year of women of all faiths donning a hijab in solidarity with their Muslim sisters. More and more Muslim women are being attacked or harassed for wearing the hijab so it is an eye-opening experience for others.
Khan’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. WHD is not only an event, but an international phenomenon consisting of thousands of volunteers, 70+ ambassadors from over 45 countries, endorsements from politicians, scholars, and celebrities, and attention from mainstream media like Time Magazine and CNN. New York State Senator, Roxanne J. Persaud, is also a supporter of WHD.
“It is said that “knowledge is power”: World Hijab Day presents an opportunity for us to learn about this religious custom, thus leading to less discrimination for the women who wear Hijab.” Persaud said. “I call everyone to demonstrate religious freedom by exercising tolerance and embracing the richness that diversity brings. When we show tolerance we recognize universal human rights and the fundamental freedoms of others. Our commitment to religious freedom must be congruent with our actions: We need to stand together to counter religious intolerance and hate.”
We had the pleasure of chatting with Khan to get to know more about WHD, her story and advice she might have to offer to other Muslim women and their struggles.
The Teal Mango: How did you come up with the idea to create an awareness day? What obstacles did you face during the conception of this event?
Nazma Khan: Right after I graduated from University, I started an online hijab business in 2010. I just didn’t want to sell headscarves. I wanted to connect and be there for my sisters who were going through a hard time due to their hijab. So, through social media platforms, I asked sisters to share their stories with me. I received stories from all over the world. As I read through the stories, I saw my own struggles in my sisters. I faced many hardships due to my hijab growing up in New York City.
I was constantly bullied in middle school and high school. Discrimination took on a different height after 9/11. Every day, I would face different challenges just walking on the street; I was chased, spit on, surrounded by men, called a terrorist, Osama bin Laden, etc. So, after reading all the stories from sisters, I felt extremely sad and wanted to help them. I thought to myself, if I could invite sisters from all faiths and backgrounds to walk in my shoes just for a day, perhaps things would change. That’s when the idea of World Hijab Day came to my mind.
By walking in my shoes for one day on February 1st, women would see that I am no different from them. I am a human being just like them and get a glimpse of the things I face on a daily basis. Perhaps, this one day experience will make them see the hijab in a different light.
TTM: What events take place on this day?
Khan: This is the day women from all walks of life wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women worldwide. In addition, there are many physical World Hijab Day events organized by volunteers throughout the world. The purpose of these events is to educate people about the hijab. These events take place in churches, mosques, universities, parliaments, hospitals, streets, etc.
TTM: How has the response been from politicians you’ve approached for support?
Khan: Politicians have been very supportive here in the US and overseas. For example, the New York State Senate passed a law to recognize February 1, 2017, as “Hijab Day” for the State of New York. In addition, in 2017, the House of Commons of the United Kingdom hosted World Hijab Day where the Prime Minister Theresa May was present. This year, the Scottish Parliament is hosting three day World Hijab Day exhibition.
TTM: What steps did you take to bring a global appeal to this movement? How did you get support internationally?
Khan: We started our movement on social media and it spread like wildfire.
TTM: What type of response have you gotten from non-Muslims who take part in the event? What is something they are shocked to learn about? What kind of response have you seen from others?
Khan: The responses from non-Muslim participants were overwhelmingly positive. Many of them were shocked to find out how comfortable and beautiful they felt in the hijab. And, they definitely didn’t feel oppressed by the hijab.
In general, the responses were positive and supportive. However, we were bit shocked by seeing some negative attacks on our twitter posts which we haven’t really seen in the past years. Perhaps, it’s due to the current political climate.
TTM: How do you educate men and women on the significance behind the hijab?
Khan: We try to educate people by sharing true stories of Muslim women who wear the hijab from all over the world. These stories are very different from what you read in the newspaper. If you want to know the truth about hijab, you have to go to the direct source: Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab.
TTM: As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, how would you respond to someone who asks if you are oppressed?
Khan: I wear the hijab by choice. No one forced me to wear the hijab. What would be oppressing is if someone asks me to remove my hijab.
TTM: Some Muslim women are rethinking wearing the hijab with Islamophobia on the rise. How do you personally keep your faith from shattering?
Khan: Hate has always existed and will continue to exist. The real question is do we give in to this hate? When we ask others to wear the hijab, they will see that under the scarf we are all the same. The other side of danger is peace; we face it head-on.
TTM: How would you advise other sisters who face discrimination or harassment due to their hijab? What positive words do you have for them?
Khan: Remember, you don’t stop being yourself because of the outside noise. When you start wearing the hijab, you might come across a lot of judgments but remind yourself of your intention and who you’re doing it for.