Teta Alim tells her experience on how she started wearing hijab in America.
Words by Whiteboard Journal
Ten years ago, I stood in front of a mirror and took a deep breath. I glared at my pimply, brown skin, my unruly, thick hair, and my round, pesek nose weighing down my face.
Finally, I can be free of this, I thought. And I slipped on my hijab.
It was the first day of my first year in high school. I lived in a small town in New York – not the city, the state – so I was going to be the only hijabi in the entire school.
I grew up in a town surrounded by tumbling, crystal-clear waterfalls and rolling hills that would burst into reds and oranges in the fall and become coated in white in the winter.
That whiteness extended to most of the town’s residents; it was a whiteness that wasn’t particularly threatening or hateful, but it was selective, critical – my brownness was inspected and dissected under a microscope at all times.
By the time I was 14, I had gotten used to being the only Indonesian in my grade. Most of my friends were white, so I was used to the, “Hey, my skin’s as tan as yours!” after every summer break and the mispronunciations of my simple, four-letter name.
Still, it’s not like I ever wanted to be embraced by whiteness. I just wanted my brownness to feel like less of a weight I couldn’t carry because I had been fed mixed messages about what it means to be in America, from ibu, from my schools, from my peers.
I just wanted to fit into my brown skin, but then, I had felt so small, misshapen and ugly, not good enough for any kind of skin.
I decided to wear the hijab not out of love for God, but out of love for my self-preservation, out of the need to find a covering that would bring me purpose, hide my ugliness, and rebuild a self-esteem that had been weathered down to dust. I wanted the hijab to reinvent myself, to be a person of worth.
Because without the scarf holding me together, I would crumble into nothing.
Six years ago, smoke filled my lungs as I sat cross-legged on the floor of a play structure at an empty park. The noises of the city weren’t too far away; U Street was a couple of blocks up and it was a Friday night. I tried not to cough, but it was my first time, so I ended up coughing for five minutes.
The people I were with, my new-found friends, laughed kindheartedly. The girl took the bowl from me and relit it, inhaling and exhaling expertly. She attempted a couple rings, but mostly the smoke just curled out elegantly, melting into the night sky. She looked relaxed, lids just barely open, red lipstick starting to fade.
The boy, her friend, was more on edge, peering about, looking over his shoulder, before taking the bowl from her and packing it again. She laughed at his furtive movements and ruffled his hair. He gave her a look, eyes already stained red.
“Relax. No one’s here,” she said, her speech unhurried as she unraveled herself on the structure, taking off her sandals and making a pillow out of the light jacket she had brought with her.
I met the pair five hours earlier, at a more official event. Hours before that, I had just stepped off the bus in D.C. for the first time by myself. I made my way to the dorms, met my roommate briefly, and then arrived at the ceremony for 17 Agustus celebrations.
That day, I’d decided to try a new hijab look, more of a head wrap style. I’d worn the hijab “normally” in high school, without any fanfare or panache. But I was starting college, in a new city, with new people – why not reinvent myself (again)?
The head wrap style also freed my neck to the breeze and D.C. was much more humid than I expected, my sweat starting to form a thin layer on my skin. I still didn’t really know how to style myself, but I liked how the head wrap looked, a point of interest in contrast to my plain face.
The ceremony was mostly in Indonesian; I tried to follow along, but the language was formal and unfamiliar. I kept my eyes down most of the time – I could feel the eyes of other Indonesian aunties around me, quizzical, evaluating. Everyone else seemed to know each other, but I knew no one. I came at my parents’ suggestion; they were so excited I was going to be in a city with a sizable Indonesian community. Much different from the town where I had grown up.
But as I looked around, noticing how people were already grouped together, laughing, sharing food — it didn’t look like there would be space for me. And when I’d gotten es buah earlier, the aunty greeted me and spoke to me in English – I did not register as someone who was Indonesian like her.
As I thought about how maybe I should’ve just worn the hijab regularly instead of a head wrap – maybe I’ll look more Indonesian? – someone next to me said, “I like your head wrap. Your style’s pretty cool.”
I looked up. The girl smiled, red lips matching her red batik dress. Her smooth hair fell like a curtain of silk across her shoulders. She stuck out her hand. I shook it with my clammy fingers.
“You new here?”
“Oh, cool. Where you from?”
I paused. Do I say Jakarta? But, I was just born there; I never actually grew up there. That’s where I’m from from, as they say. I grew up in upstate New York, in a small town surrounded by green hills and an ice-blue lake. But even though I grew up there, was that home? My parents were there, I made friends there, but did I belong?
“New York. The state, not the city,” I conceded.
For whatever reason, this girl who seemed so put-together, so polished – I wanted to be her – thought I was interesting enough to keep talking to and she ended up inviting me to hang out with her and her friend. She was also born in Jakarta but grew up in the D.C. area, surrounded by Indonesians. And I wondered if her certainty had to do with knowing she had a community, knowing she had a place.
It wasn’t until it was night and we were smoking on a playground that I finally got the nerve to ask what it was like to grow up in an Indonesian community.
The girl and her friend exchanged looks and they burst out laughing. They had grown up with each other and shared the same friends; their parents knew each other.
“It’s…well…It’s interesting,” he started.
“It was helpful because experiences that we had as Indonesians growing up in America – we could relate to each other and support each other. I mean, obviously it’s hard because aunties and uncles stick their noses into everything but…”
“We got each other.”
The bowl was in my hands again. I inhaled deeply and this time, I only coughed for two minutes.
Two months ago, I sat in the backseat of a ride-share car, heading home after a night out with my best friends. As I rested my chin on the open window, letting the night air kiss my face and ruffle my scarf, I could feel the eyes of the driver on me.
He cleared his throat. “Your head wrap…are you Muslim?”
I continued to look out the window, hand surfing the breeze, glowing orange under the passing street lights.
He made a satisfied hum. “Assalamualaikum then. It’s nice, how you wear it. You know, some women, they wear it for fashion. It’s not right.”
I was still feeling generous – I hadn’t seen my friends for so long because of work and just being around them energized me, gave me the strength to carry the weight of my scarf, my brown skin, even the gaze of men who laid all their expectations and assumptions on me.
“Do you wear the hijab?” I asked.
He snorted, pushing on the gas to make it past the yellow light. “Of course not.”
“Then, perhaps it’s better to not make assumptions of those who do. Sometimes people wear hijabs, sometimes they don’t. Maybe I wear it for fashion.”
“No, you look like a good Muslim girl.”
I sighed heavily into the night. I wanted to throw my scarf at him, or roll out into traffic. It’s taken me ten years to make peace with my hijab, this piece of cloth I chose to use as a Band-Aid to cover my insecurities, my shame, my hatred for myself. By now, it had become a second skin, but it was a tenuous thread that connected me to a higher power.
“You’re mistaken, brother. Please keep your unsolicited judgments about people who do or do not wear hijabs to yourself.” And just for fun, I added, “I’ll make dua for you, brother, that God will open your mind and that you will think about what you say before you say it.”
I held my breath; for a split-second, his brow furrowed, but at this point, we were less than a mile from my apartment. I could jump out of the car and walk the rest of the way home. But then, his face relaxed and he let out a small chuckle. He was silent for the rest of the ride, and when he dropped me off at the entrance, he told me to have a good night.
When I got to my room, I threw off my scarf and clothes and jumped into bed. The window was still open from this morning, letting the night air weave into my room and settle into my sheets.
Ten years later, there are a lot of things I’m still unsure about, but there are some things I believe with absolute certainty. I’m unsure about whether I needed the hijab to learn that I belong in my brown skin, but I am sure that it has become an important part of my journey – it wouldn’t be my journey without it. I’m also sure that I will always be enough for myself and whenever I feel I have too much weight to carry, I can count on my chosen community to be there for me.
So, here’s to ten more years of self-discovery. May we continue to explore the covers that contain us, in all of our fragility and complexities.
“(Un)covering” dari Teta Alim disubmit melalui program Open Column. Jika ingin menjadi bagian dari program ini, klik tautan berikut: Whiteboard Journal Open Column Program.