HOUSTON – For Sajida Zaidi, a recent Starbucks run netted much more than a caffeine fix.
“I was going through the drive thru near my house and there was a young guy working there, and the first thing he said when he saw me was ‘Your hijab is fierce,’’ Zaidi recounted to AboutIslam.net.
Fierce is not a usual reaction Zaidi gets to her hijab, though she admitted the white leopard print one she was wearing that day is eye catching.
“I just smiled and told him ‘Thank you. It’s my favorite’” she said.
Zaidi’s response to the compliment of her hijab is representative of how she believes American Muslim hijabi women can be confident in their choice to wear the Islamic head covering and wear it with pride.
As a long-time wearer of hijab – the 35-year-old Texan has donned the headscarf since she was seven – Zaidi speaks from experience. Her perspective is also shaped by her decision to continue wearing the hijab while navigating corporate America.
Zaidi works as a senior manager for Accenture, a global consulting firm. She is part of the company’s managing consulting group and specializes in helping energy companies with system integration and project management.
As a hijab-wearing woman in America and one who, as part of her job, is often thrust into working relationships with new people, she is constantly reminded of the power of her hijab and the responsibility she has because of it.
“Hijab commands the attention in the room whether I want it to or not, so the question for me is, ‘What am I going to do with that attention?’” Zaidi said.
She stressed that it’s important for hijabi women and girls to take full ownership of their headscarf and what it represents and conveys to those around them.
“I know some girls who wear hijab who don’t respond well to the attention and sometimes won’t talk to people or look them in the eye,” she said.
“Doing things like that gives people the wrong impression of Muslim women. I feel like if I’m going to wear hijab and get that attention from people then I’m going to own it.”
For Zaidi, “owning it” means doing her best to take control of people’s reaction to her and smashing some of the negative stereotypes people might have.
“I’m not going to release my control over what people think of me,” Zaidi said.
“In fact, I’m going to make sure that when people look at me they see something completely different than what their intuition tells them to see.”
So what exactly does Zaidi want to convey by her behavior? For her, she said commanding respect is paramount. However, she realizes that her expectations go both ways and she plays a role, as well.
“I realize that people are paying attention to me, so I’m going to make sure I am doing something good with that attention,” she said.
“I want people to respect me for who I am and not what I look like, so I make sure that I give respect to get respect. I also know I have to be kind because I expect kindness from others.”
Zaidi admitted her confidence and ability to brush off any negative stares – or even not notice them – has been a bit easier for her than for some members of her family. She recounted a time when her two brothers visited her during a working trip to New York City.
“We were walking in Central Park and my brothers were annoyed because so many people were looking at me,” she recalled.
“First of all, I barely notice it, but if I do I look at it as an opportunity because by wearing hijab you are putting yourself out there so you have to be cognizant of that and you’ve got to make sure that you respond to the attention in the right way.”
However, Zaidi admits that even a good and confident attitude to wearing hijab does not completely shield her from negative experiences.
Once, when waiting for a connecting flight in Colorado, she was approached by a crew of airport security who asked if they might search her carry-on bags. As expected, the request drew a lot of attention from her fellow air travelers, and this time the attention was harder to deal with.
“It was really strange because security approached me in front of everyone at the gate, and I was pretty embarrassed and freaked out,” she said.
“Then I saw everyone staring at me so I tried to be calm and act normal.”
Based on that experience and in talking to other Muslim women who wear the hijab, Zaidi realizes that many of her fellow hijabis have a hard time with the attention, particularly the negative attention, their headscarves sometimes bring. However, she said it’s still important to try and present an air of positivity even if you can only muster a smile.
“When you wear hijab you are like a beacon walking around and some people might expect you to run away from then, not speak to them or even be sad,” she said.
“But a smile can make a big difference. It can diffuse so much of what people might be thinking of you without you even uttering a word.”