When I came to this country, I took off my hijab. It wasn't an easy decision. I worried at night that God would punish me for it. That's what I had been taught would happen, and it filled me with fear.
I was 27, coming from my home country of Iraq to study in California. I hoped that by taking off the hijab I had been wearing for eight years, I would be able to maintain a low profile. In Baghdad, you keep a low profile to stay alive. But in the United States, I merely wanted not to be judged.
Still, I was filled with anxiety. As I flew toward the United States, I wondered how I would feel when the moment came to appear with my head uncovered.
I knew, of course, that most women in the United States didn't cover their heads. Despite that, I worried that my appearance would draw attention. I was going to stand bare in front of everyone. My neck, my hair, the top of my chest would all be exposed. This might (or might not) go unnoticed by others, but I would be keenly aware of it. I didn't know if I was ready to handle this feeling.
When I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, at the end of the first leg of my journey, my head was still covered. I let my hair out briefly, but then I covered it again, unsure of myself. I packed the hijab away for good when I arrived at Denver International Airport.
I had talked with my parents about the fact that I might take off the hijab upon my arrival in the States; fortunately they were supportive of the idea. In fact, just a few days before leaving Iraq, I was sitting in the living room with my father.
"My daughter, when you arrive at the Jordanian airport, take your hijab off and fold it in your bag. There is no need to wear it anymore," he said while smoking his cigarette.
I did not comment, nor did I look him in the eye. I was embarrassed and did not want to talk about the subject with him or my mother. I was not used to talking to them about such sensitive, personal subjects. But his words meant a lot to me. Having his blessing was important.
Coming from Iraq, a conservative society in which Islam is the main religion, the hijab was something I had always known. Muslim women begin wearing the hijab at different ages -- some start as young as 8; others start later. Some never wear it at all. We wear it because we are told that it would be a sin not to cover ourselves -- and because we need to be without sin in order to get close to God. Women, we're told, are a source of enticement to men, and we need to be covered so that men won't desire us.
I made the decision to cover my head willingly and without any pressure from my family. My mother and sisters wore it, which made my choice easier. I was 19, and I was becoming more religious in those days and had begun to pray more frequently. I was convinced that it was the right thing to do.
The night before I first wore it to school, I stayed up most of the night. None of my friends knew what I was going to do. I expected it would surprise a lot of people. I was a girl who loved styling my hair and wearing nice things; my friends (many of whom were already wearing the hijab) would know how much I had to give up to wear it.
On the street, I felt a rush of mixed feelings: happiness and shyness, as well as fear that I would regret my decision in the future. But I never thought that taking it off would be an option. Once women wear the hijab, they are not likely to take it off.
These days, the hijab is a controversial subject. Some Muslims argue that it is a must for women, though others think it is not. My friend Dahlia Lamy, for instance, an Iraqi woman I knew in Baghdad who is now studying at Boston University, argues that no verse in the Koran clearly makes the hijab an obligation for women. Lamy is a practicing Muslim, but she believes that most women who wear the hijab have been forced to do so by their fathers and brothers. "I've never worn the hijab, nor do I intend to," she told me. In Turkey -- and even in France -- culture wars have raged over the wearing of the hijab in schools and other places.
The hijab takes different forms. In Iraq, it can be a chest-length veil that is placed around the head and sometimes can connect to a niqab, a cloth that covers the mouth and nose. The wearing of the niqab is not common in Iraq. In Iran and other Persian Gulf countries, women wear an abaya. An abaya is a long black gown that covers the entire body.
My hijab helped me during the rough days after the war began in 2003. It was like a shield, an invisible suit that I always had on when I went out, the suit that kept away the evil eye. It enabled me to keep that all-important low profile.