NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Nazma Khan came to the United States from Bangladesh at the age of 11. She was the only one wearing a hijab, a headscarf covering the hair, in the entire school and her classmates made fun of her. “They called me names, such as batman, ninja, etc.,” she said, remembering the time she was in high school in New York.

Her classmates didn’t stop there. They became physical with her. “I was terrified . . . I still remember the day when a bunch of girls waited outside of my class just to pull off my hijab. I felt so helpless,” Nazma Khan told Women’s eNews in an email interview.

Now an entrepreneur and the founder of World Hijab Day, Nezma Khan is far from alone. Muslim women are more likely to be the targets of Islamophobic attacks than men, especially if they are wearing clothing associated with their religion, a British study found in 2013. The study also indicated that attacks on Muslim women accounted for 58 percent of such cases, with 80 percent of the attacks on women who were visually identifiable through wearing a hijab, niqab or other clothing associated with Islam.

Nazma Kahn said it got worse for her after 9/11, after which she started to receive messages from other Muslim women who were going through the same nightmare. The women were reaching out to her through her website, which sells hijabs to Muslim women and offers education and moral support.

During the summer of 2011, after receiving more messages from Muslim women across the globe with similar situations, she came up with the idea of “World Hijab Day,” which is celebrated by women around the globe on Feb. 1.

“I thought if I could invite other women (Muslim and non-Muslim) to walk in my shoes just for one day, perhaps, things would change,” Nazma Khan said.

New York events to celebrate the hijab this year included “Hijab is my crown,” which took place onFeb. 2 and was organized by Muslims Giving Back. The event drew hundreds of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to discuss the importance of the hijab in Islam.

Trying to ‘Fit In’

Salma Khan, who is the ambassador of World Hijab Day in New York, was not bullied like her sister Nazma. She started to wear the hijab later in life, in 2006, because before that, when she was younger, she had “tried to fit in.”

“But no matter if you wear or don’t wear the hijab, you are always viewed as the Muslim so why should I compromise my religion, my beliefs,” Salma Khan told Women’s eNews.

One of the New York organizers of the “Hijab is my crown” event, Nusaiba Guererro-Macias is an American-Cuban Muslim from the Bronx, who converted to Islam about three years ago.

Prior to her conversion, Guererro-Macias said she viewed Muslim women as oppressed. “I thought their parents forced them to do it or it (the hijab) was this cultural secret thing and they couldn’t show their hair to anyone,” she told Women’s eNews during the event.

Guerrero-Macias was “very curious” about the meaning of the Islamic veil, but she said she couldn’t “embrace such a thing. I couldn’t wear something like this and say I am happy, I felt like I needed to express my beauty, I needed people to see my beauty.” But she is now happy that by wearing the hijab “people are able to appreciate my intellect instead of judging me by the outside.”

Diana Fuentes also used to wonder why some Muslim women covered their hair. But Fuentes insists that she was never “judgmental” of Muslim women wearing a hijab.

Fuentes arrived in New York from Colombia three years ago. Being in New York has “opened new doors,” said Fuentes, referring to her conversion to Islam.

She became a Muslim in October 2013. Fuentes didn’t wear the hijab right away after her conversion. She slowly incorporated it into her daily outfit, wearing it on and off. She began covering her hair in a committed way in November 2013.

For Fuentes, the hijab identifies her as a Muslim and gives her “confidence.”

Identity Forming

When questioned on the meaning of the hijab, Muslim women tend to explain that it is part of their identity.

“Hijab is my identity. It tells people who I am before I even have to tell them,” Linda Sarsour, executive director at the Arab American Association of N.Y., told Women’s eNews.

Sarsour started to wear a hijab in 2000 after her mother’s friend came back from the pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, with a bag full of headscarves. She was 20 years old.

Now, Sarsour provided a reminder to the hundreds of women attending the “Hijab is my crown” event in Bay’s Ridge’s Widdi Hall.

“Your Islam or your imaan (faith) is not defined by your hijab anywhere on your head. Because sisters wear hijab or because I wear hijab, it doesn’t make me a perfect Muslim. I struggle everyday with faith and focus,” Sarsour stressed as she addressed the crowd from a stage.

Besides being a display of the Muslim identity and faith, veiled Muslim women also say that wearing the hijab helps them stay away from what it is not Islamically permissible.

The hijab “saved me from drugs, alcohol or things like clubbing,” said Salma Khan.

Zainab Ismail, a personal trainer and nutritionist in New York, wears her hijab as protection. “I feel it protects me and helps me stay within what is permissible in our religion and avoid the not permissible,” she said.

After her conversion in June 2009, Ismail was worried about her clients’ reaction to her conversion.

Fortunately, most of them eventually respected her choice.

Ismail gradually changed the way she dressed at the gym. “I slowly started to cover, first with a baseball cap with my hair tucked in, and the beanie” she said. On Jan. 3, 2010, her birthday, she decided to fully don the hijab.

Ismail, who was born and raised in New York and is from a Puerto Rican family, is the co-founder of Nadoona, a nonprofit that promotes healthy lifestyles for Muslim women through fitness and diets.

Now, Ismail’s workout outfits fully cover her skin and hide her shape. Only her hands and face can be seen.

The Hijab Project

Another initiative, The Hijab Project, was recently launched online to encourage women to perform a social experiment by wearing the hijab in any public place and share their experience on the website.

The Hijab Project was founded by 16-year-old Amara Majeed, who started to wear the hijab a couple of years ago.

“I hope to eliminate the ignorance that exists about Muslim women, and to promote an understanding of a growing and unfortunately misunderstood minority in America,” said Majeed in an email interview.

Besides educating non-Muslims on the meaning of the hijab, Majeed seeks to empower young Muslim women through education. She teaches English to Muslim girls in Afghanistan, Philippines, Egypt and Sri Lanka through the use of interactive power points. “I’m not just teaching them English; I’m telling them that they are valuable individuals who are worth education, who are worthy of my time, even if I live on the other side of the world. It helped me realize that I want to empower women,” she said.

Bedor El Hanafi, an American-Egyptian Muslim from Brooklyn, decided to wear the headscarf after she got married. It was a way to get closer to God, she explains.

“It is a big step though. This has changed my life. I do miss my hair being out, especially the wind going through my hair. I miss that,” said El Hanafi, who wears an ethnic print headscarf that matches a long black dress, called an abaya. “But it is not that serious. I will have the wind flowing in my hijab.”

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.

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