I'm walking around the stores as if I'm in combat mode, avoiding eye contact with other people and waiting for something to happen. But as I browse through the stores I realize how uncomforable and irrational I'm acting because it feels like most people really couldn't care less. I mean, sure there's staring, but it's not enough to rate in my fears list. There are the occasional goggle-eyes but most people give me the once-over top to bottom, which I can deal with. I'm just one more late-night shopper, one more person to bump shoulders with, negotiate a crowded line with. My mother gets this. She walks and talks as though she doesn't even realize she's wearing the hijab. It makes me feel kind of protected because she's so confident and dignified. I wonder how long it will take me to feel and act this way.
While I'm walking through the food court I pass three women who are all wearing the hijab. They're huddled around a table, talking and eating ice cream. One of them catches my eye and smiles.
"Assalamu Alaykom," she says, greeting me with the universal Islamic greeting, peace be upon you.
"Walaykom Wassalam," I reply, smiling back at her. The other two girls also greet me and I reply and they all smile warmly at me. They go back to their conversation and I walk off with a big grin because it is now that I think I begin to understand that there's more to this hijab than the whole modesty thing. These girls are strangers to me but I know that we all felt an amazing connection, a sense that this cloth binds us in some kind of universal sisterhood.
I lie in bed that night and replay the scene over and over in my head. I'm experiencing a new identity, a new expression of who I am on the inside, but I know that I'm not alone. I'm not breaking new ground. I'm sharing something with millions of other women around the world and it feels so exciting. I know some people might find it hard to believe but walking around the mall tonight I'd never felt so free and sure of who I am. I felt safe from people judging me and making assumptions about my character from the length of my skirt or the size of my bra. I felt protected from all the crap about beauty and image. As scared as I was walking around the stores in the hijab, I was also experiencing a feeling of empowerment and freedom. I know I have a long ways to go. I still dressed to impressed and I took ages to get my makeup, clothes, and hijab just right. But I didn't feel I was compromising myself by wanting to make an impression. I was looking and feeling good on my own terms, and boy did that feel awesome.