Comment: I'm an undercover hijabi, too

Like American Muslim Leena Suleiman, Yassmin Abdel-Magied's hijab and interactions with her co-workers produced unanticipated and thought-provoking results.

When Yassmin Abdel-Magied's friends and co-workers didn't recognise her hijab for what it was, she became an unwitting participant in a thought-provoking social experiment.

When I'm at work on the rigs, it turns out I'm an undercover hijabi.

The experience I have reflects what blogger Leena talks about in her piece 'I took my hijab off for a day'.  She describes a complete shift in the way she was perceived by society after she accidentally covered her hijab up with a knit hat and scarf.

The style of hijab I usually wear is flowy, full of tassels and in some ways an occupational health and safety hazard around heavy machinery.  While on site I wear a head covering that has been described by coworkers as a 'tea cosy'; a beanie and bandana combination similar to a style favoured by Egyptian ladies.  I wore it for a while without realising my coworkers didn't see it as a religious head covering.

I was loving the fact that I wasn't experiencing the racisim in country Australia that I had expected.  This fantasy was abruptly burst when a colleague asked if I ever took the tea cosy off.

'Nah,' I replied easily. 'I'm a Muslim woman, this is what I wear as a hijab on the rig.'

A look of confusion crossed his face and the topic was dropped. It didn't take me too long after that to join the dots.

'Hey, you know I'm Muslim, right?' I asked another fellow that I'd become friends with.

'What? Really? Nah I didn't know...'

'Oh, well why do you think I wear this?' I asked, pointing at my head.

'Oh, I thought it was a fashion thing, or maybe for safety ...'

Like Leena in her piece, this left me feeling confused. The next day, I wore a full hijab (the traditionally wrapped kind) to the crib room for breakfast. You could have been forgiven for thinking people thought I was a completely different person.

It wasn't until I began interacting like the loud, feisty person I always am that people warmed to my presence. The experiments was repeated at a bigger mining style camp and again, the difference in attitudes was startling.

With a beanie, you are just a chick who is cold.  With a headscarf, you are the new local tourist attraction and smiles are returned only occasionally and almost fearfully.  Suddenly, you're are a foreigner in your own home. 

Being a hijabi in the West has its challenges.  You're extremely visible as a representative of the religion and people on all sides of the fence see it as their role to police, have an opinion, and a right to comment on your choice.  You are constantly asked to justify the actions and mistakes of every extremist that chooses to do something crazy and inhumane in the name of your religion.  These are roles that we hijabis have simply become accustomed to filling, part of the deal in a way.

To get a 'get out of jail free card' by wearing something not recognisable gives me mixed feelings.  Occasionally, it feels like cheating to be wearing something that people don't associate with Islam for practical reasons while also working to fulfil the conditions of my belief. At the same time, religion and politics are two topics that are avoided like the plague in any blue collar crib room, and so keeping it as personal as possible is a natural default in this environment.  

It would be fair to argue everyone should be accepting regardless of what kind of head covering is worn, be it a beanie, a hijab or a ninja-style niqab. Realistically, many are just not ready yet for such changes in their environment and find hijab - for better or for worse - confronting.  An effective response is akin to tailoring a message for different audiences: if a group is not at all primed, they'll close their minds off completely to confrontational messaging. The hope is that perhaps as my colleagues now see me as a person first, the common ground found will help reduce ignorance and forge understanding.  

When I'm not on the rig, I go back to wearing my classic brightly coloured flowing pieces.  They feel like 'me', a part of my identity, something I do for God and an external representation of my faith. It is interesting to consider how many interactions have been missed because people have already made their decision on what I represent based on the type of wrapping I have used on my head.

My way around it at the moment? Grabbing every opportunity to chat to those people, and the more traditionally dressed I am, the better.  A slightly inappropriate joke, or a comment about my love of motorsport and knowledge of engines usually shocks them enough for them to forget what I look like for a moment and be drawn into a chat.  Then, everyone wants to know what the bikie and the hijabi are laughing uproariously about. Nothing breaks down barriers in Australia like a well timed self deprecating joke. 

It may not be perfect, but until all facets of our society become comfortable with seeing displays of faith like the hijab and what they represent, we may have to be more creative about our engagement and representation.  After all, to be seen as a foreigner in the only country we know as home is a lonely place indeed.   It is a two way street though, and ultimately, it is all about finding the place where we belong in the patchwork fabric of Australia's identity while holding (and displaying) the true values of Islam and faith dear.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is the Founder of Youth Without Borders.  A blogger and essayist, she currently works on oil and gas rigs around the country.

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