When Nazma Khan steps up to the podium, the crowded room grows quiet. Her exquisite face is framed by a brightly patterned silk scarf wrapped around her head and neck. We all lean in closer to hear her soft yet vibrant voice. She begins the story of her journey to the United States from Bangladesh at age 11 and how she was the only person in her Bronx school to wear the hijab — the veil or scarf that is worn to cover the head and chest of many post-pubescent Muslim women. Her peers in the Bronx tormented her throughout her time in middle school and high school, spitting at her, calling her names, and incessantly questioning why she wore the hijab. Her ordeal peaked when she began her studies at City College of New York after 9/11. At a time when some in New York City were wary of Muslims, her hijab made her a target for ridicule and suspicion.
"I was made to feel like a criminal," she says, "as if I was responsible for 9/11 and owed an apology to everyone." True to her religious beliefs, Khan shrugged off the cruel comments and hateful looks and kept wearing the hijab.
Now 30, Khan is speaking to a group of students at a meeting of the Queensborough Community College Student Muslim Association. The room is filled, primarily with Muslim students, and many wear the hijab. Sympathetic nods can be seen as she speaks. The students, many immigrants themselves, have all experienced the same judgmental stares and hurtful comments. There is shared pain, but also a shared sense of pride. When she finishes speaking, the room bursts into applause.
Many non-Muslims have long associated this religious head covering with oppression and sexism. So why do Muslim women wear the hijab? Often described as a means to aid in modesty, proper conduct, and dignity, the wearing of a veil has an ancient history; the 2,700-year-old Middle Assyrian Laws reference a prostitute or slave girl who was found wearing a veil improperly and ordered to be punished. It is also described in texts from the Byzantine and Greco-Roman empires.
Khan first began wearing the hijab at age 11. She was eager to be covered and to look as "feminine" as her mother, aunts, and other women around her. "When I don the hijab, I am not judged for my exterior beauty, but rather my character and intellect," says Khan. "This is true liberation. Thus, to me this is feminine."
Khan asserts that donning the hijab was completely her choice. "Though many women in my family wore the hijab, there were many more who did not. So it came as a choice for me," she says. "No one told me to wear it."
The first time she tried one on, "I didn't tell my mother anything. I just put it on. All I remember is wrapping it myself. As time wore on, I realized its true value as not only a piece of cloth but a way of life."
However, like many Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries, Khan realized that people around her had difficulty accepting her unique appearance.
"In middle school I was called ninja or Batman," she reveals with obvious pain. "They would put gum in my hijab." She struggled during those awkward preteen years, a difficult time for even the most willing conformist. And while she held true to her beliefs, her younger sister could no longer deal with the peer pressure. "She stopped wearing the hijab for two years," Khan says. She understood and respected her sister's decision. As for her parents, "At first they were a bit disappointed, but later on they let her live her life. They loved and supported her regardless. Nothing changed." One day Khan decided that perhaps she too should no longer wear the hijab. "I took it off for one day; I felt naked." It was going without wearing it for that single day that she realized she truly wanted to wear the hijab.
"When I wear it I feel whole. I feel at peace," she says. "Wearing hijab makes me feel protected, respected, and unique. It makes me feel peace at heart knowing that I'm obeying the command of my creator. In my opinion, peace can be only found in obeying the commands of the one who created me." Ultimately her sister also returned to the hijab of her own accord.
After graduating from City College, where she studied biology and pre-med, Khan decided to go a different route with her career. In 2010, she launched an online business selling custom-designed hijab, called Stunning Hijab, Corp., with a motto of "Concealed. Content. Confident." Her hijabs come in modern, bright colors, contemporary prints and lightweight fabrics — a far cry from the traditional dark-colored heavyweight materials many people tend to associate with the hijab. She also has goals that go far beyond sales numbers: A portion of every sale is donated to a local Muslim organization. "I donated to the Bronx Muslim Center," says Khan. "With the support of everyone, I helped the mosque from going into foreclosure." She shrugs off this noble gesture with, "You don't lose anything by giving away."
Accompanying the available merchandise on her website, she added a section on hijab education, with articles entitled "Fashion vs. Modesty," "We Are Not Submissive to Men," and "Health Benefits of the Hijab," which discusses protection from harmful UV rays that could lead to cancer, heat exposure, protection from cold weather conditions, and covering hair for hygienic purposes. As her business began to grow, she started receiving emails from other hijabi (women who wear the hijab), who shared their individual experiences of judgment or hate, and who expressed concerns about not being able to get jobs due to their appearance. This fear is not an idle one. Among the most notable U.S. cases, in 2010 a Muslim girl named Hani Khan was fired from a Hollister clothing store in San Mateo, California, for refusing to remove her hijab while working. A judge recently found the company guilty of workplace discrimination. Other women in the U.S. have reported losing their jobs over the hijab, and in some countries it is banned in the workplace, schools or government offices.
Khan felt she needed to do something else to help support these women. So in 2011, she began crafting a way for non-Muslim women to get a taste of what it was actually like to wear the hijab. She designated a day where women around the world were invited to cover up and experience it for themselves. On February 1, 2013, the first World Hijab Day was held.
"I thought if those who do not understand my decision to wear hijab can walk in my shoes just for one day, perhaps they'll have a better understanding of my choice," says Khan. "Thus, next time they see someone wearing the hijab, they won't be judgmental toward them."
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of Time's 50 Best Websites of 2013.