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.
But even as the hijab kept me safe, it became a burden for many others. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a dramatic increase in the number of women wearing the hijab. Since then, as religious groups have gained more power, it has become dangerous to be spotted without one -- so much so that even Christian women now wear the hijab when they go out. To me, that signified that something was wrong with my country.
The reason I came to the United States was to spend a semester at UC Davis before starting a master's degree program in journalism. I arrived on the flight from Denver in September 2006. It was late at night, and I went immediately to sleep. The next day was my first to go out without the hijab. That morning, I stood in front of the mirror and instead of straightening my hijab, I straightened my hair. It worried me, but I also felt happy.
At first, I looked behind me a lot as I walked down the street, wondering who was looking at me and what they were thinking. But over time, I got used to it. My conscience stopped bothering me, and I became accustomed to being without the hijab in the middle of the day. I remember early on when a woman sipping coffee on her porch said "Good morning" and smiled at me, as if I looked completely normal. That was a peaceful feeling.
For a while, I lived in Davis with another Iraqi woman, who had been wearing the hijab since 2002. When I told her that I had taken off my hijab when I came to the U.S., she was surprised and gave me the look. The look telling me that I had done something wrong. We discussed the issue many times; I felt guilty again and had second thoughts.
After some months, though, she moved to Massachusetts. One day, she called me, and we talked again about her hijab. This time she talked about the discomfort and sometimes even hostility that people seemed to feel when they met her and saw how she was dressed. "They try to hide it, but it's obvious," she said. She said that although real estate agents were positive over the phone, no one would rent her an apartment once they saw her in person. She explained that a woman from the student housing office had had the audacity to explain to her the way toilets are flushed, "As if my hijab was an anti-intelligence sign," she said. "I spent two days crying."
She called me again at the end of December and told me that she too had taken off the hijab. After the conversation ended, I felt a bit relieved; I had apparently made a wise decision and spared myself pain from the start.
At the same time, I was disappointed. We shouldn't have to hide the fact that we're Muslims in order to be treated like everyone else. In some ways, it's as bad to feel pressure to take off the hijab in the United States as it is to be pressured to keep it on in Baghdad. It's sad that people here do not always accept you for who you are.
For myself, I'm comfortable with my decision. But even today, I sometimes take my hijab out of the closet and place it over my head. It feels strange, not unlike the feeling I had when I was preparing to stop wearing it.
At the same time, when I put it on, I feel at home, as if I wasn't far away. It makes me miss the days when I used to match the color of my hijab with my clothes. The hijab was a part of my identity, a part of who I was, and those memories can't be erased.
Zainab Mineeia worked as a translator and reporter for The Times in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. She is now a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times