At LUMS, I Was Judged For Wearing A Hijab
I joined Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) some five years ago as an undergraduate student. My first impression of LUMS was that the environment here is diverse with people holding different ideas and worldviews studying together in spite of their differences. In the beginning I was certain that the LUMS campus life has a lot to offer and I will get to experience life in a wholly different way. Little did I know that my experience will be nothing to write home about.
I have been wearing a hijab (head scarf) since my high school days. Not that I owe anyone an explanation, but Hijab was my own personal choice and no one in my family had forced me to wear it. My mother was even opposed to my decision initially but then I managed to convince her.
The first time I was judged for my head scarf was just a couple of months after my admission. A professor had split us in a group of 5 and we were to work on an assignment. We were gathered at one of the group members’ place to finish the work. When we had completed the first part of the assignment, I jokingly said that I can sense the feeling of freedom as we will be able to spend our weekend carefree because most difficult part of the project is behind us. One of the students said, “Yes but what do you know about freedom? You wear this thing on your head”. Everyone burst out laughing.
These words may not sound too serious but they made me feel alienated and uncomfortable. I began to think if it was my fault. I didn’t say anything to my classmate who had made these remarks, but I felt that I was disrespected for a very personal choice that I had made for myself.
None of the five people realised that this could have made me feel ridiculed or that they should at least ask if I minded this joke. They thought it was a harmless pun and I must be used to it.
Later, I tried to get over this episode and thought to myself that I was perhaps overthinking the situation. But I would soon find out that it was not a one-off happening.
Many times in the casual group conversations and even in class discussions I was made to realise that my hijab means I am not ambitious enough and that I cannot think for myself. It appeared as if everyone there thought that hijabis are probably beaten up and harassed by their families into covering their heads. There were certainly some exceptions. I befriended a number of students who did not have a problem with my hijab, but a lot of other students did judge me for my choice. And they would simply not understand my reasoning and assume that I must have been forced to cover my head.
One day I met a classmate of mine at a park on a Sunday. I was smoking in a corner when she saw me. She was shocked and said, “You smoke?” I was surprised by her question because I knew she also smoked. Turns out she meant that she could not imagine that she would ever see a Hijabi smoke a cigarette. I laughed and told her that wearing a Hijab and avoiding a cigarette are not mutually exclusive. She still seemed puzzled, so I had to repeat my story of ‘hijab-was-my-own-choice-no-one-forced-me’ for the billionth time.
This was the mindset that I continued to encounter at LUMS. That I must have no free will at all. That I must have never made any real decisions on my own, because someone who wears a hijab must be conditioned into thinking that it is good for them. This made my time at LUMS rather difficult, but I did have did have a support system to turn to so I did not face any serious mental health issues, but this prejudice against hijab would often depress me and make me feel worthless.
Here I must clarify that I don’t speak for all hijabis of LUMS. People have different lived experiences when it comes to this kind of discrimination and they may differ because of the people around them and how empathetic or non-empathetic they are. I am sure not all students at LUMS treat the hijabis this way. But my experience, it may have something to do with my luck, was far from ideal.