Eid mubarak and welcome to our blog. Please check out the other sections of Hijabi Librarians to see what we currently have up and get a sense of where we are heading, insha’Allah.
Eid mubarak and welcome to our blog. Please check out the other sections of Hijabi Librarians to see what we currently have up and get a sense of where we are heading, insha’Allah.
Khan, Hena.Cresent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. Mehrdokht Amin, Illus. Picture Book. Chronicle, 04/2018. 32 pp. $17.99. 978-1452155418. RECOMMENDED. TODDLER – 8.
This review was written and published in June 2018 for The Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California (ACL)
“Cone is the tip of the minaret so tall. I hear soft echoes of the prayer call,” begins this charming picture book which explores a variety of everyday shapes and angles, as experienced by Muslims of diverse skin tones, who are depicted living, playing, and worshipping together.
Written and illustrated by the author and illustrator duo responsible for Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors (2012), the colorful and multidimensional images feature mixed media illustrations in deep hues and majestic colors. Amini brings her distinctive style to the work, which includes traditional Islamic geometric patterns and sacred calligraphy. While most of the shapes highlighted are easily detected, a few require a keen eye or re-positioning of the page to see them clearly. Some structures represented within the work are clearly identified, while the architectural style of others suggests that the setting could be in any Muslim community across the globe.
Amini takes care to give detail to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of Muslims: a dark-brown complexioned woman, who appears to be of African descent, has neat cornrows with traditional hair accessories, while some light-brown complexioned women have intricate henna markings on their hands and faces. These subtle cues, as well as the different styles of head coverings worn by the men and women in the book, deftly acknowledge the myriad Muslim cultures that exist.
Every other page of the book features a shape, with a short lyrical description of its role in a Muslim’s life that includes Islamic terms which will be familiar to Muslims but may be unknown to non-Muslim readers. A glossary explains those Islamic terms, while an author’s note offers context and a brief history of the Islamic art tradition. Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes is a welcome addition to a variety of collections and may be enjoyed by those familiar with Muslims and Islamic culture, as well as those wanting to learn more about the everyday joys of Muslim life.
Thompkins-Bigelow, Jamilah. Mommy’s Khimar. Ebony Glenn, Ilus. Picture Book.
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, 04/2018. 40pp. $17.99. 978-1534400597. RECOMMENDED. Toddler – 8.
“A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears,” explains a young African-American girl in the opening pages of Mommy’s Khimar, a new picture book from Simon and Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint, written by first-time author, educator, and activist Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Ebony Glenn.
The term “khimar” may be new to many who know the headscarf worn by Muslim women as a “hijab” based on public discourse about the garb, but for some, including many African-American Muslims, “khimar” has long been the preferred term for the head-covering.
As an African-American Muslim myself, I have eagerly awaited the publication of Mommy’s Khimar. Finally, a book with characters that look like me and my family, and uses familiar language. Turns out, I’m not alone.
In a mother’s group of African-American Muslims that is on Facebook, information about Mommy’s Khimar has been excitedly shared over and over again, with many planning to purchase a copy to read with their daughters.
The two copies ordered for our branch were checked out immediately; a quick look at my library system’s online catalog shows that half of the system’s copies are currently checked out.
Written in the first-person voice of a young unnamed African-American girl, Mommy’s Khimar explores a little girl’s fascination with her mother’s khimars. In some picture books, the text or illustrations, outshine the other. In this case, both are truly are stellar.
The digitally rendered illustrations are bold, eye-catching, and exude joy. Rich yellows, vibrant blues, and soft pastels jump from every page.
The text includes short, lyrical sentences about her imaginative adventures with her mother’s collection of multicolored mother’s scarves. Eventually, she finds one that’s yellow, her favorite color, and begins to imagine the possibilities:
“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I shine like the sun. I dive and become a shooting star into a pile of clouds.”
“When I put on Mommy’s khimar, I become a queen with a golden train.”
“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I am a superhero in a cape, dashing from room to room at the speed of light.”
These scenes authentically capture the delight that Muslim girls find in playing in their mother’s scarves. My social media feeds are full of proud mamas showcasing their daughters doing the exact same thing. Mommy’s Khimar, however, does more than just demonstrate how Muslim children have fun playing with their mother’s scarves. It captures and gives voice to the beautiful dynamic of a typical African-American Muslim family. It depicts a loving relationship with the girl’s father, who lovingly “snatches her up” and “tickles” and kisses her.
Subtly, Mommy’s Khimar challenges beliefs about Muslims and expands the perception of what it means to be Muslim. For example, In the discourse about Muslim women’s clothing, what is often left out is that many Muslim men often also wear head coverings of religious significance. In Mommy’s Khimar, the father wears a head cap often worn by Muslim men. This detail normalizes wearing a head covering for both men and women.
When the girl’s grandmother comes for a visit, she says: “When I wear Mommy’s khimar and Mom-Mom visits after Sunday service, she sings out, “Sweet Jesus!” and calls me sunshine Mom-Mom doesn’t wear a khimar. She doesn’t go to the mosque like Mommy and Daddy do. We are a family and we love each other just the same.”
These just might be my favorite lines in the book.
The interaction between the girl and her grandmother captures so much of the African-American familial experience: multi-faith, intergenerational families, loving each other and respecting their religious differences and choices. I am reminded of my own family members who edit favorite recipes to make them pork-free and who wear their Sunday church best at mosque functions.
At the mosque, a group of elder Muslim women, themselves dressed in colorful and flowing khimars, make the child feel special:
“When I go to the mosque, the older women coo, “As Salaamu alaikum, Little Sis!”
There, a group of children with differing skin tones also admire her scarf, while her Arabic teacher, herself with dark skin, exclaims, “Beauti-ful! Beautiful hijab!” It’s important that the Arabic teacher in the book is depicted as having dark skin. It is a thoughtful and deliberate choice that challenges that common fallacy that Arabs and/or Arabic is only the domain of light-complexioned peoples.
At the end of the day, the young girl and her mother remove their scarves. Her mother’s hair is illustrated like hers is, black, and curly. That her mother is pictured with a scarf on and without, is meaningful. A common question for many Muslim women who cover their hair in public is: “Do you have hair under there?”
Perhaps the only thing that would have made this book more perfect for me was to see more variety in the representation of khimar styles, as it’s quite common for Muslim women of African descent to elaborately style their scarves. This absence of variety, however, doesn’t distract from the beauty, grace, and joy within the book.
Ultimately, Mommy’s Khimar succeeds in simultaneously being a “mirror” into African-American Muslim families and communities, as a well as a “window” for readers who are less familiar with families and communities represented in the book. It certainly can serve as a “sliding glass door” for anyone who has played dress-up with a parent’s clothing.
Mommy’s Khimar is a welcome addition to the canon of children’s literature about Muslim children and families because of what it doesn’t do.
It doesn’t apologize for khimars/hijabs.
It doesn’t seek to justify or rationalize why they are not oppressive.
There is no hardship in being Muslim and no space is given to Islamophobes.
Mommy’s Khimar celebrates the unbridled happiness of one Muslim child, her family, and members of her Muslim community.
Authors and publishers, take note. More books like this one, please.
The book succeeds as both a one-on-one read between child and caregiver, as well with a group, such at a storytime, and would be a wonderful and unique addition to personal collections, as well as those of school and public libraries.
Hena Khan is an author of Picture Books and Middle Grade books for children, and range from her Scholastic Worst-case Scenario books to her books about Islam and Muslim identity. Her latest series Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream focuses on third-generation, Pakistani-American Zayd and his dreams of playing professional basketball. You can find out more about Hena on her website, following her on Twitter or checking out her author pages on Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint or Chronicle Books.
Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain
Alexis (Rabiah) Lumbard York is an author of mostly children’s picture books that are aimed at younger readers, but reach readers of all ages. Many of York’s tales have Middle Eastern origins but transcend religious labels, conveying an ethereal sense of the divine that is be accessible to children of many religious and non-religious backgrounds. For more information about York, please visit her website or her featured author page on Wisdom Tales.
Interview Questions were compiled by Ariana Hussain and Hadeal Salamah
Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. By Hena Khan. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books (9781452155418)
Publish date: April 10, 2018
This is the newest title in Hena Khan’s picture books about Muslims and concepts. The previous title was Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.
This book discussion was conducted on May 20, 2018
Hadeal: So what did you all think? I know that this is something small, but besides the artwork and illustrations, I love that there is a cat on the cover at the masjid. I don’t know why, but I just love it.
Ariana: I liked the details in the illustration, they are really rich, even to the point where in the spread with the circle/daff there is a child with a bit of a unibrow.
Mahasin: I see it now.
Ariana: I love that there are so many different looks of people depicted. I do think that some of the criticisms of the book seem minute, one mentioned that the previous book seemed like the protagonist is a child in a “western country”, but this one is international and may reinforce stereotypes around clothing, but I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think that some images of children could work for a child who lives in the “west.” Especially in the oval spread, where “oval is the table where we break our fast, when the sun sets it’s iftar time at last.” There is a tagine, the decor is neutral, it could be Morocco, it could be here. The diamond spread, that could also be here. The last place with the crescent moon and a car, has a license plate convention that is not American, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a European country. I don’t think it’s a big concern.
Hadeal: I love the author’s note at the end. It’s not just a note about showing you shapes and whatnot, but wraps things back around to the importance of shapes and mathematics in Islam. I like the rectangle spread with the masjid and the light coming from the doorway into the prayer hall. I think the detail there is exquisite. The clothing too, puts it in context and gives it life to the community around it.
Sara: Especially with the laundry line. And that’s how it is back home, the masjid is right in front of your home and you hear the adhan from different blocks. It conveys that feeling.
Ariana: I do wish, a little bit, in the author’s notes that they would say where an image is from, especially for that spread. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview with Chronicle before the book was published, and the editor had put up pictures of the doorway that inspired this spread, and I wanted to know more about the architecture specific to this country/location. I think that they may have said specifically, but I don’t remember right now, and I don’t want to guess. I mean, some may look at it and say, it’s the Muslim world and somewhere perhaps in West Africa*, but it’s not specific. Some families may recognize themselves based on the cloth, or other aspects, like the kids in the first spread look to me, like they are Malaysian or Indonesian, but maybe I’m completely wrong? But I do think it would be a nice touch, especially for Muslim children who aren’t often depicted.
Mahasin: I agree with that. I was really excited about the diversity, and when I got to the page where the little girl had cornrows, the mother had a scarf wrapped up and the little boy, maybe it’s a girl, had tight curls, it was clearly African heritage, and that was really important to me because a lot of times my folks get left out of the narrative. That page made me really happy. The rectangle spread, with the women and all the colors on the page made me think, “Nigerian Muslims!”* and that was my first thought. So I really appreciate the diversity. The daff spread made me think of my time in Syria where the women would have maulids celebrating the Prophet (saw) and get together. A lot of it rang so true and authentic to me. I really liked the spirit of the book.
Hadeal: I like that wording, about the spirit of the book.
Mahasin: The one thing that was a bit tricky for me was that some of the shapes I had to stretch a little bit to connect, particularly the square and the orange trees – my mind went went immediately to a circle because they were oranges, but a square as a garden was a different cultural context for me. There was another one with the triangles on the minbar, that was also a stretch for me.
Hadeal: I still can’t see the triangles, can you see it?
Mahasin: It’s on the side.
Ariana: Right, the space between the railing and the stairs.
Sara: I can see that in the minbar, they do look like triangles from the side.
Mahasin: I guess I can see that, especially from a child’s perspective, but some of the shapes did feel a little bit of a stretch, but I feel like it a little mincing. A co-worker brought the book to me and said that they thought that the people were all in traditional dress, and should have been in modern dress and I have been toying with that in my head. I haven’t read any of the reviews. On the one hand, is that a critique of Muslim “modest dress?” Maybe people would call the ways we put together modest outfits “traditional,” even though I don’t know how traditional they are since they might just be long and flowing, or extra layers. The other part of me says, “what if they are traditional?” I don’t know if I agree with that critique. In the spread with the daff there is a little boy with a- what is it called with the number on the back?
Hadeal: a jersey.
Mahasin: Right, thank you. But that is pretty non-traditional to me.
Hadeal: Even the girls’ dresses. They’re just dresses.
Mahasin: Yeah. So, what if it is traditional? I think that they look like what Muslims really wear. It’s happy, colorful clothing. I don’t know. Does someone need to be in jeans and a t-shirt to make it not stereotypical?
Ariana: I mean, I think of me growing up and my parents –
Sara: I love that it’s traditional clothing. Because on Eid day when the kids go out, they are wearing their traditional clothing.
Sara: I don’t often see kids in “western clothing.” They are taking pride in wearing something different.
Ariana: To build on your point Sara, if it was Eid or a gathering, and I was ten years old and I said to my parents, that I was going to go out in jeans and a t-shirt?
Sara: That would be a no-no.
Ariana: Yes, they would say, I couldn’t come. “The rest of us are going to go out and have fun. We’re going to auntie’s house and eat all of the delicious food, and the other kids are going to play. You’re staying home. Sorry.”
All: (Laughing) It’s true.
Mahasin: I went to Target for my daughter’s Eid outfit and I saw, what I would call, “a Wakanda-inspired outfit.” And I was thinking, “cultural appropriation for the win.” African-inspired outfit for Eid.
Hadeal: When it comes to clothing, I think of how the author didn’t indicate specifics. I don’t see how, in a way, where you could indicate areas. So I don’t understand why a reviewer would focus on that instead of what the book was intended to do. It is a book about shapes in the Islamic world. But what is traditional? What is non-traditional? It bothers me.
Sara: Right, I can see what you’re saying in that it’s not the focus of the book where these people are from, it’s more that they are seeing shapes in their every day and their beliefs and why we associate shapes in our religion, in our masaajid and our artwork and that kind of thing. It’s not focused on where they are coming from or why they dress why they do, but how we incorporate shapes into our daily lives. Is that what you were trying to say? I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.
Hadeal: No, it is. I just feel like there is so much, I mean, even when we write our reviews we will get feedback about what others saw, but when it comes to this, it is so obvious to me that this is a book about shapes, architecture and Islam, but we’re going to focus on clothing? I mean, I understand, Mahasin had mentioned the spread with the family – the mother with the scarf wrapped and the little girl with the cornrows and to me, I think that’s important too, and we mentioned it, but for someone to just focus on that? I don’t know.
Sara: Why should that be the focus of the book when it is not intended to be? I love the fact that she’s incorporating everyone, the different styles of hijab and hair, but it is just showing you that these shapes have made their way through the Muslim world rather than associating it just with one group of people or another.
Hadeal: Even kaftan. Not all Muslims wear it, but to do the simple research, I don’t think it’s attached to certain countries or communities, multiple people do wear it and some definitely don’t. It’s just bothersome.
Ariana: For me, it’s a point of curiosity. I would like to know where it is from. I wish there was a bit more back matter so that if I was interested I could do further research for myself, but you’re right in that, it doesn’t matter too much. It would be one thing if really was asserting that there is this foreign otherness – but the reality is that Muslims do bring these cultural elements into our celebrations and our dress. That’s one time where, I mean, I married into – my husband is Pakistani American, and I think on Eid or celebrations I have no problems wearing Indonesian clothing, or a gown or a Pakistani style dresses. And often for children, especially for little girls that don’t dress themselves, they are often wearing “American” party dresses.
So I don’t know if this is actually offensive, reviewers making an assumption about the kinds of clothing people will wear. I’m glad that they are focusing on different aspects or elements of Muslim diversity, but it doesn’t mean all the spreads are or have to be international. So the spread that Mahasin was talking about with the hexagon, it could be an African country, it could be in a home here. Right?
Sara: I think that’s the beauty of the book actually, that you don’t know where it is. It could be anywhere in the world, and anyone who picks it up can find themselves in the pictures. The fact that she’s not pinpointing the places I’m reading it here, but the laundry spread reminds me of Egypt and being right across the street from the masjid. And someone from Pakistan can pick up the book and see orange trees and see themselves. This is why I am glad that she didn’t pinpoint where people are from. You can associate yourself with the spreads and go from there.
Mahasin: I’m looking at one of the reviews right now about how “Muslims dressing in non-cultural clothes are largely missing from the illustrations and potentially reinforce a stereotypical image for non-Muslims.”
Ariana: I mean, perhaps that is a bit true, but here’s the thing, maybe the book is a nice window into our world, but it’s not really for the non-Muslim reader. It is a window that is important but it’s for the Muslim to see themselves. In the page following the hexagon, the oval, now I’m looking at the table and there is kibbeh and-
Hadeal: And samosa.
Sara: They are all different kinds of food, not one specific culture.
Ariana: And the features of the people at the table, they have east Asian features. So my reaction first was, were these Uyghur Muslims? But it doesn’t look like there are Uyghur foods on the table. But there is also a little boy with really curly hair. And I think it’s supposed to be a blend, or blended family, or at least, that is what I’m reading. And where would you find that blend? Here. You could find it in other places and other countries, Moroccans can look like everything, but you can also find that here. That’s my take.
Sara: I agree.
Ariana: Final thoughts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs to the side?
Sara: I really liked it, I thought it was very cute and inclusive.
Hadeal: I liked it.
Mahasin: I liked it too. I would recommend it.
Ariana: I liked it. I mean, I think that the first book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a book that you give to families when they are going have a baby, or for Eid. I mean, this is a book that will be distributed in the Muslim community and become a standard. It’s doing something that we want. You’re putting another book into a Muslim family’s hands and into their household. And it’s not just another – Ramadan or Eid book – which is not the say that we don’t need those books, we do.
Sara: And it’s not a Ramadan book, it’s a book that can be a normal, everyday book.
Ariana: Exactly. Because it has those elements that also conveys those precious times of Ramadan and Eid, and it’s Ramadan now, those feel good times into every day – it’s like bringing in Christmas or those times that just make a child feel warm and special. It’s super important. It’s a great addition to get with the other one, and I feel like this one is stronger. Maybe it is because of the diversity element, but you can read it with even more nuance, than just looking at it as a book.
Hadeal: I also enjoy the formatting a lot. I think the layout and the message is so well put together.
Sara: I love the arch in the mihrab and how dimensional it is.
Hadeal: It all just falls well together. It feels very purposeful.
*We are completely wrong and Khan clarifies in her interview with us that it is in Zanzibar.
Ariana: I started off as a children’s librarian part-time in a small public library system in California and then went full-time in DC. And in both systems, one with 26 branches, there was no one looked like me. In California, there were no other Muslims in the system, and in DC there were two Muslim paraprofessionals that I knew and self-identified as Muslim, but no other librarians or administrators.
I went to library school knowing that there wouldn’t be many people that looked like me, and it was important to me to be part of the profession because of that. There were also students that I thought might be Muslim or have a Muslim background, but they never said so much as hello, so there wasn’t any kind of community. When in classes I saw some book lists and resources about Muslims, so I thought eventually I would meet more in public libraries, and saw information about some online, in other countries, but did not meet any here in the states. After library school, I met some academic librarians that were Muslim, but few, if any, in public libraries and none in children’s and young adult services.
I met Sara through Anna Coats, my co-chair in an APALA committee and an Emerging Leader in the same class as Sara. I met Hadeal through my local library and Mahasin found me through Twitter and the we here Facebook group for librarians of color. Hadeal and I had been talking about resources about Muslims in Children’s Literature, given the different resources available for diverse reading along with trying to create a Muslim Librarians Association. I really wanted to do this work with other librarians in this community to find books that are about us, that are written by Muslims, but it didn’t exist in a professional capacity.
Sara: I had a similar experience where in library school and at conferences there was no one that wore hijab. I felt like I was the elephant in the room because was no one like me. I think my daily work and our work here is important in terms of representation and advocacy in the profession to let people know that we are here and they can be here too.
Hadeal: Same for me. I was the only Muslim in my program and I only met Ariana through my work, Sara through Ariana and now Mahasin. And really, you are the only Muslim librarians I know. And I do feel like other librarians are trying to do good, and create multicultural resources, but I want to represent me. I want to have a voice in my own representation, and that of my greater community, and I think this project is a great start. It is important to me to showcase our pathway and professional to others – especially children. In my old system, people were curious about what we did, beyond working with books, and I was able to talk to them about why children would frequently visit and enjoy their time at the library. The Muslim community around me knew about many of the resources that were available through the library, but being in libraries allowed me to spread more knowledge about the profession.
Mahasin: I was excited to see Ariana in the We Here group on Facebook. I am African American and there are not a lot of African Americans in librarianship, but I had another friend who was African American and in a mom’s group with me in Atlanta. She became my mentor and encouraged me to become a librarian. Now I am in a librarian in Oakland. I am fortunate to have supportive colleagues in my system.
Oakland had an incident with a Muslim student in the adult literacy program being harassed on the steps of the main library and there was an effort to put up signs in the library and the city to showcase that everyone is welcome here. I have Muslim colleagues, in fact, three of the library aides that work in my unit are Muslim, but I am the only librarian. But I still do have support. It’s nice that we are all fasting together. But I don’t have a professional space, so this was definitely on my to-do list, trying to seek out others. I feel that this connection was divinely placed in my lap. I’m here wanting to have a space for us for our own voices to speak up about how we are represented in literature.
Ariana: That is amazing that there are other Muslims in your workplace, and of course that is something we also want to help support. There are a lot of Muslims in “support roles” in the library and we want to form an association, but part of that is having resources for those who might be interested in being in librarianship as a career.
Mahasin: I’m always trying to encourage everyone, but especially people of color and Muslims, to join the filed. I know some other students who are already doing amazing work, and I want to be there for others like people were there for me.
Ariana: We try to encourage others in the field, but seeing children and youth in literature is can make a huge impact and can help encourage children in many ways. I know that for many Muslim families having non-Islamic books, especially literature, is not important. And while there may be several factors that contribute to that, part of that is because they don’t see themselves in the pages. There may be one aspect of someone’s identity, they may be Southeast Asian, South Asian, etcetera- and THAT is rare enough, but to have Muslims depicted, and then to see ourselves depicted in a positive way is rarer still.
The sad thing is, at least from my experience, is that children’s literature is probably the place where we will see the most positive depictions of Muslims. If you look in Hoopla, Overdrive or any library catalog for the search term Islam, half will be titles that I might actually be interested in and the other half are written by Islamophobes or just polemics, by people who have a certain bent.
ALA DID invite a known Islamophobe to the annual conference when I was in library school and my reaction was shock. What did that gesture show me about my presence in the field? It was an indicator of how unwelcome I would be, and through the justification of intellectual freedom and “creating a balanced narrative”, my colleagues would be showing me the door. So I feel like moving forward we have to create our own space for our voices to be heard.
Mahasin: I wanted to add that my experience is that I was a daughter of converts who became Muslim in the light of African American liberation. And they were very conscious about the kinds of books they brought into our home. My earliest memories are of my father reading books, nonfiction books about the water cycle to me – I think he may be over now that I am not in STEM or a doctor! Still, they were not going to get books with images of children who did not look like us or those that would be racist or damaging. There was no Dr. Seuss in our house. My parents grumbled about many things that people are just now starting to recognize. So they made the effort to have the characters in books reflect what we looked like, our day to day life and aspects of family life. I am really excited for my kids because now there is more out there for them than what I had when I was growing up.
Hadeal: I really like what you said about creating our own space. I’m sure that conversations have been started in many pockets of ALA, but moving forward and starting something is exciting and I feel like it can lead to bigger conversations and goals. But I also want to reach the Muslim community, who know about libraries but may not recognize the importance of books in the home and I wonder why that is.
Ariana: We all know the terms of mirrors, windows and sliding doors, and that importance of work in diversity and affinity. There is a lot we can do going forward, looking at books from the past as well, where we can talk about whose gaze it is and who a book is for. And I do think that there is a lot of discussions to be had there.
Ariana: So we have had quite a bit of discussion about this, because initially when Sara, Hadeal and I had talked about naming conventions we thought about using something like uncovered or unveiled, something along those lines that was tongue-in-cheek funny, taking ownership of a label but also about books. But when setting up social media accounts I was looking for something pithy for accounts and the actual site address and grabbed “hijabi librarians” as a placeholder, but it was intended to be temporary. When Mahasin came on board we had a really in-depth conversation about the term hijab, the encompassing meaning behind it, and not identifying as a hijabi.
Mahasin: So, I cover my hair and grew up with the concept of modesty, especially after coming of age, however, I did not grow up with the language of hijab. I grew up with the language of headscarf, and others in my African American community used the term khimar. I think that’s because I grew up in the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, where language was really deliberate, precise and important. He taught that “Words make people” and that concept stayed with me. The conversations that we had growing up we always referred to the ayah (verse of the Qur’an) that used the word “khimar.” Conversations about the headscarf were as a piece of cloth and headdress, not a partition and not a curtain (as hijab means in Arabic). We talked about the uniqueness of the position of the Prophet’s wives and the etiquette in approaching them and the necessity of hijab, as discussed in the Qur’an as a protection specifically and uniquely for them.
I never have referred to myself as a muhajaba or hijabi, and it is a sort of a political act for me not to use the term. I don’t mean to be offensive in saying this. I have strong feelings about the word hijab as it’s used as a way to place an extra burden on women than what is asked by Allah. So although I understand the general concept of why the word is used, it is not a stance that I take and I will rarely use the word. It is interesting for me to have conversations with women who have similar views as me; we recognize that with the rise of Islamophobia, the headscarf has taken off as a symbol and token of diversity, especially in liberal spaces – where a lot of books and images that you see are of women wearing a scarf – having a person of African descent, a Latino, someone Asian, we know that they are going to be included and also, now, a Muslim woman in a headscarf is there! The term has become part of the general lexicon and it’s what people know. I would not say that I am anti-hijab in terms of terminology and use, but if asked, I will clarify why I don’t use that label. But I am supportive of our use of the term for now and I get it, but that’s where I am.
A few years back, University of Michigan professor and founder of Sapelo Square, Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, spearheaded a community poem entitled, “Elegy for the Khimar”, which laments the fading use of the term “khimar” for “hijab.”
Ariana: Thank you for the thorough explanation of your personal position. I think it encompasses a lot of the conversation and frustration that many Muslim women may have about the term hijab. As you were talking I was wondering when hijab became this collective term as an identifier marker. For me growing up, I never thought I was ever going to cover. My understanding was that it was something that was observed by the Prophet’s wives. In Malaysia and Indonesia, you hear tudung, kerudung, which I guess means to cover so it is synonymous with hijab, but they didn’t use that word. Funny, actually that heard from relatives, when did you start wearing jilbab which, from my Muslim student community, I understood to be a long-overcoat. And I told them that I didn’t use jilbab, sometimes an abaya, but they specifically meant the headscarf.
Hadeal: I grew up with the word mandeel, which means scarf, but I think I started using the word hijab when I would say mandeel and people didn’t know what that was. They would ask, “isn’t it called a hajeeb?” and I would answer back that it was a hijab.
Mahasin: I feel like at some point in my 20s that everyone started calling it a hijab. I did grow up in a mostly African American community, but then with more Arab and Pakistani Muslims, and I don’t remember exactly when, but it was not the preferred term in the late 80s.
Ariana: Do you think it may have to do with 9/11?
Mahasin: Maybe. But I think we discussed it in college, and that was before 9/11 for me. But, I don’t know.
Sara: Growing up for me, we called the scarf a tarha, but if someone asked us, we said hijab. For me hijab meant that I covered my hair, I wore long sleeved shirts and a long skirt or long pants. It was all encompassing, not just something on my head. But now if someone asks, “are you a hijabi?” then I answer, “oh yes, I wear the scarf.”
Hadeal: For us tarha was the bridal piece. Like you would see a bride’s headscarf and say, “the bride’s tarha is beautiful.” To me when we said scarf, it was very generic. But it is more than a scarf, like anyone can wear a scarf in winter, but the term headscarf, to me also wasn’t quite right. If people asked me what it was, I would say that it was a scarf I wrapped around my hair or my head. I just didn’t feel right. But really, sometimes anything is better, I once had a person call it a towel.
Mahasin, Ariana and Sara: Yup. Yes.
Ariana: Have we been called towelheads? Oh yeah.
Sara: Pillowcase. Everything.
Ariana: At one library I worked at, I had a patron refer to me as the white woman with a towel on her head, which, okay, no to the towel. But really, in what universe am I considered white? That was strange to me. More information on us and how we identify can be found on our bios page.
So when we talk about hijab and why we decided to keep the name “hijabi librarians” rather than go back to uncovered or unveiled, we also had a larger conversation about Orientalism, othering, or fetishization instead of empowerment or really reclaiming a term. We also talked about the idea of hijabi librarians as not being an inclusive term, but that if necessary, we will revisit it in the future.
Mahasin: I am laughing at the idea of us one day being known as “the site formerly known as hijabi librarians” ala Prince. I do feel like it is an evolving conversation, but that us taking the term and “capitalizing” on the recognition to create space for our own voices is deliberately powerful, but if we feel later that we have made or point or find something better, then perhaps at that time, we will change our moniker.