“I’ve been told that if I want to succeed in life, if I want to get a job, if I want to get a boyfriend, if I want to be considered an autonomous and decent and successful person, I need to remove my hijab. A man once broke my heart when he pointed to my hijab and said, ‘you will not get anywhere with this!’.“
First impressions can be hard to change.
But what you might never guess from first glance is that Zeina Atamish is also a Chemical Engineer, an international MBA holder, trilingual. We are honored that this incredibly eager woman has joined us today to share her experiences as a hijabi navigating the modern day world.
“In the past I’ve been told my hijab makes it daunting to approach me because people are unfamiliar with it. I wanted to change this.”
Name: Zeina Atamish // Age: 24
Born in: Iraq
Based in: Istanbul
Currently in: Jordan
Languages: Arabic, English, Turkish
Fun fact: I love cats more than humans
(but I love humans too!)
Meet Zeina, the woman who is normalizing the Hijab
Zeina Atamish is a woman with a mission: to normalize the Hijab. Born in Iraq, raised in Jordan, and educated in Istanbul, Zeina wants you to know that her hijab is part of her, but it’s not all of her. Just as you might not want to be solely identified by your race, employment status, or gender, Zeina doesn’t want to be solely identified as “just another hijabi”.
Wearing a hijab can be a struggle for many modern day Muslim women. To the outside world, the hijab remains a mystery. What does it mean? Can I talk to her? Why is she wearing it? What does it represent? The modern day hijabi woman is often conflicted: to continue to isolate ones self, to be seen as “different”, and to be a judged by an article of clothing in the workplace, in dating, and in every day life? Or simply to remove the hijab, the symbol of their faith, to soothe the machinations of an already trying daily life?
Fashion is a cyclical thing. Every few years, it changes. Things go in and out of style, and people forget how or why or what possessed them to cash in four paychecks for those awful Ugg boots. Over the past decade, hundreds of trends have come and gone. But while one particular part of my wardrobe has remained constant, it has become increasingly more contentious.
Now the first, and sometimes only, thing people notice about me is my hijab. Slowly, over the last few years, other aspects of my identity have seemingly faded away. Now I am just another Muslim in a hijab.
There is always a lot more of the story than looks.
I wanted to prove to everyone, to the new people I would meet from around the world that the hijab (head scarf) doesn’t define me. It just adds to me. It makes me unique. I am a person who wants to live her life, to experience, to enjoy.
A hijab is a fabric hair covering that muslim women are required to wear as part of Islamic religion. In our religion, women must not be judged by the way they look but about how they think. As a Muslim woman living in an international society, I frequently hear insinuations that my hijab represents limitations; that it means that I don’t have the right to choose, or that I am deemed inferior, or other nonsensical and misinformed preconceptions. Let me very clear: I have made choice to wear it, as have the other women you see proudly donning their hijabs. It is our choice, and no one else’s.
My name is Zeina Atamish and I am a strong independent woman with a real identity and real dreams. This is my story.
Upon graduating from university, I realized that I have so much more to give to the world. I wouldn’t be happy settling for just any job, or any lifestyle. I wanted to leave an impact, to create change and to influence people. I wanted to travel and leave behind me a wake of people who would talk about Iraq with wanderlust and yearning. I wanted to dispel the negative and prejudice perceptions of my home country.
I began my Masters degree at Kadir Has in Turkey and set out to change the reputation of the hijab and Iraq, one person at a time. As I started my new journey in Turkey, I had one goal (other than finishing my masters degree) which was to create a strong, warm and peaceful impression of Iraq and the Middle East and Arabs in general. In the past I’ve been told my hijab makes it daunting to approach me because people are unfamiliar with it. So I sought out to change this.
I will be honest. It was absolutely terrifying. It was my first experience really being on my own, and Istanbul is a city that is quite literally divided by two continents and two cultures – not exactly an easy or slow transition city. It is big and bustling and can be extremely overwhelming. I lived in an Erasmus building with students from all around the world: Belgium, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Jordan, France, Pakistan, turkey, you name it. I was scared that people would judge me based on my hijab. Past experiences, even ones in Arab countries, have conditioned me to be apprehensive about people’s reactions. But I was overwhelmed by the warm and positives responses people had towards me – people who who saw beyond my head covering and saw me for me. I met so many wonderful, talented and warm people – people who eventually became dear friends of mine.
For example, a guy who makes a one minute Facebook video every day featured me in one of his videos (Nas Daily). I met a crazy lovable American girl, Alyne Tamir, who traveled the world. I even got to meet a famous fashion blogger, Dina Torkia. I am now the godmother of my Indonesian friends baby! I’ve gotten to attend two amazing Turkish weddings! And of course, there’s the guy at the neighborhood corner market who wants to marry me (classic Turkish men). I’ve had to the pleasure to befriend the craziest people ever, who have made my Istanbul journey one of the best experiences of my life.
My first day in Istanbul, I met a Belgium man who never had never before spoken to either a hijab girl or someone from Iraq, let alone had a friendship with one. Somehow, I managed to convince him to take me on a tour around Istanbul and he taught me about everything from transportation to where to eat. Shout out to Barber! Yes, his name is Barber. But of all the lessons Barber taught me that day, the most important was that I am special, both because of and regardless of my hijab. He taught me that while it is a very important part of who I am, I am not defined by it.
I learned many important things and met many incredible people from all around the world while I completed my Masters in the magical city of Istanbul. I learned that everyone is different in their own way. Our unique attributes and characteristics and features… those are the things that makes us all so special. Those are the things we should celebrate.
I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences. I’ve been told that if I want to succeed in life, if I want to get a job, if I want to get a boyfriend, if I want to be considered an autonomous and decent and successful person, I need to remove my hijab. A man once broke my heart when he pointed to my hijab and said, ‘you will not get anywhere with this!’.
Hijab doesn’t make you a good or a bad person. It is a choice someone has made that is no different than deciding which jeans, or shoes, or shirt to wear in the morning. It is a representation of our culture, our values and our value, but it does not define us.
About the Authors
Maya Villanueva of Roam Travel PR : Maya likes rad people, exploring new places and trying to eat her way around the world. oh, and wine. She really likes wine. Luckily, her travel PR company, Roam, is about connecting all those things.