Fatimah “Honey” Al-Sherri sat upright in the wicker chair, her steaming latte on the table in front of her. She was easy to spot in the crowded coffee shop. The bold mauve scarf wrapped around her head contrasted with the bright red wall behind her. Her body was covered; her arms and legs concealed under black jeans, a white shirt, and a long sleeved black cardigan.
Honey was born in Oxford, Mississippi to two Palestinian immigrants. Her father, the only in his family to leave his home for the United States made the remarkable journey from Palestine to Mississippi to pursue an education. Since then, the Al-Sherri family has made Oxford their home melding the culture of their homeland with their new residence.
Honey, a practicing Muslim, made the decision to cover her body and wear her hijab after the conclusion of her ninth grade year, following in the footsteps of her oldest sister. Honey and her oldest sister, Najat, are the only two of the six daughters in their family who have chosen to cover.
“I feel like I challenge beauty norms, I guess,” she said, holding her coffee in her hand. “There aren’t many Muslims [here] and there aren’t a lot of other hijabi girls like me.”
Hijabi (noun): A woman or girl who wears the Islamic head covering
The sacred text of Islam regulates the dress of women. The text states, women are to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty” (Quran 24:31), meaning for many covering their bodies, displaying only their hands and faces.
According to the Pew Research Center, among the some 1 million Muslim women living in the United States, only 43% cover at all times. This statistic is found following a recent trend in the U.S. of Muslim women unveiling and pursuing their religion in non-traditional ways.
Honey began her life like this other 57% of Muslim women, uncovered. Her decision to begin to cover came after a long year of investigating her faith and pursuing a more intentional practice of her religion. “To this I day I don’t know what made me want to put on [my hijab]. My entire ninth grade year I got more into my religion. I wasn’t really religious before that. It kind of just happened, I just decided to wear it,” she said.
Dr. Sarah Moses, Assistant Professor of Religion at Ole Miss, explains, “Like all religious guidelines, I think many Muslim women would say that the choice to cover or not cover has to do with their personal spirituality and their relationship with Allah. Thus, many Muslims would view this choice as something that must be made personally and freely so that it is a genuine expression of faith and not something forced on women. In Muslim-majority countries where covering is not required by law, you usually see a wide diversity in terms of Muslim women’s decision on this practice.”
To Honey, the significance of her hijab is rooted in the religious law of Islam and her desire to adhere to the law,“There is a concept in Islam where we feel like your beauty isn’t meant for anybody out there to see. We don’t really think that other people, mainly men, deserve to see us,” she explained.
But for her, like many Muslim women, the significance doesn’t stop at regulated modesty.
“The way I see it is, if you see me walking down the street you automatically know who I am- you know that I’m a Muslim because of the way I cover up,” she continued. “So every woman in my religion who chooses to cover up is like a spokesperson. I’m a representative of my faith. I think that puts women in a more elevated position than men. I think we are given more of a responsibility and a voice in our religion.”
Outer beauty wasn’t part of her decision to wear her hijab, she said. “I don’t think that I can’t be beautiful because I choose to cover up,” she added.
In the near six years Honey has been proudly covering herself, she’s been confronted with the preconceptions and judgments of others, misunderstandings from fellow classmates, those in her community and even from other Muslim women who don’t practice covering as she does.
“You’re so pretty though, why would you want to cover that up?”
“A lot of people have this misconception that if I cover I feel like my beauty is being taken away, but I actually became so much more confident in myself after I started wearing it,” she said. “I felt like people [weren’t] going to be looking at what I have to offer physically so I felt like I have to overcompensate in a way with personality.”
“You’re not going to be able to find a husband if you cover up”
“I think that’s whack,” she said boldly. “Whoever loves me won’t care because they will still find me beautiful. Obviously they’ll get to see me later on, but I have a beautiful mind and that’s just as important, if not more important than any kind of physical beauty.”
“You’re weak, controlled by the men in your life”
“I don’t want people to look at me and pity me and think ‘that poor girl she wears a scarf.’ I made the decision completely on my own. I didn’t have any male figure in my life forcing me to do it, it was completely a decision I made and I stand by it 100 percent. I don’t regret it at all. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
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Honey is not alone in her quest to seek individuality and beauty beneath her coverings. She seeks inspiration from hijabi bloggers, women around the world who teach other Muslim girls how to be fashionable without compromising their modesty. “They show that you don’t have to live in the Middle Ages to practice Islam,” she said speaking of her favorite hijabi bloggers. Hijab look books, fashion shows, and scarf wrapping tutorials are just a few of the services these bloggers offer in an effort to inspire young hijab-wearing women around the world.
Honey scrolled through her Instagram to point out her five favorite bloggers, among them are women living in the United Kingdom, Texas, Canada, with public followings ranging from 30,000 to 1.2 million.
“I love getting my inspiration from them,” Honey smiled and pulled out her phone to reference some of the photos she’s seen. “I have a lot of favorites. I love to watch their Youtube channels.”
When it comes to keeping in trend, Honey admits that for her, dressing and styling is not all that different. “Basically, I wear American clothes and then put on a scarf, that’s pretty much it,” she said, examining her outfit. “You can make any outfit hijabi friendly.”
Honey certainly has not sacrificed accessorizing to keep in step with her religious beliefs; at home her closet is full of more than 300 scarves in different colors, textures, patterns, and hues. She makes an effort to try a new scarf everyday but finds herself often returning to an old favorite, “plain black,” she laughed.
When asked what she wished people knew about covering she said, “I don’t think that [people who judge] really understand the concept that I don’t have to prove that I’m beautiful to anyone else,” she said proudly. “I know who I am. I think I’m pretty. And I don’t believe that I have to prove it to everyone in public and show them that I am.”
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Want to see more about women in the community challenging beauty norms? Check Womens’ Writes, a collection by me and some of my classmates!