'Aren't you hot in that?' is not just a question

By Heba Alshareef

(August 7, 2009) – “Is that seat taken?” a woman asked, eyeing the empty spot on the bench where I was sitting with my daughter.

“Be my guest,” I said, smiling.

We were at Marineland, and Amina, my 3-year-old daughter, and I were sheltering in the shade while my husband and older children went to play.

The woman and I sat in silence, her daughter in a stroller, mine beside me on the bench. Was it a strained silence? I don’t think so.

I wear the hijab. It’s all black, but it does show the circle of my face.

Sometimes, Muslim women wonder how people perceive them, what the hijab tells others – but I’ve been wearing it long enough to feel comfortable.

They will see me how they want to see me.

My bench companion’s toddler woke up and complained, “I’m hungry.” Her mother had much to offer. “Do you want crackers and cheese, Susie? Cookies? I have the rest of your sandwich.”

“Blueberries,” Susie said and her mother brought out a pint of washed blueberries.

The woman turned to us. “Would you like some?” she asked.

She couldn’t have known how uncomfortable that offer made me.

I had come to Marineland unprepared for such a long afternoon – without snacks, without even enough cash to buy snacks.

Now Amina was left to the mercy of strangers.

I think women in general, and mothers in particular, feel they have to be ready for anything, that they must know all the answers. And maybe because of negative ideas about Muslim women, we’re even more inclined to play “defence.”

So I was about to politely decline but, before I could, Amina’s hands had reached inside the pint and she was happily munching on berries.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It seems like she’s determined to finish the whole thing. She’s usually not so forward.”

“We all do it,” my bench companion said, and laughed.

She had learned to pack well for Marineland, she explained.

It was close to home for her and she had grown tired of going back and forth all day long to retrieve things she had forgotten.

We got to talking; she mentioned the pros and cons of living in a small town in wine country – “Hey, we just got our first pizza delivery shop!” – but, on the down side, there wasn’t a large selection of school choices and the one available to Susie had a religious affiliation.

“I don’t believe anyone should impose their religion on others,” she said.

I nodded. Muslims, too, believe there should be “no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an 2:256)

Then, as if suddenly realizing that maybe this was a taboo subject with an obviously Muslim woman, she retreated.

It was back to blueberries – which, I quickly observed, my daughter seemed determined to finish.

I apologized again.

“Oh let her,” my bench companion said.

“Blueberries are very refreshing on hot days like today.”

And then it came. Muslim women reading this – particularly hijabis, the ones whose appearance announces to the world what their religion is – will know exactly what I’m talking about.

“Aren’t you hot in that?”

Whether we wear a veil, a hijab, a niqab or even a burqa, the question is inevitable. Our feelings in response can range from exasperation to anger to resentment.

What to say?

“I answer by telling them how convenient my life is,” a proud hijabi told me. “I am protected from sun damage, I am well ventilated and I don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on summer outfits and sun block!”

The “aren’t you hot” question makes one of my friends feel singled out, as if an otherwise pleasant moment has been rudely interrupted. She feels her reasons for wearing the hijab are not understood – but that reflects ignorance on the part of the questioner.

Another friend finds it annoying. “We wouldn’t think of asking someone wearing a mini skirt in winter, `Don’t you feel cold?'”

Oftentimes, Muslim women analyze the components of the situation in order to decipher the intent behind the question.

How was it asked? Was it in a derogatory manner?

Is it a sincere desire to seek knowledge? Or am I being used for a laugh?

But on this afternoon at Marineland, I realized my bench companion meant no harm.

“It’s surprisingly cool material,” I replied with a smile.

“That’s good.” she said, smiling back, and offered me the pint of blueberries.

“You better get some before they’re all gone.”

Heba Alshareef is the author of Release Your Inner Queen of Sheba! The Muslim woman’s Guide to Leading her Best Life. She lives in the GTA and blogs at iamsheba.com