Exclusive: We speak to World Hijab Day founder Nazma Khan

It’s World Hijab Day (WHD) on February 1st and what better way to mark the occasion than to have a chat with the founder of the movement, Nazma Khan.  

Nazma came up with the idea as a way to foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting women (both Muslim and non-Muslim) to experience the hijab for one day.  

In this Q&A, the New Yorker tells us why she started WHD and how it was fuelled by the discrimination she faced as a young hijabi, particularly as an 11-year-old arriving in the US from Bangladesh.  

Nazma also shares some inspiring stories and explains how her faith has kept her strong in the face of adversity.  

As-salamu alaykum Nazma, hope you’re well and in good iman. Can you tell us about yourself and your initiative?

Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity. I’m the founder and CEO of the World Hijab Day Organisation. We are a global movement and a non-profit organisation whose mission is to dismantle discrimination against Muslim women through awareness, education and empowerment. We have many activities, including a global movement called ‘World Hijab Day’ (WHD) which is commemorated every February 1st.  

I founded WHD back in 2013 after years of personally being discriminated against for wearing the hijab. So, I wanted to bring awareness and normalise the hijab by inviting women from every background to walk in my shoes for one day. Now WHD is commemorated in over 150 countries.  

WHD has been going on for nearly a decade now, do you think there’s still a need for it?

Subhanallah, I started this in 2013 – almost a decade. And you would think that things will change. Of course, Alhamdulillah, we brought awareness but if you look at different parts of the world, let’s say Europe, Subhanallah, you will hear about the hijab ban every five or six months.  

Recently there was a proposed ban in France about hijab in sports. Or if you look at India recently, Karnataka is a place in India where Muslim students were not allowed to enter the classroom unless they removed their hijab. Now, look at Canada in December, this sister, a teacher and she was removed from her position — her crime was? Her hijab. Just because she wears the hijab, she was removed from her position.  

So there still needs to be awareness out there. And there has to be, on our part, educating the general public about what is the hijab and clearing all the misconceptions. So, it is important to have WHD and have everyone get involved.

How important is this day for Muslims in general, from what you’ve seen over the last 9 years? How significant has it been for the community you feel?

When I first started, I wanted our sisters, Muslim or non-Muslim, to wear the hijab for a day. And I did not plan to have an event.

But Muslims around the world literally took my movement as their own. And it actually resonated with them. They found the need to bring awareness even more, so they are hosting events from all over the world. So many people getting together, on an individual level to organisations, and they actually saw that people were coming to the table to learn about the hijab.  

Because the World Hijab event takes place from the street to the Parliament, and everything in between — school setting, universities, hospitals, businesses. It’s a great way to basically educate the people about the hijab and clear any misconceptions that people might have.

Hopefully, this will lessen the Islamophobia out there and the hate against us Muslims.

We’ve seen WHD trend every year and the amount of engagement and involvement across the board is very inspiring, isn’t it?  

Subhanallah when I first started this, I didn’t know it was going to be global. I just wanted to change one person. There’s a verse in the Quran; you save one person, you save the world. You kill one person, you kill the world. I took that idea; if I could change one person’s mind about the hijab, maybe they’ll change something.

So, I made a Facebook fan page called World Hijab Day, not knowing where it’s gonna go. The idea came to my mind in 2010 and then it marinated for the next three years. I wanted to do something but I didn’t have a team, I didn’t know anything about business. I didn’t know anything about non-profits.

And then finally in 2013, I launched it just a week before February 1. And within just a week, we had responses from 65 countries. It was incredible!  

Now, after nine years or so, it’s over 150 countries. You know, Subhanallah, it’s from Allah. When you have the pure intention to change the world for the sake of Allah, when there is no name or fame or monetary gain involved in it, I truly believe Allah will take you to a place you cannot even imagine. World Hijab Day is a perfect example of that.

Earlier, you talked about some of the ways the hijab has been politicised. As you correctly point out, we have lots of issues here in Europe, when it comes to the hijab. Why do you think the hijab is politicised? Not just in Europe, but like you said, across the world now.

I think that as a whole, our society is brainwashed by the false narratives by the media and those who are against the hijab. And the politicians are aware of this. And they take advantage of this misinformation, especially right before an election.  

The recent French hijab ban at sporting events is the perfect example of it. This is the reason why it’s so important for Muslims to get involved in WHD, in order to bring awareness about the hijab and clear any misconceptions.

That is a very good point you raise. We had a recent report in the UK that talked about how discrimination towards Muslims was far worse than any other religion. It implied that because Islamophobia is accepted in society, no one gets censored for saying anything bad about Muslims. And some people actually use that as a political gain. That’s what you’re saying, right?

Unfortunately, there is politics being used against the Muslim women’s body — this is so unacceptable. This is the reason we have WHD to educate people that whatever you hear from politicians, or the media or from those that are against hijab, please do not listen to them. Come to us, Muslim woman, the direct source.

We will talk to you, we will explain to you why we wear the hijab. We are not oppressed, nobody made me wear the hijab. My husband certainly did not force me to wear the hijab. And my dad is such a beautiful human being, he will not force me to do anything against my will.  

Just on that point. You’ve raised it before but there has been like a counter-movement that’s emerged, given oxygen by anti-Muslim figures and organisations. What do you say to those who say wearing the hijab goes against western values or is oppressive to women?

I believe this is a free world, anyone is free to do whatever they want. I am laser-focused on my work. And when you do something that is worthwhile, you will always face opposition. And that’s the beauty of doing something that is meaningful, we cannot let hate break our spirit and divert us from making this world a better place.

When it comes to not conforming to Western values, you know, if you look at the forest, it is so beautiful because it’s so diverse. Imagine everything was the same? It will be super boring.  

So as for me, hijab is my identity and celebrating my identity is liberating. But when I hear that hijab is a symbol of oppression. For me, that is very insulting, and very offensive because it is undermining my choice as a woman to wear the hijab.

We talk about women’s empowerment, yet when it comes to Muslim women, we are shut down right away because we have a piece of fabric on our heads. And we are made to believe that we don’t have a mind of our own, that we cannot think. That itself is taking our power away as women and that itself is oppressive to me.

What are some of the tangible things you’ve seen or heard that WHD has achieved? Do you have any anecdotes or stories?

You know, there are so many tangible things that took place because of World Hijab Day. For instance, my hometown New York City recognised WHD through proclamations since 2017.

Countries like the Philippines are recognising national hijab day. They’re passing laws to recognise February 1, where Muslims come out and educate the general public about the hijab and Islam in general. So there have been so many milestones through WHD.

But for me personally, it goes back to my classroom where I was discriminated against, for my hijab. This is where I was spat at, where my hijab was pulled, where I was being called names, such as Batman and Ninja, where I was surrounded by guys and girls, just because I had a piece of fabric on my head. So, when I see schools throughout the world, celebrating WHD and educating their students about the hijab, that to me is very personal and emotional.  

My hometown New York City earlier this week prepared for WHD in a district that has over 11,000 students. When I was looking through the pictures of an auditorium full of students, Subhanallah, my heart just melted. It’s like, if I could make one change through this movement, and that is changing our next generations, then I have achieved my goal Alhamdulillah.

It’s amazing. You’re like a daughter of New York and to see, I suppose, New Yorkers adopting your ideas, must feel great! Did you imagine it will ever be this big?

I don’t know what Allah did. But this is from Allah. I’m very, very thankful. And my husband is the most incredible human being. He always tells me to renew my intention — who am I doing this for?

When I see opposition, or this and that, I always remember who am I doing this for? You know, Subhanallah when Musa (AS) was being chased by Firaun’s (Pharaoh) army, Allah parted the ocean for him. So, the help comes from Allah. Success comes from Allah. Nobody could stop that. Whatever’s in your Qadr, your decree, it will happen.

I continue to do my thing with the intention that I do it for the sake of Allah. And if the success happens, Alhamdulillah. If it doesn’t, may Allah accept my work, whatever effort I’m putting to make this world a better place, Inshaallah.

Ameen. One last question and it’s already achieved a lot but what’s the legacy you want WHD to leave? Do you want it to reach a stage where we don’t even need the day?

I believe that hate will always remain in this world, but we still have to light up our candles in the darkness.

I envision a world where my sisters can literally flaunt their hijab with pride, walking on the street without being persecuted for their hijab. I also envision a day where my sisters do not have to choose between their education and their faith. I also envision a day where my sisters will not have to choose between their faith and their livelihoods. And through this WHD, I envision that the regulations in over 60 plus countries on the hijab, will be lifted inshallah.  

And I also have a personal selfish reason that I’m doing this — that after I die, thousands of years from now, people can lift their hand, and make dua for me. And to me, that is the ultimate goal of this movement of mine inshallah.

That’s amazing. Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to raise, that you think is important to point out?

There is a misconception that we are being forced to wear the hijab Subhanallah.

When I first started wearing the hijab, my dad didn’t tell me to wear it. I thought it was such a beautiful, such a feminine thing to do, you know, to cover yourself, to preserve your beauty, and shine your personality. So, I chose to wear the hijab at the age of 11. Because I thought it was so beautiful, and the misconception that this is a misogynistic piece of clothing, men want to control me, this and that….Subhanallah come and talk to Muslim women, you will get to hear that it has nothing to do with men.

This is a spiritual and personal connection between my Lord, my Creator and I. It is my decision to wear the hijab. And you know what, putting on this hijab is a huge responsibility. I am so thankful that Allah gave me this responsibility because to me the hijab is like a GPS, which guides me to be a better person. When I go on the street, I have to be like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot litter or I cannot swear’, or I have to be my very best self.  

It guides me to be a better member of society and I am very thankful that I’m able to carry this banner on my head and represent the most amazing faith that we have. And I hope I could do justice to it. You know, and I’m very grateful that Allah gave us this opportunity and may Allah accept my little deed. Ameen

Ameen. You have the drive to push all this but also there’s been negativity and some difficulty, and that must have taken a toll on you sometimes. How important has faith been for you to get you through those periods – both good and bad?

Subhanallah such a great question. The amount of hate we get! I just want to give you an example. When I was pregnant, I had a high-risk pregnancy and I was bedridden. I would throw up every day from the morning sickness. And then when it came to 14 weeks, I was thinking, Subhanallah, I’m feeling a little better now.

As I told myself that, within five minutes there was a knock on my door. And who was that? Law officials knocking on my door because they got a report from overseas that supposedly through World Hijab Day young girls are being ‘brainwashed’ or some other similar allegations. I was completely shocked Subhanallah. We got our lawyers together to see what was going on.

I remember at 22 weeks, they knocked on my door again, knowing that I had a high-risk pregnancy. At that time, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and fractured bone and so I was completely bedridden. Subhanallah, I thought I was going to have a miscarriage because of all the allegations.

The amount of hate that I am going through, if it wasn’t for my faith, I’ll be in deep trouble. But you know what, at the end of the day, I know who is my Creator and He will protect me regardless. Whatever is written for me is going to happen. But I cannot let hate destroy my spirit and not fight for what is right.

Faith always guides me and calms me down. It’s incredible to have faith, to not lose your sanity, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride, good and bad.  So, I’m very thankful that, Alhamdulillah, through Islam I’m able to find peace in my heart.

Nazma will appear on The Today Show on Tuesday, February 1st at 7pm.

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