I Took off My Hijab

I never questioned that I was being given less respect and love, or that I was not as accepted. I always thought that the type of treatment I was exposed to was just how the world was. I didn’t know people could be nicer…

I pray one day, and soon, that people will be familiar enough with all other cultures and beliefs that they are not afraid or have reservations, and that the thing that stands out to them is not the wrap around my head, but the smile on my face.

If you wear hijab, some people (particularly men) are probably unsure how to interact with you, because they don’t know what the cultural differences are and are afraid of giving offense. Some people may be truly prejudiced and won’t interact with you normally because they don’t like you as a representative of whatever twisted image they have of your culture. Regardless of the reason, by adopting an unusual form of dress, you are choosing to be visibly different, and in virtually every human culture differences draw attention and unequal social treatment.

Wearing hijab, Hasidic hairstyles, bindi, or a cross of ash on your forehead means that you are choosing to send intentionally visible cultural signals. The discrimination faced by those who send such signals is self-created. That doesn’t mean that the discrimination is justified, but it is unquestionably directed toward you due to a choice you have made.

In contrast, someone who has a different appearance often cannot change that. If you are a minority race, have unusual coloring or size, or are in some other way intrinsically different from those around you, you sometimes wish that you could look like everyone else.

I’m an American of mostly European extraction living in Japan. I can’t take off my “hijab”. The difference between me and the people around me is as plain as the (rather prominent) nose on my face. I get treated differently by nearly every single person I come in contact with. I am pointed at, remarked upon, noticed everywhere I go. I have been followed by police who often eye foreigners as potential troublemakers, little old ladies who comment to themselves on what I buy at the supermarket, and groups of little kids who call out, “Hello, gaijin-san!” or “Uwaa, gaijin da!” (Wow, it’s a foreigner!) like I’m a particularly interesting species of animal they’ve only seen at the zoo before. Expats encountering another foreigner also often give some gesture of acknowledgement; a sometimes welcome, sometimes intrusive sign of solidarity.

I don’t complain about these things that often because I know that — in part — I receive such treatment because of a choice I have made: I don’t have to live in Japan. I could, technically, pack up my family and move to the US or another Western country where I wouldn’t be an individual of a tiny 1% expatriate minority in a highly homogenous population. Unfortunately, that is what it would take for me to be treated as everyone else.

I wish Japanese society was much less driven by uchi and soto[1] distinctions, but after more than a decade here, I know I’m not going to change it. All I can do is make personal connections, so that at least some people don’t treat me as a gaijin, but rather as a person who just happens to be non-Japanese.

I wish that the key to being respected, accepted, and treated equally was as simple as choosing not to wear hijab.


  1. 内; uchi inside. 外; soto outside. Uchi carries the added meaning of being part of the group, soto is everyone outside of the group; i.e.: “us” and “them”. A scholarly treatment of the linguistic implications available here  ↩