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Ask Haute Hijab – How Do I Manage Being a Hijabi/Muslim Woman in the Dorms & College?
Aug 9, 2022
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Editor’s note: This question for this “Ask Haute Hijab” column came from a young college-bound lady. Our team at HH are all beyond the college years, and many of us didn’t have experiences with wearing hijab in the dorms, so we solicited feedback from Sally Beiruti, a recent college grad to help us out! This column is also part of our Haute Hijab Academy series this month, in which we are bringing you content to help you prep for back to school, work and the start of the fall season!
Dear Haute Hijab,
I’m a hijabi who is about to start college, and I’m going to be living in a dorm on campus. Do you have any advice?
Salaam dear friend!
I am so excited for you! This is going to be such an important and formative time in your life, Insha’Allah. I remember I was full of excited giddiness and deep anxiety before starting college because, although I was ecstatic about chasing my dreams and going off to new places, leaving home for the first time was really scary. When I was asked to address the above question for the “Ask Haute Hijab” advice column, I immediately reached out to my fellow hijabi friends who had different dorm experiences to get their input. The following tips are my attempt at combining their advice with my own experiences into a list of how to manage hijab and dorm/college life as a Muslim woman.
1. Clear communication with roommates and setting boundaries is key.
This was an area I had to pull heavily from my friends’ experiences because I lived in a single (meaning no roommates) throughout my time in dorms. Most of you, however, will probably have roommates during your dorm life. Being upfront with your roommate(s) about boundaries and living standards can make your life a lot easier down the line. This should include a conversation about chores, rules around guy friends visiting and having alcohol in the room(s), sleep schedules, and alarm clocks.
The sleep schedule and alarm points are particularly important when considering fajr prayer so your roommate(s) are not disturbed or confused. If you are rooming with someone who is not familiar with Islam, explain our prayers to them so they are not confused when they walk into a room and you are in sujood. These are all considerations to keep in mind, especially if your housing system allows you to choose a roommate and you’re weighing your options. Having these conversations early will make the rest of your experience much smoother.
2. Have a convenient cover-up!
Sally Beiruti
Even if you live in a girls-only dorm, there is a high likelihood that there will always be a guy around in the hallways or elsewhere on your floor. He could be a guest visiting one of your neighbors, a graduate resident advisor, or a security guard. One tip I have is to have a convenient cover-up for when you want to walk around your floor to visit a friend’s room, go to the restroom, or grab something from the kitchen. I used to use a hoodie or my prayer clothes. My friends have also used a light jacket and a hijab.
This is even more relevant if you live in a mixed dorm. A friend of mine who was in that situation recommended buying a onesie with a hood made from towel material so you can walk to your room after a shower. The boundaries between what is home and what is school become blurred when you live on campus, so it’s important for you to define your boundaries around hijab and how you dress around the dorm. A part of this would be letting your roommate know that you need to know if a guy is coming into your shared space so you can grab your hoodie or hijab.
3. Advocate for yourself.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to leadership in your dorm or your school’s chaplain if you feel like your needs are not being met. When I applied for housing in graduate school, I was initially placed in a housing situation where I would have to cook all my meals in a shared kitchen (with no meal plan). I disputed the housing decision because of my lack of comfort with cooking using the same appliances that others use to cook pork, and I ended up getting a different housing offer as a result.
Additionally, my undergraduate dorm accommodated my medical dietary restrictions on top of their existing halal food accommodations because I asked for it. You won’t know how your school is willing to accommodate if you don’t ask.
4. Keep up the good habits you learned at home and were reminded of by your family.
This piece of advice applies to any important habits that you needed reminders of back home. This could include praying on time, tidying your room, going to Jummah or doing laundry. Set yourself alarms, download apps on your phone to help, put up reminder notices around your room, be “prayer reminder” buddies with a friend - whatever it takes! Take this time to make your parents proud of how they raised you.
5. Be an active part of your dorm community!
A college lecture hall; image source: Unsplash
Our faith places an emphasis on neighbors. There’s a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “Jibreel did not stop instructing me to treat neighbors well until I thought he would make them my heirs.” [Sahih Al-Bukhari 6015, Sahih Muslim 2625]. Take time to get to know your neighbors! Go to events put on by your dorm or floor. Share snacks and invite them to study together or hang out (in a COVID-friendly manner). This could make your dorm community feel more like home and make it a more friendly space for everyone.
6. Find your community – good company Is very important.
The friends you make here can become some of the most important people in your life. I owe a lot to the communities I was a part of during undergrad, especially for their part in helping me get through the rough patches I experienced. I saw college as a pressure cooker of friendship: When you’re going through stressful classes together, you become closer faster. On the other hand, college is also a space where you can (and have to be) more intentional about choosing and making friends.
In high school, you were seeing the same people more or less for eight hours every day, so you didn’t have to put as much thought into it. College is different, so make sure you put time and effort into the friendships you want to build. Good friends (الصحبةالصالحة) are important to help keep you grounded and shield you from negative peer pressure.
Your friends will also form some of the most important support systems you have when things are hard. They can, as one of my friends put it, help “keep you sane,” whether by hosting periodic Avatar: The Last Airbender watch parties in their rooms with Domino’s pizza or chocolate chip cookies or taking you home with them over break when they know you’re having a hard time and your family is far away.
You can also draw strength from your community members. I remember, after I started wearing hijab (after my first year of college), my MSA friends rented a couple of cars to drive to a mall outside of the city for Black Friday shopping. I was anxious because it was my first time wandering that far from the comfort of my campus in the U.S. (especially during the 2016 election season) in a hijab. I remember looking to my friend who had been wearing hijab for years and telling her I would follow her lead in how she carried herself.
She made me take my jacket hoodie off to show my hijab and we walked into the mall together, where we had a great night adventuring among the chaotic crowds. I gained so much strength and confidence from my friends. I would definitely advise you to put effort into the friendships you make. Although this isn’t everyone’s experience, I always say that the people I met were the best part of my college experience.
7. Maintain contact with family and friends from back home.
Maintaining relationships that mean a lot to you from before college is very important. You can expect some times in college to be really hard, whether academically, socially, emotionally or otherwise. Sometimes you need the comfort of people who have known you since childhood when you’re experiencing a lot of change. Call your parents (or other close family members) as frequently as you can. One of my friends, when I asked her what advice she has, said that it’s important during this first time you’re away from home that you “recharge by remembering where you came from and checking in with the people that love you.”
8. Work on your iman in consistent ways.
College can be a time of spiritual growth as well as academic growth. Take advantage of the opportunities available in your college community or city for Islamic education or other venues of growth. This could be attending a weekly halaqa, an informal course on an Islamic topic or attending Jummah when you can. Your iman (faith) can help keep you grounded when you face challenges, so make sure to set aside time to grow yourself spiritually.
9. Expect a LOT of questions about your faith and identity.
Image source: Pexels
Depending on where you go to school, you might be a lot of people’s first Muslim friend. People who get comfortable around you might ask you a lot of questions, including some ignorant ones. Although these might feel offensive at times, try to identify where it is coming from – is it a place of innocent curiosity rather than an intentional microaggression?
You can use moments like this to educate them. These questions can sometimes help you identify gaps in your own Islamic knowledge, so this can also be an opportunity for you to seek out knowledge (whether it be from trusted books, your MSA’s chaplain, or scholars in your community) and self-improve. And, if you’re not up for being an encyclopedia on Islam for your friends, direct them to your college’s MSA or a local mosque to get their questions answered.
10. Keep your eye on the prize. Remember why you’re here.
Living in a dorm can sometimes mean that you’re surrounded by distractions. Remember why you’re there. Figuring out a balance of work, rest and life can be challenging during your undergraduate studies, especially with the FOMO resulting from campus events happening all the time. It wasn’t until my last semester of undergrad that I started to feel like I was able to strike a relatively healthier balance.
Prioritize your education, health and well being, and schedule breaks whenever you can. These breaks can be small (an arts and crafts night with your friends in your dorm, attending a neighboring school’s MSA lecture series or a short trip to a bookstore) or bigger plans off campus to attend events or discover hidden gems in your college town or city. You can also figure out ways to cope with stress that make work more bearable.
My favorite way to make myself less stressed when I couldn’t afford a real break was taking my laptop to different cafes in the city to work there or even just making the trek across campus to my favorite library spot with a river view. When scheduling, try to also allocate time to things like tidying your room and exercising. It took me a while to realize the impact those two things can have on your mental health.
11. Explore your interests and passions.
This is less specific to hijabis in dorms and is more generally on starting college: Use this time to explore your interests and passions! It’s okay for you to take classes in subjects you had never considered before just because they pique your interest. It’s also okay for you to realize you want to pursue a different major than the one you applied to the school for. If you’re anything like me, you only thrive when you’re doing work you genuinely care about.
Figure out what you care about and what you definitely don’t want to work on. Take classes outside of your major when your schedule allows. For example, I took a drawing class during my undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering that became a nice mental break from my other classes. Similarly, a class I took outside of my major later during undergrad led to me making a drastic shift in my career trajectory because of how much I loved it. Take advantage of the new place that you’re in and your independence to learn what you love!
12. Be unapologetically you.
And, last, but most certainly not least, be unapologetically your whole self. Never feel like you have to play down any part of your identity, whether we are talking about your deen or even your hobbies and interests. Your first time leaving home is a formative time. You want to make sure you don’t stifle any part of who you are. Insha’Allah, if you’re lucky, the people you meet here are going to be some of the best friends you keep forever, so you want them to know you for who you really are.
I was lucky in the community I found, with my non-Muslim friends accommodating my comfort and dietary restrictions when we’d plan social outings during undergrad, such as not ordering alcoholic drinks when we grab dinner together or my guy friends understanding that they should not come in for a hug when saying goodbye.
It’s okay if you stand out. People will value you for how genuine you are. I’ve seen how carrying oneself with confidence and sincerity can inspire others to do the same and reflect on themselves and their relationship with faith. By hiding parts of who you are, you might be missing out on opportunities to connect with people on a deep level.
Good luck, sist! Insha’Allah these will be blessed years. Hold on to your values and you will do great!
Sally Beiruti is the program manager for monitoring and evaluation for a project at an international NGO that works with refugee resettlement service providers. She graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and from Columbia with a master of public health degree. You can find her LinkedIn here.
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