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In This Skin

Art exhibit featuring works by students in Muslim Women and Veiling: Transnational Perspectives (ASIA 452), taught by Dr. Sahar Amer, Spring 2013, UNC-Chapel Hill

In our class this semester, each of us was invited to wear hijab (the veil) for a day and also to develop our own self-portraits with the help of human rights artist, Mr. Todd Drake. This exhibit features two images of us: wearing the hijab (how others see us) and a self-portrait (how we want others to see us). While we each had very different experiences and a different story to tell, we found that our experiences reflected these four themes:

  • Veiling as choice
  • Veiling and internal reflection
  • Our hair is our veil
  • Beauty in modest veiling

We invite you to come and explore our work and reflect on the multiple meanings of veiling and the complexity of all human beings. We are all a lot more than what we wear. Please click the tabs at the bottom to view the images (10 pairs in 24 slides).

When we wore our hijab for one day, we realized the importance of choice and lack of presumption. We all hoped that by just wearing the hijab, we would be involved in dissociating the veil from negative assumptions and in countering prejudices towards Muslims. We realized that each of us did not represent an entire community. Likewise, veiling is not just about being Muslim and does not represent the entire Muslim community. Each of us is an individual. We hope that our experience and work will help others see the veil as a very human and individual choice. We hope that our work will help humanize the veil.


Self Portrait: I wanted to portray the driving force in my life recently and I keep coming back to this quote. My brother was killed almost 3 years ago in a terrorist attack. We both worked for the same non-profit organization and I felt that after he died it was my responsibility to continue his work in my own life. I struggled with how to portray this and the only thing I could think of was to put this quote. I did not want to seem sad or over emotional, as this is not a burden but something that spurs me forward. At his funeral I challenged his friends with this quote, that we should not just be burdened by his death, but rather continue to live his life in our own. Through my posture, I wanted to show that this was something constantly on my mind, but also something peaceful. I do not want it to come about as depressed and defining but rather a constant thought on my mind.





Hijab: At the start of the day I was conscious of every inch of fabric and every look in my direction, however by the end of the day I felt no more conspicuous then if I had a new hair cut. I do not say that to take away from the religious importance of hijab, but it made me realize that with the spiritual aspect of hijab it is not more than a fashion trend. I think this realization was the most important part of the experience for me. It weighed on me that the ability to choose to veil should be the most important part of veiling. If wearing the hijab is an important spiritual decision, the idea of having it mandated or outlawed takes away from the spirit of the act and degrades it to merely a piece of cloth. Ultimately, I do not know that I would have understood this reality as clearly if I had not worn the hijab myself.

Superwoman: Humanizing the Notion of Saving the World: I chose to develop my self-portrait with a turtle-shell mask for peace to frame my image as if I were superwoman. Many fictitious characters who attempt to save the world wear a mask in their missions. I choose to show half of my face because I wanted to humanize the notion of saving the world. I believe this image represents progress towards a greater civil society where each individual can contribute to change in their own way at their own pace like a turtle. I am using a turtle shell as a mask because I believe a turtle symbolizes my efforts of promoting social justice across the world. Progress is slow, but it is constantly moving, just like a turtle.


Veiling in the Workplace: I truly believe that the promotion of diversity on campus and in the workplace has definitely played a huge role in people’s attitudes towards women who veil. After events like 9/11 people seem more reluctant to engage or interface with Muslims or women who veil. However, such events led people to become more curious about Muslim traditions and practices. Thus, as people gained more knowledge about different aspects of Muslim traditions, including veiling, they became more receptive of their presence in universities and the workplace. I am really glad that I was able to conduct my hijab experience at work. The acceptance of me wearing the hijab gave me a good feeling about the transformation of the culture in the United States towards diversity.




While wearing the veil, we became externally more aware. In creating our self-portraits, we developed an internal awareness.

The external responses we received highlighted our awareness of who we are. This external response afforded us the opportunity to develop an internal focus.


Self-portrait: From an early age I have struggled with moving beyond my comfort zone. Instead of being daring and learning to explore things on my own, I timidly wait on the approval of others. It is as if every milestone in my life, every opportunity I have had to open up and finally find who I am has been met by a stop sign. Just as I am about to take that step, as I am about to reach the “green light” and move beyond myself, I panic and choose to stay where I am. I stay on the sidelines, next to my stop sign. This self-portrait is meant to signify my attempts to move beyond that red light and forge ahead with all that life has to offer me. Here the viewer can see that I am covering the red light and looking longingly towards the green. For me this represents my wish to take that approval to “go” and run with it. Change can be difficult and I question everyday whether or not I am making the right decision. With this self-portrait I am showing that despite those fears and concerns I am going to forge ahead with my goals and keep that red light covered. I am going to embrace my right to move forward, to “go.”

My Experience with the Hijab: After wearing the hijab for a day the greatest take-away point I can make is that veiling, especially in a Muslim-minority country, takes a lot of bravery and self-confidence. I have to admit that when I first put on the hijab I was more than a little nervous. I feared that others might misunderstand me or what I was trying to accomplish, and worried if someone might act aggressively towards me because I was veiled. As I sat in my classes I could feel my peers staring; as the only person wearing a hijab in the class I obviously stood out. I imagine that women who veil each day must feel this way all the time. It takes a sense of self-confidence and bravery to be able to continue with the practice of wearing hijab even when it is so misunderstood. After veiling I have developed a deeper respect for women who do wear the hijab.

Confused Clarity: It’s easy to stay focused, but rarely do I question what should be in focus. My portrait is a reflection of my internal struggle to find a balance between the living life that surrounds me and the material goals that drive me. I often get lost in the papers filled with equations, processes, and check marks and somehow deem my devotion to them as my path toward success. But, as I continue on this path, I am forgetting something. What about the beauty of nature, the value of family, the importance of love, and the necessity for self-care…are these aspects of life meant to be sacrificed on one’s journey toward success? I know the answer to this question, but to actively deconstruct the path on which I have always been has proven to be my greatest challenge. I no longer wish for draining material to consume my focus. To bring into focus the living flower has become my purposeful aim. I will forever seek to focus more on this metaphorical flower and focus less on the draining background. I will live a meaningful life…one that fulfills…one that is chosen.

My Hijab as a Gateway to Self-Representation: Wearing the hijab raised my level of confidence and heightened my intentionality behind each of my actions. I wanted to use the scarf to represent who I am as a person. As a result, each of my actions seemed to carry much more weight than any other day. Through this purposefulness, I became more aware of how I choose to represent and treat myself. By wearing the hijab and regaining self-consciousness, I was able to confront my own battlegrounds concerning self-representation, self-care and overall self-awareness. I have a new respect for intentionality as a result of this experience. I realize that I do not have to be a veiled woman in order to practice consciousness of self; however, I owe it to this experience of veiling for powerfully motivating me to do so.
FEARFULLY and WONDERFULLY Made: In my self-portrait I wanted to depict the most important part of me, the part that makes me who I am. I became a Christian last year and this walk of faith has taught me what real love is, how to love others, and to love myself. I’m studying Psalm 139:14, which says, “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” This scripture shows me that I was created with a purpose and intention, and nothing was a mistake. The flaws I pick out are untrue. The physical, social, and academic expectations I do not meet are not ultimate because they do not define who I am. My worth comes from the fact that a loving God created me because He wanted me. From the class critiques, I added the text onto the picture. The font is not completely solid because I wanted to create an etched effect on the bricks. Verses like Psalm 139 I read are etched in my mind and I try to absorb it, allowing my thoughts and actions to stem off, which is why there is only color in the center of the picture. I wanted to create a radiating effect to illustrate the truths I read in the Bible would illuminate onto me. I do not want my beauty to be merely physical or even personality wise, but instead I hope to follow 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment . . . Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Hijab for a Day: The diversity in UNC’s campus gave me many different responses when I wore a hijab. Across ethnic, religious, and gender profiles, my friends complimented and questioned my headscarf. From sitting, standing, and walking within a veil, I learned that this piece of cloth elevates my femininity, reminds me of modesty, and transcends down to my speech and behavior. I was much more aware of my body language and constantly mentally questioning whether my behavior reflected what I was wearing. Wearing the veil taught me to question the intention of my behavior—is it to impress, flirt, intimidate, offend, encourage, emphasize, welcome, or help?
Self-portrait: As a girl who was born and raised on Long Island I have always loved the beach. Whenever life is really good or really bad I always found my way to seashore to bury my toes in the sand; rain or shine. During the year, when I find myself particularly stressed out, I envision myself on a beach, stretching out in the sand while feeling the sun drying the cool water from my body. The beach is such a big part of who I am; when I am there, I feel happy, centered, I feel whole. For a while now I have been dealing with some very hard personal issues. I found I needed to force myself to slow down. Yoga seemed like a good idea; I am flexible and I like to work out, win-win. What I did not realize was that when I attend, I feel happy, centered, and whole. I found my non-beach beach. I wanted to combine the two for my self-portrait because both make me a stronger, happier person. I wanted this image to combine the two things I love and describe me. I want it to be powerful and serene because that is what I am aiming to be.
Juxtaposition of the Two Images: In Yoga, you contort your body into all sorts of shapes as a way to create space in other parts of the body; parts that normally do not have energy pass through freely. One of my Yoga instructors spoke in one class about how the Yogis devised these really odd-looking pretzel-like positions in effort to create space in other portions of the body. I thought it was interesting that by confining your body, or covering your body with a veil, you are creating space for yourself. When I wore the hijab for the day, I definitely noticed a separation and space created between me and other people. I was not as easily detected on campus and was able to go about my day in a more self aware way. When I contort my body, I feel the space being creating that specific parts of my body is not normally awarded. That energy that flows through that space is liberating to my being and makes me more aware of different parts of my body.

Wearing the veil forced us to confront and examine our relationship to our hair. At the most basic level, the veil is a piece of fabric that hides the hair. Long, freely flowing hair is a cultural symbol of femininity and sexuality. Many of us discovered that, with our hair covered, we felt as if we had no hair at all. We felt less feminine, less sexy, and less beautiful.

Some of us, on the other hand, felt that by hiding our hair we were implying, to the world, that we had long, luxurious locks to hide – even if we didn’t. Whatever we felt, we agreed that wearing the veil made us realize the ways in which hair itself can be a veil that hides the face or provides a protective barrier between ourselves and the world; and we agreed that we had much stronger opinions about using our hair as a veil than we had previously realized.

Self Portrait: In the past few months I reflected constantly about how to represent myself and to be honest, I felt somewhat bombarded with the possibilities. I value my relationships, my education and my memory. A million moments and experiences came to mind that shape who I am, and what I believe. However I felt troubled by the letting one aspect of my personality or one relationship in my life define me; so I decided that an appropriate way to represent myself would be to capture an intimate moment. The series of photographs that I cropped and placed together present my process of getting ready in the morning, my transformation from interior to exterior. Since veiling for a day, I have been thinking frequently about this transformation that I undergo each day, and how it represents a version of me that I deem as appropriate for private space, and another version that is more suitable for public view. In capturing this moment, I hoped to portray both the power and weakness associated with cosmetics and any beautifying process. The photographs are intentionally sexual; I aimed to mock the processes that I endure in order to assimilate into my western culture; to resemble the images portrayed by the media. But also there is direct eye contact, and the choice of bold, red lipstick that suggests a certain power in this transformation. In the middle frame, I chose to turn my gaze downwards. This is a much more subtle expression of myself—one that no one would understand without asking. Having lost my mother at a young age, I discovered one day while looking through old photographs that when I looked down, I resembled her almost identically. Since this realization, this posture and angle of my face has served as a constant reminder of who she was and the role that she played in my life. Lastly, I chose to present myself in three separate frames to suggest a sense of fragmentation. As a result of my studies and travels, I feel that my life has become increasingly divided—in a literal and figurative sense. I don’t call one place home anymore, and my studies of French and Arabic are beginning to blur the close relationship that I once had with my native language.

Veiled Portrait: While I wouldn’t classify my veiling experiment as particularly difficult, it made me realize how much I rely on my hair to make me feel attractive. The day that I veiled, I spent an enormous amount of time in front of the mirror, tugging at the scarf, adding eye-liner, lipstick etc. I felt extremely critical of my facial features, and it took several tries to arrive at a photograph that I felt comfortable with. Once outside of my apartment, I found it relatively easy to deal with the gaze and comments, but I couldn’t cope with how incredibly visible I felt. I worried incessantly about issues of authenticity with this experiment and what others were thinking of me. I made it through the day, content to return to my standard way of dressing, but with a whole new appreciation for women who veil.

Veiled Portrait: I wanted to convey, in my portrait, the many ways in which I am still a child and also the fantastical world which I write about in my stories – a world in which women turn into lions and are confronted by giant butterflies. I created the portrait using colored pencils, and tried to color most things the wrong color, as a child or any of my female characters would have colored it. One half of the background is blank, indicating that I still have no idea who I am or, more accurately, who my adult self might be.

Hijab experience: I did not enjoy wearing the hijab. I felt the need to wear makeup while wearing the hijab because my face, I felt, was more visible. (I normally do not wear makeup.) I felt as if an entire religion’s code of modesty, dress, and behavior were being imposed on me – a code which, for myself, in my American life, I do not accept. What I learned is that the imposition of a society’s way of being or even of dressing on any woman is unacceptable, be it the West trying to forbid women from covering or Muslim societies trying to force or coerce women into covering.

I suppose that in my self-portrait I’m trying to portray a lot of different facets of my personality as well as my likes and dislikes. I know you can’t see the spines, but that stack of books are my absolute favorites of all times I picked off my shelf. They are all fantasy novels, and many of them are pretty worn and beaten up. My first real favorite, the one that really stirred something inside of me, came from a library discard pile. I want to capture that feeling: that sometimes the best things in life are what other people overlook or throw away, and how often I have felt, myself, like a book in a discard pile, or at least that I belong there. Depression and anxiety have been an ongoing struggle for me since I was about fourteen. My expression—I feel, anyway—helps portray that I am a dreamer who tends to get caught up in little details, that I try to stop and examine the little things, and that I try to look for value where it might not be perceived by others (ex. going to the animal shelter and picking the dog that no one else wants). I tossed my hair over the books to show ownership and protection, and also because my long hair has been a big part of who I feel like I am for years.

The #1 thing I learned from my veiling experience is just how complicated veiling in itself is. People’s reactions, their motivations, the more physical aspects of actually wearing a veil all day—none of it is easily summed up. My hijab generated a lot of conflicting moments. I was told that I looked scary, that I looked like “an abused polygamist” (note: black eye was an accident outdoors), that my hijab was beautiful. My friends burst out laughing when they saw me. Strangers tried too hard not to look at me. I felt strange and unattractive and oddly exposed without my hair. I didn’t realize how reliant I am on it to change the shape of my face or even hide my face if I lower my head. A couple of people asked why I was covered, but productive dialogue was harder to kindle than I would have imagined. The experience was more stressful than I expected overall, and I have a new appreciation for the courage and dedication it must take to make the decision to cover.


When veiling exemplifies beauty in the way you dress and in the way you interact with the world. The focus is put on inner beauty because your outer beauty is concealed. There is beauty in being more modest.

Self Portrait: Being a first generation Hmong American finding the balance between my two cultures is quite difficult to do; however, they both define who I am today. The family portrait on the left side represents the Hmong culture quickly fading in my generation and the one on the right represents the more Americanized family. Both of these images are centering towards my face because it is my generation’s duty to carry on the Hmong our culture and be able to find a balance between the cultures. The quote in the center of the portrait represents the fusion of both cultures.

Hijab: Wearing the hijab for a day made me realize the beauty of effort and dedication a person puts into their faith. The week before wearing the hijab, I spent hours tying and pinning my headscarf into different styles and playing with cosmetics. The morning of my hijab day I spent an hour and a half getting dress. It is an art to try and make sure your outfit and colors mix well, yet still fashionable. The veil is more than a piece of cloth. It is hair, protection, devotion, fashion, and beauty.


More Voices

Interviews with Muslim women who do and do not wear the veil, Muslim men, and non-Muslims on the veil.

News segment on artist Todd Drake (begins at 13:00)