Friday, November 19, 2010

If the Scarf Fits

Emma Apple

I could write a rather mundane thousand words about what Blue Hijab Day is and that our mission is to create widespread autism  awareness in the Muslim community. I could tell you, it was just a last minute idea which took off on World Autism Awareness Day 2010. All of that would be true, honest and straight from the heart, but instead, I’m going to tell you how it really began, where it really started, how being a Muslim touched by autism compelled me to create Blue Hijab Day.

I’ve always been Emma, no other boxes ever really fit. School box, fashion box, belief box, thinking box, social box, no, it was more like, the origami box with a batman sticker on the side, open at the top. I come from one of those families, the eccentric ones who don’t quite fit the mold, or would much rather break it. You could say it’s in the genes.

No one was surprised when I became a Muslim as a teenager. Religion had always been one of those Emma things (alongside stones, art and frequent furniture rearrangement). I’d never had much luck with friends, but I was infatuated with a friend I’d made online, and had very much fallen in love with his religion -- Islam. I was a new convert to the Bahai’i faith at the time, and it felt like a natural progression to become a Muslim, it was a box I felt fit me, it had the rules, structure, and community I’d always wanted in a religion. I got out every book on Islam in the city library and the more I read, the more I loved it. Peaceful, eloquent, exceptional clarity, equality for women, logical ... so I accepted Islam, and the box still fits almost a decade later. I went on to marry that online friend, and he’s still my best and often only friend.

So, that’s how Islam came into it, and half of how Autism came to it -- although I didn’t know it at the time.

Fast forward many years and I now have the honor of being mother to two amazing little people. There is Madam, who could be described as dramatic, nervous, sensitive, socially awkward -- but she's just her special (and very funny) self. She never grew out of the chewing phase, even well beyond teething, she loves to line things up, the screaming started when she was about 18 months, she read books at age three. This is all in keeping with my family; she’s one of us -- that’s for sure! Her father is intelligent, unusual, and socially inept as well. Asperger's, maybe? Gifted, definitely! Out of sync, well, if that’s what you call wearing scarf and mittens in summer and only underwear in winter.

If the box fits, Asperger's it is. Evidently, that box fits me too, makes my childhood come into focus, and my husband? We can squeeze him in too. And our other child definitely has his toes in the box, he may jump in eventually, hard to say just yet. Madam is the only one with the official stamp, she is how autism really settles into our life.

As a mother and someone who is prone to special interests, Asperger's and autism become an intense curiosity for me (and others in my family). I discovered other Muslim women who have autism of one kind or another in their lives, but as with many other issues, the general Muslim community isn’t quite on board yet, there isn’t widespread understanding that children and adults in our community need so much support. This may be true of the wider community as well.

I’m naturally inclined to soap boxery and activism, and already had an established platform from which to speak at, so it crossed my mind in March 2010, only eight days before World Autism Awareness Day, that I could do something about this lack of understanding, at least, I could try. I’d seen some amazingly innovative campaigns for Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence, Pink Hijab Day and Purple Hijab Day respectively, so I thought that since Hijab (Hijab means ‘headscarf’ though the meaning of Hijab is broader) is a Muslim woman's most powerful tool for making a statement, and since these other initiatives had enjoyed so much success, Blue Hijab Day would be a great way to go! Still, the ‘insert-color hijab day’ theme hadn’t been used too often yet; I didn’t expect Blue Hijab Day to gain too much attention.

I created an event on Facebook, hoping 100 people would join my little movement. When we surpassed 100 very quickly, I made a goal of 1,000. We passed that and by the end of the night of April 1st we had over 2,000 RSVP’d on the Facebook event with 4,000 more yet to answer and several hundred Maybes. I made a flier and a tag to be pinned on so our wearing blue would have an identifiable purpose.

I had overwhelming support from people all over the world. The only complaint I heard was that Hijab is a religious requirement and not a symbol to be used in this way; my answer is that Hijab is a religious requirement, no arguments there, but Islam is not so one dimensional that a piece of clothing worn for one reason can’t serve another purpose with its color.

Our stated goal with Blue Hijab Day 2010 was to start the conversation about autism in the Muslim community. We did an interview with a Muslim blogger mom of a child with autism on Muslimas Oasis (, and I wrote a short article about part of our experience on the spectrum called Congratulations, It’s PDD. Afterward I created a Facebook page ( where I could keep the movement moving year round, a website with information and updates. Eventually I joined the autism community on Twitter (@bluehijabday) where I have received some wonderful feedback from the mainstream autism advocacy community including other faith-based initiatives. I was asked to speak about homeschooling and the autism spectrum on a Muslim women's homeschooling blog talk radio show, and have gotten tremendous support overall.

Plans for next year include fundraising for an exceptional Muslim-American family who has a child with severe autism and three children with a rare genetic terminal illness as well as an unaffected child. We hope to have partnerships and products and a lot more information to use and distribute.

Our primary goal is to create autism understanding, acceptance, and support in the Muslim and wider communities. But at the end of the day, it's still just me, looking in from outside the box, inviting others out into the fresh air. If I can reach the goals I have for Blue Hijab Day and open even a single mind to understanding autism, I only have Allah (God) to thank, and I do.