I Gave My Nanny a Hijab for Christmas

Filed under: Religion & Spirituality, Opinions

Illustration by Dori Hartley


"So I converted today," my 23-year-old American Italian au pair texted me on her day off. When she had left earlier that day, she mentioned going to see a mosque with her Muslim friend.

"Ha-ha," I texted back with a snort, taking a quick break from my gift-wrapping. "How funny."

Then I scratched my head and added, "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," Brittany texted back. "I'm serious. I hope that's OK with you?"

Neither my Italian husband, who proudly brands himself a pagan thrown out of Catholic school, nor I, a Russian-Jewish atheist, knew what to say. We live in Astoria, an ethnically diverse New York City neighborhood with Irish pubs and hookah bars that offer up water pipes instead of alcohol and play Middle-Eastern pop instead of American rock. We celebrate Chanukah with my family, truck loads of gifts from my husband's on Christmas and go for Turkish coffee and baklava on Ramadan nights. We respect every religion equally and diligently follow none.

At her nanny interview earlier this year, Brittany described herself as a lapsed Catholic. An upbeat, self-sufficient Jersey girl, she wore dresses that barely covered her backside and shirts that failed to clothe her belly. She wanted out of her small town. We offered free room and board in the big city, with 400 bucks weekly for the tender loving care of our 3-year-old. Within a month, Brittany discovered hookah bars in the Little Egypt enclave and became a regular, bringing her Jersey friends along.

Now she found Allah.

"Is it still OK to give you Christmas gifts?" I texted her. She had her right to theological choices, but I had to plan for the holidays.

"Hell yeah," Brittany replied, the four-letter word apparently not conflicting with her new faith. "Nothing's changed. I just should wear modest clothes and, if I want to, a headscarf. They call it a hijab."

Next morning, when Brittany emerged from her room in a bright fuchsia headscarf tightly pinned around her head exactly like the Little Egypt denizens wear theirs, she rendered me speechless. If I respected all religions alike, I should've had no problem with Brittany swathing her head in a pink halo. But it felt odd.

"You said you didn't have to wear it," I accosted her.

"I'm gonna try to get used to it," she replied. "Everyone in the hookah bar said I looked pretty."

"But I like your hair," I started, and suddenly realized what my problem was. I was neither upset Brittany converted nor afraid she'd expose my children to Islam, because our extended families would inevitably introduce them to Christianity and Judaism while hubby and I would devotedly practice irreligion at home.

But I was upset Brittany chose to cover her wild mane with a piece of cloth in the name of dubious modesty and because of a hookah schmuck's compliment. While women all over the world fought against hijabs, burkas and abayas, my American born-and-bred au pair was willing to don and uphold this very token of female oppression. Even as a fashion statement, it felt wrong to me. When travelling Jordan a few years ago, I excitedly tried on the full Islamic gear in a Bedouin camp. I looked authentic in the long embroidered dress, but, staring in the mirror with my face covered, even I couldn't tell it was me. I bought the dress but not the hijab. The world deserved to see my face and my long blond hair. The world deserved to see Brittany's black curls.

I realized I had rattled this aloud, but I couldn't shut up. "Maybe it would make sense if you were raised a Muslim or wore it to attend a religious ceremony," I ranted. "But, I'm sorry, I don't want my children to grow up thinking that a woman should hide her beauty from the world."

I finally stopped, unsure to what extent I insulted my nanny and her new religion. Brittany was punctual, responsible and never lost anything. I didn't want her to leave. But I couldn't let Allah or any other deity move into our secular home either.

Brittany pulled out her pins and rid herself of her pink nimbus.

"Al'right," she said simply. "I'll save it for the mosque."

I took a deep breath of relief. The mosque was OK with me. I had covered my hair and taken off my shoes to enter the Blue Mosque in Istanbul out of respect. Brittany could wear her hijab to worship whenever she wanted.

The next evening, after buying Christmas presents for our Italian kin and Chanukah chatchkas for the Jewish mishpucha, I wandered into the Cairo Fashions store and purchased two beautiful headscarves, pashmina for winter and silk for summer. I wrapped the Islamic goods into glossy paper featuring Santa riding reindeers through the snow and slipped them under the tree to be opened on the day the shepherds of Nazareth rejoiced the birth of Jesus Christ.

Dear Hashem, Jesus, Allah, I pray she likes them.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.