COLUMBIA — Jessica Fay is a blonde. But you wouldn't know that from looking at her, and that's just the way she likes it.
"No one can really judge me straight off, 'Oh, you're a dumb blonde, I'm not going to listen to what you have to say,'" Fay said. "When I cover my hair, people can't judge me right away off of the color of my hair."
Fay is Muslim, and she wears the hijab, the Islamic veil that covers a woman's hair. She said there are many reasons she likes wearing the veil, which is required by the Quran, the Islamic holy book. The veil also comes with a certain dress code that usually includes being covered from head to toe, with most of the arms covered, too.
"It's kind of nice because when I walk down the street, I don't see (men) going and looking at my body — they're looking straight at me," Fay said. "I feel more a sense of respect and dignity from that, knowing I don't have to show my boobs to get respect from a man."
For the past two years, Fay has taken baby steps to become a Muslim. It took her a few years to adopt the veil. She said she was nervous other people would judge her when she started wearing it. She used a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to help her transition, and since she returned to America wearing the hijab, she has experienced support and curiosity.
Some would call her process a conversion, but Fay refers to it as her "reversion."
"In Islam, what they believe is that all babies are born Muslim," Fay said. "If their family is not Muslim, they learn a different religion or whatever. So they call it reversion because you're reverting back."
Becoming Muslim can be difficult for those who weren't raised in a Muslim family or with an Arab background. Islam, which requires prayers five times a day and prohibits alcohol and some other foods, takes commitment.
As a college student, not being able to drink alcohol can be difficult, Fay said. She added that it doesn't help that she's already in an awkward transition in her life, as she started graduate school this year.
Many of her undergraduate friends have left Columbia, and she has a hard time keeping in contact with the ones who still remain, she said.
"It's hard to find something that your friends are going to want to do with you that doesn't involve drinking," Fay said. "But then again, I want to think about: I wear hijab and I don't want to misrepresent my religion and make people think, 'Oh, that’s OK.'
"It's a process," she said.
Fay isn't Arab, which leads some people to be curious about her, such as when she is trying to get a table at a restaurant or is in the supermarket. She said sometimes people are more open to discussing Islam with her because of the color of her skin.
"People may be just a little more curious than if I looked Arab. Then they'd be like, 'Oh, that's expected, I don't have to ask her why.'"
Despite the stereotype, only 12 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arab, according to PBS.
Fay said she hopes that her looks will lead those who don't understand Islam to ask questions. She wants to be a good representative of her religion, which she said she thinks is often misunderstood.
"I hope to educate them in a way, if only to show that I'm not oppressed by my hijab," Fay said. "I go to the gym, and I work out. I'm going to run a 5K. I'm doing things. I'm also a shy person, but I'm talking out more in class. I want to educate, but I'm not going to pressure anyone."