My everyday style is heavily informed by my early-morning commute. Scrambling to catch the 4:30am train, simplicity is the name of the game. My fashion sense is defined by loose, flowing fabrics and lots of layers - an aesthetic I usually refer to as "sensible femme". No heels to be found, my footwear relies on hiking boots and comfortable sneakers.. With my thick, waist-length hair wrapped in a jersey underscarf, I can pin my hijab in a near-infinite number of styles. I tell myself one day I'll try something new, but every morning the pin-wrap-fold-pin motions etched in muscle memory win out and the scarf is secured on my head. By the time I'm sitting on the southbound platform of the still-empty train station, I'm projecting a smart confidence inspired by stylistic simplicity and early-morning routine pragmatism.
The Red Line is a curious place at 4:45am. In a city as big as Chicago the early-morning train is a focal point of that dynamic membrane where "last night's party" clashes against "this morning's responsibility."It shows in the strange mix of riders with whom I share my morning commute - a majority are bleary-eyed early risers like me, headed into work still well before most coffee shops are open; some are temporary-neighbors finding the train car a warm, dry place to sleep; and then there are just enough erratic, drunk men to keep me on my toes. Nothing emboldens bigots more than too much booze before sunrise and a single woman in hijab. I can feel a target on my back as the train passes through neighborhoods notorious for the violence of drunk and entitled white men, butfor the most part, my morning commute is uneventful.
By the time I make it to work, the transition between "last night" and "this morning" is just about complete. As the sun breaks over Lake Michigan and I slide my key into the door, I navigate another transition. Taking a trip to my locker and a quick change in the washroom, every morning I have to transcend the membrane between "sensible femme hijabi" and "professional chef".
Nothing about my personal style is amenable to life in a professional kitchen. My "sensible femme" reliance on layers of light, flowing fabric affords me modest comfort but unfortunately, in my line of work "light and flowing" fabrics are a recipe for errant fires and second degree burns. Combat boots are comfortable enough to work in, but ugly rubber slip-on clogs are non-slip and can fit in a dishwasher. As I change out of the clothes I had put on hardly an hour before and in to my not-quite-uniform; the transition into being work-ready is as quick and efficient as my early-morning routine.
If my everyday fashion sense is informed by a loose, comfortable sensibility, kitchen dress is informed by a similar practicality with an extra dose of "I don't want to catch on fire today". When I walk into the kitchen I trade in my maxi skirt for a pair of water-resistant chef pants (an extra size bigger to ensure sufficient butt coverage, which my partner used to call "MC Hammer Pants"), and my lightweight cardigan for a long sleeved running shirt. I've figured out how to wrap hijab in a way that breathes and stays put over an eight hour shift using only two safety pins. Over years of practice with only a few missteps (designers note: nylon is great for working out, but is a little less desirable when melting into your skin), I've come to strike a balance between industry-standard pragmatism and hijab-friendly modesty. My personally-developed style allows me to work in a kitchen in comfort with a freedom of movement that doesn't compromise my values.
What my jersey hijab and bright colored running shirts don't afford me at work is just as important, and much harder to find in an industrial kitchen: respect.
After ten years in the industry - singing my eyebrows over a grill on the line, artfully arranging crudités for 300+ seat catering, cooking ten dozen quiche in the back kitchen of a French café - I secured a position running the back-of-house for a chain organic grocery store with extensive in-house production and high volume catering. The job security and benefits package made it easier to sell out after a career working for independent businesses, but even corporate structure and an on-site Human Resources rep couldn't prevent the toxic masculinity and Islamophobia of American kitchen culture making its way into my new job.
Running a kitchen requires a certain level of respect and authority. Already, as a woman in the industry, respect is hard to come by. Compounded by my chronic baby face and my markedly-Muslim headscarf the standard kitchen bro thinks of me as an inexperienced liability at best, a tolerable fetish object as worst. My career in the kitchen is marked by the men who made my working life miserable - the sous chef who refused to follow my lead after I declined to sleep with him, the countless implicating inquiries about my husband (whom I apparently needed rescuing from), the fellow line cook who in our down time would show me his kufr tattoo and explain to me in detail all the bad muslims he killed over there - but at the same time it's marked by the women who taught me how to assert myself and survive in the industry.
At my first kitchen job, I worked the line in a hybrid restaurant/brewery/bakery in Detroit. I was blessed to apprenticed under the woman who owned the business, ran daily operation, and acted as head chef. Butting heads with distributors in the morning, shouting orders down the line for the lunch rush, and kidding around with her employees in the doldrums; she ran the business from end-to-end with an assuredness that I could look up to and model myself after for the years to come. As the evening came and she'd sneak into the back kitchen to cook dinner for her four kids, I learned that it's possible to thrive in this industry without compromising a fraction of what makes me the empowered, actualized woman I strive to be.
The authority I take in a kitchen is earned, in sweat and smoke and unparalleled knife work. To reach the point of running a kitchen in such a patriarchal-dominated industry, you have to be at least twice as good as your male peers to make it at all. I'm not afraid to admit I am one of the best in my field. On a good day, I can watch the stereotyped image of veiled Muslim woman as submissive, oppressed victim shatter before a male coworker's eyes as I outperform every mediocre dude in the kitchen. My kitchen.
After all, isn't that what they say? A woman's place is in the kitchen.