'It's only a
piece of cloth'
When I converted to Islam I knew I would have to embrace the Muslim head-dress. As for many converts, it was a huge stumbling block and I found all sorts of excuses not to wear the hijab - basically a symbol of modesty and a very public statement. When I finally did, the repercussions were enormous. All I did was put on a headscarf, but from that moment I became a second-class citizen.
The reaction from some people was unbelievable. I knew I would become a target for abuse from the odd Islamaphobic oik, but I didn't expect so much open hostility from complete strangers.
I can no longer be sure of getting a black cab in London... something I had taken for granted for many years. Let me give you some examples from the past two weeks:
Edgware Road in London, an area with a substantial Arab population: three black cabs, orange 'for hire' lights glowing, drive past one after another. It's about 11.30pm and I'm freezing and desperate to get home. A fourth taxi stops to discharge a white passenger. I reach the vehicle and tap the window, beaming from ear-to-ear at my saviour. The driver turns and stares hard, his face contorted into hatred and rage, and drives off.
Last month, pre-hijab, he would have returned the smile; now, in his eyes, I have been transformed into a terrorist.
Next day, horrified by the events of the previous evening, I tell my story to a non-Muslim friend who is not sympathetic. 'Well if you go around looking like a Chechen Black Widow what do you expect?' she says. But black is my favourite colour. It's just that my little black dress has become a big black dress.
That afternoon, I change my black hijab in favour of a paler silk turban-look which still covers my head. Very Vivienne Westwood, I think. I get my black cab without hassle, just a mere wave of the arm and I am taken to the West End for lunch with a very close friend who happens to be Jewish.
It was the first time she had seen me in a hijab but she just laughs and makes some nice compliments. In her eyes I am the same person she became friends with five years ago. No change. What a relief.
Later that day I meet some Muslim friends who also have not seen me for some time. They are excited to see me wearing a hijab, but tell me I look like a cross between a cancer victim and an Israeli settler. I report the unsavoury incident in the Edgware Road which had reduced me to tears.
'Welcome to the real world. This is what we have to put up with 24/7,' one tells me. There is more laughter at my apparent naivety, but I am puzzled and peeved at their acceptance that this is the way of things in Britain today.
A couple of days later I attend Yasser Arafat's memorial at London's Friends' Meeting House and dress appropriately in black with matching hijab showing a small sliver of Palestinian kaffiyeh across the forehead.
I may as well be sporting a Hamas-green 'jihad' tattoo across my temple from the openly hostile glares I receive from some passengers on London's Underground. Feeling uncomfortable and intimidated I get off at Baker Street and go to a taxi bay for the shortish journey down Euston Road. 'It's just across the road, why don't you walk?' barks the cabbie before returning to his newspaper.
There have been other incidents including one taxi driver's, 'Don't leave a bomb in the back seat,' or, 'Where's bin Laden hiding?' There are also amusing moments such as being congratulated in Regent's Park mosque for my excellent grasp of English.
But, in the eyes of many, I no longer am a real person. Waiters talk loudly and slowly if I am on my own, and if I am with a non-hijabi female, she is asked what I would like to eat.
So, when I see a woman wearing a hijab, regardless of whether I know her, I smile and say in Arabic, 'As-Salaam-Alaikum,' which means, 'Peace unto you'. I know that the rest of her encounters that day may well be hostile.
· Yvonne Ridley's current affairs show The Agenda will launch on the Islam Channel later this month.