Hijabi of the Month August - Reem Al-Olaby

Posted on Aug 12, 2017
Melanie Elturk


This month's Hijabi of the Month is Reem Al-Olaby. She's a wife and mother of two, who graduated with a Pharmacy degree then went on to obtain her M.S. and Ph.D. in Biotechnology. Her postgraduate project aimed at identifying drug leads against HCV and Malaria and yielded several peer-reviewed publications and 3 US PTO patents. Reem is currently a post doctorate researcher at the MIND Institute - UC Davis, focusing on the genetics of Autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. In addition to being a powerhouse in the field of Science, Reem is also a troop leader for the Juniors troop, Al Salam Muslim Girl Scouts in Sacramento, California. She is an active member of the Muslim community and takes part in many interfaith events and speaks at various engagements on the topic of Islam (She gave a TED Talk in Arabic at TED X AUC in 2012!). We caught up with her to hear more about her life, her work, and her journey with hijab.

1) When did you start wearing hijab? Tell us a little about your journey, how you came to wear it, what factors were involved, etc.

I started wearing Hijab when I was 14 years old. I recall my parents' surprise when I told them I wanted to start wearing it. They kept telling me that I needed to be 100% sure before I committed to it. I replied with confidence, saying, "If I start wearing my hijab tomorrow and step out of the door to head to school, then by God’s will I will never think of taking it off." And it happened! There were several reasons why I chose to wear it: my religious upbringing and a pact I made with my cousins (who were my best friends and the same age as me) to take the step to wear hijab together. Alhamdulillah, we all wore the hijab within the same week! It goes to show how important it is to have peers who will positively influence you in your life. That is why I am really in love with Prophet Muhammad (S)'s hadith “A person is upon the path of his/her best friend, so let one of you look at who he/she befriends.” I remember how peaceful I felt the first day of wearing hijab - I literally felt like my face looked brighter! But I can’t deny that there were hardships along the way, the simplest of which was not knowing what to wear or how to wear a hijab in a proper and elegant way.

2) You are a scientist with a truly impressive list of accomplishments! How did you get inspired to do this work?

I believe that being a Muslim woman is one of the main reasons I was motivated to excel and become as accomplished as I am, Alhamdulillah. Growing up, I was taught that there is no room for the word “impossible.” My parents taught me that women were never created to be objectified; they were never supposed to be defined by their physical features or the number of layers they wear, unlike what is portrayed in the media. Instead, they told me what makes a great woman is her compassion, devotion, dreams, and character. I grew up believing that as a Muslim woman raised in a true Muslim practicing family, I needed to work hard and try to achieve my dreams (by God’s will, of course).

Without my parents' and sister’s support, I would not be who I am today; they have done so much for me! I also have to say this: a Muslim husband should be understanding, confident, loving, caring, encouraging, tolerant, and above all, kind. I am blessed to have such a husband. When we got married, our dreams and our journeys became one. With all the ups and downs that we faced in life, we feel thankful to have found each other, and are grateful to have been blessed with two lovely children who made our dreams and journeys much brighter. To him, I am grateful and highly appreciative because he has been by my side during my postgraduate studies and my work.

This circle of support I was blessed with is my source of inspiration and the reason I am where I am today - all thanks to Allah (S), of course.

3) Between Neuroscience, motherhood, and interfaith work, you must be incredibly busy! How do you stay motivated?

In this life, everyone was created for a specific purpose, and everyone is blessed with a specific talent or gift. In my case, I feel that Allah (S) has paved the way for me to do what I'm doing today - being a mother of two and a researcher. It is my duty to try to excel as a mother, and it is my responsibility to come up with new research project ideas and try to leave a positive fingerprint in the field of neuroscience one day. Lastly, given the toxic Islamophobic political climate here in the West, I feel it is my ultimate duty to be vocal against injustice now more than ever. It is time to educate people about the real Islam, time to walk the talk and show them what Islam is through our actions. These overall duties that I was blessed with are also renewable motivating factors that keep me moving, and I'm hopeful that tomorrow will be better inshallah.


4) What is your favorite hadith of the Prophet (S) and why?

One of my favorite hadiths by Prophet Muhammad is:

“Take benefit of five before five: Your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death.” (Narrated by Ibn Abbas and reported by Al Hakim)

If every one of us lived our lives based on this hadith, I doubt that people would be wasting their time judging and labeling others instead of focusing how to use their "fives” optimally - and I am confident that this life would be much brighter for most. 

In a nutshell, this hadith is a perfect guide for us to lead productive lives.

5) If you could tell your 18-year-old self one thing, what would it be?

I respect my parents so much, love them dearly, and I owe them a lot because they contributed a lot to my life. But when I was younger, I used to grow impatient with their continuous advice and persistence in showing me how to react towards certain things - the typical "teenage phase." So I would tell my 18-year-old self that my parents didn't do all that they did because they wanted to control me, but because of their unconditional love, and because of them wanting to see me succeed. I would tell my 18-year-old self to cherish my parents’ advice, their efforts, their persistence, and their unconditional love. Now more than ever, as a parent myself, I know how hard it is to raise a child, and I know how obsessed we become with our children’s welfare, their upbringing, and their disciplining.

I would tell my 18-year-old self, always to remember this lovely verse in the Quran:

“And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], "uff," and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word.” Quran – 17:23

6) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?

Dear Sister,

When you decided to wear your hijab, there were strong reasons that compelled you to do so. Remember WHO you're wearing it for, and inshallah, it will be less of a struggle. Know that Hijab is important not only because it is a sign of modesty, but because it helps us put “hijab” on all the sins, discipline ourselves, and walk the talk - especially since we are known to the public as Muslim women because of our hijab. While that is a tremendous responsibility, it's also a huge honor and a blessing because it helps us keep ourselves in check and become better people. As hijabis, we always have to track our manners, the words we say and do our best to be good representatives of Islam. 

As for the aspect of not knowing how to dress or what to dress, and feeling that it is also not fun to be a hijabi - well, guess what? Wearing hijab is a fun way to express yourself and have fun with all sorts of colors that you can match to your modest, elegant clothes - you can't change up your hair color based on every outfit, can you? ;)

To conclude, Hijab can never hinder you from enjoying the blessings of life or having fun. It reminds you that being a Muslim means you accept and respect all people of all religions and faiths, you can hold conversations and dialogues with disagreeing people with grace, you are tolerant, and you embrace diversity. It reminds you that you should never judge other people based on their appearance and that women who chose not to wear Hijab are not any less of a Muslim - wearing hijab is a matter of choice.

You took this step; you made this choice, so do it with pride, strength, and confidence.

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