When I was 11, I pledged allegiance to God to wear the hijab for the rest of my life. I had been taught that if I removed it later in life, I would be sinful. So, I picked up a silky black pashmina, long enough to wrap around my head and attempted to iron out the creases, the faults, the sins. I wrapped it in two tight layers around my head and pinned it up. For the next 5 to 6 years of my life, I lived and breathed this identity. Even at home, it became a habit for me to forget to take my scarf off as if I subconsciously knew that when the layers came down, my identity would crumble. It was a decision borne of insecurity. On the surface, I appeared to be a devout Muslim girl, but soon the cracks started to appear.
To understand this complex experience, I have to go back to the beginning. I grew up in a closeted Muslim community in London, and from the age of 9 to 16, I attended a private Islamic girls’ school. Contrary to people’s preconceptions, my parents did not force me to attend an Islamic school. Instead, I was inspired by my older sister’s amusing stories about the cartoonish like teachers, mischiefs and adventures. I had conjured up a vision of a Hogwarts of sorts; a place to belong. Even at such a young age, I was aware of how unstable my identity was. Amidst a nasty divorce between my parents, and an overwhelming feeling of insecurity, I did everything I could to fit in. As a result of being compared to my sister, I decided to wear a hijab and an abaya to go with it just like the rest of the women in my family. I finally fit in.
[Image sourced from pexels]
My justification for wearing the hijab and abaya was that it protected me from being sexualised at a young age. Both at school and the mosque, the language and terminology surrounding the hijab were often victim-blaming, and misogynistic. Wearing a hijab was simultaneous with purity and chastity perpetuating the dated virgin-whore dichotomy. Anyone who did not wear the hijab fell into the latter category. Furthermore, the narrative surrounding the hijab was that it protected you from the “male gaze”, thus not wearing it would warrant unwanted male attention. A word that I became familiar with was Awrah which is an Arabic term for the intimate parts of the body; within Islam, the Awrah should be hidden. When looking at the root of the word Awrah, it actually derives from the Arabic word Awr which means “shame”, “blemish”, or “weakness”. In Islam, the hair of a woman is considered Awrah. I was subconsciously learning to be ashamed of my body. It was never about how men should not be looking at me but instead, a deep discomfort within my own body was instilled.
As I became older, I started to see more of the world, outside of the little bubble of a community that I had grown up in. I started to unlearn everything that I had been taught. The virgin-whore dichotomy suddenly became redundant because people were not as black and white as that. Interestingly, it was a friend that went to the same school who taught me that. She did not wear a scarf outside of the school and the more time I spent with her, the more I realised how much in common we had. Then, one day we took a trip to a nearby park and I decided to see what it was like to not wear it. I slipped my scarf off and let my hair out to the world. It had been a long time; It was almost like freeing myself from the shackles that had reigned me in for so long. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. Feeling the breeze in my hair, and my curls springing into the air gently in front of my face. It was a cliche.
I remember feeling a stronger sense of control over my body, my hair, my identity. It was disorienting at first realising that everything I had been told and experienced was not what I wanted. Unfortunately, it seemed that what I wanted and what my family wanted were two different things. I remember coming home from school once when I was 17. I was wearing a dress with slits on the side with leggings on. A family member came right up to me, grabbed the slit and tore the dress right off me whilst I was standing there. That was when I knew that living my life on my own terms was going to be a challenge.
I spent two years of my life living a double identity: I felt like an imposter. People saw a devoutly religious girl shrouded in an abaya and hijab on the surface. I never gave my opinions, people assumed what they were as my hijab spoke for my views. I was invisible and completely visible at the same time. Nobody could miss the hijabi girl walking down the street but nobody ever cared to see beyond the layers, that another girl was lurking underneath. There were times when I would sneak off the hijab in the library and go out without it. It was liberating but trying to keep up with a lie was stressful. It was easier to pretend that I was just a hijabi girl then trying to explain that I was living a lie. It was consuming me.
After I moved to campus, I was finally able to own my identity. Being able to go hijabless without looking over my shoulder or sneaking to the nearest library to change out of my hijab was liberating. I regained the confidence that I had lost in the two years that I was living that secret identity. I was no longer ashamed of my body. However, that did not stop people from imposing an outdated perception on to me. People I knew, family, and friends still saw me as that religious hijabi girl. I could see the judgement that clouded their face when they looked at me. That outdated identity still follows me around when I am in my own community. The judgement they impose on me is that I am hijabless. It was hard to escape those labels.
This is not a story that is exclusive to me. Instead, this is a prime example of the consequences of trying to control women. Within any religion, orthodox teachings are controversial but the problem here was how the religion was taught. Instead of promoting self-love and the empowering value of hijab-by-choice, I was taught to make myself small. With overpowering language surrounding purity, virginity, and shame about the body, it was natural for me to seek confidence elsewhere.
Whether it is the burqini being banned in France, or the strict dress codes in Saudi Arabia, clothing has always been used to impose an identity or an ideal upon women. Such oppression is wrong, as it denies the women a right to define themselves. Instead, empowerment begins with a choice.