Today I’m going to tell you about a little secret of mine. Well, it only feels like a secret because the Muslim community avoids talking about it or when they do, it’s never really a productive conversation. But after contemplating the idea for a little while, I feel like I’m ready to re-visit the moments that have come to define my personal identity. It’s been a long and difficult ride but it’s a journey that deserves a platform so today, I’m going to discuss the constant struggles I have with my hijab.
Before I begin, let me get some of the general formalities out of the way.
Being on social media, you come into contact with lots of different women who interpret the hijab in different ways and it’s obvious with how they choose to wear it. In no way, shape or form will I be slamming any of their decisions. This is simply a recalling of my own journey and how it helped shape the view of my faith. I don’t have any ill feelings towards anyone who might wear the hijab differently to me, nor do I want to criticise other women who have chosen a different path. God knows there’s enough of that negative energy out there already. Muslims and non-muslims all seem to hold their own opinion on the matter regardless of if they have experienced the journey themselves. Muslim women are constantly criticised for their relationship with their hijab; for choosing to wear it, for not wearing it ‘properly’, or for not wearing it at all.
Just remember, it’s easy to sit from the sidelines and point fingers. I urge you to take a step back and try to empathise with us. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help you do that with this little insight into my journey about how I’ve come to accept the hijab as part of my being.
For those of you that aren’t aware, the term hijab typically refers to just the garment that a woman of the Muslim faith wears to cover her hair. But for those of us that are actually Muslim, we know hijab actually stems beyond just those superficial qualities and that is an obligatory requirement for women. For the purpose of this post, we’ll use the term to refer to just the headscarf.
Now, I’ve been wearing the hijab on and off for over a decade now.
It all started in high school when I made the decision to put it on for the first time. My parents were hesitant about it as they had originally planned to introduce the concept to me when I got to college but much to their surprise, I was insistent that they let me wear it. Little did they know it was because I didn’t like my long, thick, Hagrid-like hair and not because I wanted to be the perfect Muslim daughter – whatever that was anyway. I wish I could tell you I started this journey because I had an epiphany or something but it really wasn’t as ideal as that. And over the next five years, the reasons behind my hijab-related decisions only continued to get more and more complicated.
I found myself basking in the glory of praise given to me by the elders in the community so much so that it became my Achillies’ heel. People were noticing me because I was so young, yet I was taking on such a big responsibility. I also thought that if I wore it, it would take the guilt away from the fact that I was actually not putting effort into being a good Muslim at all. I just kept telling myself that I was openly wearing the hijab and that should prove I’m ‘Muslim enough’ right? Right? But then I also wanted to get invited to parties and fit in with my white friends, so I had to be versatile with it. It sounds completely ridiculous when I think about it now, but back then, it seemed to make sense. I wanted to find a personal balance with it so I did the only thing I could do with that mindset, I became a part-timer. Some days I would put on my modest disguise while on others, I would show off what was underneath. It’s safe to say that I didn’t appreciate the true value of what the hijab represented and instead, I used it as a tool to present myself as a girl ‘who could do both.’
Things didn’t change much in college either but just like any other teenager, I went through an identity crisis where I started scrutinising every aspect of my life. I didn’t know who I was, how I should be dressing or what I wanted in life. I mean, I know it’s natural to go through those kinds of uncertain periods, but this felt Earth-shattering when I was seventeen and I thought I had everything figured out.
It wasn’t until the idea of being Muslim was thrust into the media that I was forced to address what it meant to me personally. I was at university at this point and coming to terms with who I was and who I wanted to be. I started getting in touch with my Bengali background and my faith too, and for the first time in my life, I started understanding how these components stretch into the wider world and most importantly, into Western society. But even with so much self-discovery, there was still one thing I couldn’t understand and to this day, I have not yet figured it out…
Why do they keep saying I’m oppressed by my hijab?
Were they angry because I wouldn’t let them under it anymore? Was it because they didn’t find it attractive? Was I ‘too covered’? Or did they know something about my hijab that I didn’t? Why would they say that I had failed to integrate into society just because of the scarf on my head? Did they forget I had feelings too? Or were they not important? I’m out here telling them one thing and they are turning around and spewing out something completely different.
“It’s not a western ideal.” “It’s anti-feminist.” “They must be forced to wear it.”
Throughout my life, I made the decision to wear it, I made the decision to take it off and it always made me feel so powerful. Not only that, but it was a clear sign of devotion to God, something I valued a lot. I got to choose who was allowed to witness me in my most beautiful form because not everyone deserves to and somehow that made me weak?
The pieces were finally fitting together. My hijab was not my enemy and nor were my thoughts about it. They were simply just the outcome of trying to fit into this society that demonised my devotion to God. And no matter how much I tried my best to win them over, I was still shamelessly hung under the ‘other’ category.
This realisation was the point that I reached the inevitable crossroad; should I remove my hijab or stick with it?
My life would be a hundred times easier if I just got rid of it, but it had grown to become a part of me. The latter option meant I couldn’t just carry on how I was. I had to truly believe what the hijab represented in order to make a statement and after some research, I knew for sure. This was bigger than just me. It was about an entire group of people who are also trying to fit into this so-called ‘secular society’ but the only difference was that I had a lot more opportunities compared to a lot of other Muslim women.
Fast forward a few years and here I am.
As progressive as our society is getting, the industry is still brimming with white, middle-class people. If you work in a media-orientated job, think about how many hijabis you know of that work alongside you. Actually, just think about how many brown people are there, men or women, that’ll help to put into perspective the progression we’ve made. I hardly ever come across them, let alone other hijabis. Why? Because the field is still inaccessible for us. The system was created to isolate certain people from jobs in which they could help to dismantle those same systems that have oppressed them since the day they were born. It’s not because there aren’t enough of us who want to work in the media.
If I had a penny for every time someone (most likely another Muslim) told me I wouldn’t survive in the writing industry because of my hijab, I’d be writing this post from a glass apartment in the suburbs of Italy.
So more than for just me, I’m doing it for the other girls that think they will have no choice but to fulfil their second-hand dreams of becoming a doctor or a teacher because that’s the industry they will be easily accepted in. I want them to see themselves in every line of work so nothing feels like an impossible task. And if I can make it even a little bit easier for one of those girls that I once was, then I’ve done my job. And the bonus is knowing that I can live my life openly as a proud British Muslim woman regardless of what anyone else thinks.
So, as much as I sometimes feel like ditching my hijab and letting my hair down, the thought that I’m publicly declaring my Muslim-ness, as well as hopefully empowering my fellow Muslim sisters, even in the slightest, gives me the drive to continue.
It is a constant battle every day so forgive me if you don’t think I’m wearing the hijab correctly, or if it’s slipping a little, I’m trying. And for the bigger picture, it will be worth it.