My Complicated Relationship with the Hijab
I’ve been trying and failing to write a response to France’s #Hijabban since the news broke earlier this month and my attempts haven’t bared any fruits. My gut instinct was to write one of my political rants like I’ve done time and time again but as I sat with my fingers hovering over the keyboard staring at the word ‘hijab’ I knew something wasn’t right.
Growing up in a Muslim family, the Hijab has been a massive part of my life. Nearly all my female family members are proud Hijabis, many of whom style their hijabs so beautifully that they belong in editorial magazines.
I had worn a Hijab for 7 years.
When I was younger I always wanted to wear a scarf, mainly because you could wear any colour in the world and style it differently everyday. It was like dying your hair but without the commitment. I saw my mum get ready in the morning, pinning down her hijab before grabbing her bag and keys ready to drop me and my sister off at school. I saw my grandma praying her Quran, a long white hijab covering her head and half of her body. I saw my aunties in hijabs when they would come to our house every Saturday for dinner. I viewed the hijab as a sign of maturity, a sign that I was no longer a little girl, that I was more responsible.
For me, religion didn’t feature heavily in my reasoning for wearing a scarf, it was about how it made me feel. It made be feel like I had a connection with my family that I didn’t have before. That I would be able to get ready with my mum, asking to borrow her scarf pins and letting her twist and turn my scarf until my hijab had a little rose on the sides.
It was my choice to start wearing a hijab before I started Year Seven. My choice, no one else’s, that’s important to note.
High school in itself is no joke. It was entirely different to primary school. (though I didn’t have the best experience there either)
I went to an all girls school and in my form I was the only girl that wore a scarf and already that made me feel like an outsider. All the people I’d met on the induction day looked at me different, at least I thought they did anyway. But me, being strong, I ignored them. For the most part.
Sometimes it was hard to ignore; especially when the school didn’t have trousers so most hijabis more long navy skirts, skirts that swept the floor; albeit not like skirts did in the movies. The skirts were death traps and tripping up stairs became a daily occurrence for me. I also learnt very quickly how difficult it was to redo my scarf after it nearly flying off during PE when I lost a pin. How to push my hair in inside my scarf when trying to pay attention in lessons. And I also learnt that it became my identity.
I wasn’t just Aisha. I was “Aisha with the scarf”. My hijab and me were one and the same and that didn’t sit right. Especially because I was the only one of my friends that wore one, I didn't have a friend who was experiencing the same things as me, I felt so alone.
With this also came assumptions about who I was as a person and the stereotypes.
I was labelled as too religious, not accepting, too uptight, oppressed and frankly I felt I was the complete opposite of all of those. I remember the first time one of my class mates heard me swear and they were shocked because they never expected that from me. Or when one of my friends were scared to come out to me because they were scared about how I would react.
It was like I was wearing some sort of disguise only not the superhero kind.
It was a disguise that made me seem like an entirely different person to who I truly was. I started not only resenting the image the world saw of me, of the girl in the hijab but I also began hating who I really was.
That feeling grew throughout my high school experience, peaking in year nine and year thirteen when I hit rock bottom. I began feeling paranoid and annoyed at myself. I used to love the feeling of wearing a scarf, of feeling like I belonged to a community but when society forces stigmas and assumptions onto that community it’s difficult to find the solace I had found when I was younger.
Walking around in public spaces became slowly terrifying for me because of the stares, I would actively look at my feet and walk fast so I could try and avoid the eye of strangers passing by; it was difficult.
There was of course a silver lining though, as there always is with these types of things.
Once and a while my eyes would meet the gaze of another Hijabi, someone who was like me and we’d share a look of solidarity. “we’re in this together” the gaze would read and it would fill me with so much warmth.
Until it grew colder again.
As I grew older my belief in Islam began to waver and the hijab became less of a comfort to me and more of a burden. I was projecting a false religious image when my views were far from religious. I felt like a hypocrite, a traitor. Waking up everyday and wrapping the scarf around my head became a chore a heavy weight on my head. I even experimented with different hijab styles to see if it would make a difference with how I felt but it didn’t. And it made me resent myself even more. I felt weak, unable to deal with the societal assumptions of who Muslims were, or of what Hijabis were like.
I didn’t want to wear my hijab anymore. That much was clear. But I knew my family would be disappointed. They, like younger me, saw the hijab as a way of bringing me closer to them and to the religion and me wanting to remove it felt like I was drifting away. I was terrified to tell them how I felt because it felt like a betrayal.
And so I used to take my hijab off when I was out of the house. I would leave for university with a black scarf around my head and as soon as I onto the bus I would rush to the back and pull the fabric off my hair, my ears instantly growing cold. I’d comb my hair and I’d get off the bus at uni looking like a different person.
It was exhilarating, I won’t lie - feeling like I was two different people; one person at home and one person at university. Though the exhilaration soon passed and was replaced by a sense of dysphoria. Which identity was really me? And why was it a struggle to maintain both? I knew I couldn’t live like this.
So I told my parents. They were disappointed, of course. But never once did they take away my choice to remove the hijab. It was still my choice, regardless of whether they agreed with me or not. Of course they voiced their disagreements and they still do but I took off my hijab and for me, it is helping me find who I am again. Free from societal assumptions.
My only regret is I wish I was stronger. I wish I had clung to the warmth of that Hijabi woman’s eyes for longer. I have immense respect for all Muslims who choose to wear a hijab and dodge the stares and stereotypes every single day. I know I couldn’t do it.
A hijab is many things. For me, the meaning of it changed throughout my life but one thing remained the same. A hijab is a choice; and a strong choice. To be proud about your Muslim identity is a show of strength. And the #Hijabban is threatening to take that away all in the name of so called religious extremism and the assumption that the hijab is a symbol of oppression. But it’s the opposite and the western world is slowly beginning to resemble a totalitarian society through the attempt to remove a Muslim girl’s choice to don a hijab or not.
This has been a long blog post but I’ll leave you with this.