Experiences of a former hijabi

Today is World Hijab Day, at least that’s what I hear on Twitter.  People have been celebrating it in different ways, but I read one tweet that encouraged people to celebrate it by asking a hijabi (person who wears hijab) about their experiences wearing hijab.

If you didn’t know, hijab is the traditional head scarf that women wear to cover their hair and chest in the presence of males outside of their immediate family.  Niqab is the cloth that covers the face, leaving usually just the eyes uncovered.  A burqa is the garment that people wear to cover their entire body.

The verse that talks about hijab in Islam is translated from Arabic to the following:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimār over their breasts and not display their beauty except to their husband, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their (Muslim) women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. (Quran 24:31).

Basically, what this means is that when women reach the age of puberty, they should dress modestly. I know that’s a vast over-simplification, but different Muslims believe this in varying degrees.  For some women, this means that as soon as you hit puberty (aka get your first period), you should start wearing hijab to cover all of your hair and wear clothes that cover your legs and arms and not wear makeup.  In America, it’s a little weird to show up to school in hijab halfway through the school year, so many people decide to start wearing hijab the summer before middle school.  For other women, it means that you should wear hijab, but it was okay if a little bit of your hair showed.  For others, you had to cover most of your hair, but you could pair it with tight jeans and a t-shirt.  I had a roommate who thought that you shouldn’t wear pants because they weren’t modest ever.  Wearing hijab means something different to each Muslim woman.  Interestingly, people judge others on their level of modesty (i.e. “That girl isn’t wearing hijab so she’s a bad Muslim”), but they have no way of knowing her personal level of faith.  I know many women who don’t wear hijab but are devout Muslims as well as others who only wear hijab because their family made them.

In my family, half the women wear hijab and half don’t.  Overall though, most of the women don’t wear clothes that expose their legs at all, and they don’t wear sleeveless blouses.  Generally, clothes aren’t skin tight either.  There is definitely not any cleavage showing.  The women who don’t wear hijab most of the time will wear hijab for the five daily prayers though.  Most of the women wear some amount of makeup and jewelry.  I don’t think there is anyone in my family that wears niqab.  They’re generally considered moderate on the spectrum of modesty.  Moderately modest.

I started wearing hijab on my 12th birthday, right before I started middle school.  It was a “choice” for me to wear hijab.  I say that in quotes because I distinctly felt guilted into it because I knew it would be a disappointment to my parents and grandparents.  I remember everyone being so proud of me on my birthday when I first went out into the world with hijab on.  That sense of pride definitely carried me through many years of wanting to take it off.  I also felt a sense of pride in my devotion to religion and my faith in that these thing were more important to me than my physical beauty.

Obviously, I don’t wear hijab anymore. I wore hijab from the ages of 12-19.  I learned a lot of things from wearing hijab.  Hijab is generally the symbol that you are a Muslima, so I would get an Assalamualaikum (Arabic greeting) from strangers everywhere.  That definitely made me feel like I was part of a bigger community.  When I met other hijabis in the wild, it felt like I instantly had a new best friend.

Non-Muslims were not nearly as nice though.  I got a lot of slurs about being a towel head or a terrorist.  I talked before on my blog about how people would try to tear off my hijab to humiliate me.  When I was in the locker room before gym class, other women would make a big deal when they would see my hair, and I always felt very awkward about that.  Sometimes, they would try to convince me that I was *actually* pretty (as opposed to not being pretty because of my hijab) and that I was hurting myself and the world by not showing it.  That always made me feel very ugly when I put the hijab back on my head.

I was *very* aware that I didn’t fit in especially in the midwest.  The other Muslim girl in my grade did not wear hijab.  We never had any classes together, but people often would compare how much prettier she was than me.  I remember the constant struggle of wanting to look cute and fashionable and to adhere to the religious rules at the same time.  When you’re a teenager, it’s especially frustrating to have your crush tell you that he liked you for your mind but didn’t like the way you looked (not that you could really date as a Muslim anyway).  I remember being really excited when my aunt took me shopping for clothes and got me jeans that were only 3 sizes too big because at least I was getting clothes in similar styles to what the other kids were wearing (you would always have to buy clothing in larger sizes to stay modest).  This is probably why I love buying clothing so much now.  🙂

People would ask me so many odd questions about hijab.  I remember in middle school, we had to draw ourselves in art class.  The rubric said that 10% of your grade was based on your hair.  I asked my teacher if I should draw myself with hair and without hijab so that I wouldn’t get points off for hair.  My teacher was incredibly confused and asked me, “but aren’t you bald underneath that?”  Other people would ask me if I had to shower with the hijab on, if I had to wear it to bed, if my ears were ugly, if I had to wear it when I was married, if I had to wear it only in the winter, if I could take it off when my parents weren’t around to see, if I had to marry a person if they accidentally saw my hair, if I had cancer, if I was hiding explosives in my hair, if my head had a weird bump that I needed to cover, and bizarrely, what would I do if I had a head injury and a male doctor needed to do brain surgery on me.  The answer to the last question is that I’d have to marry the doctor before surgery because that’s the perfect way to snag a doctor.

One of the good things about hijab was that I knew for sure that my friends were my friends because they liked me, not my body.  It’s frustrating to say that isn’t the case for me in my life now.  My high school friends didn’t care what I was wearing at all.  They just liked hanging out with me and joking around.  They didn’t even touch making fun of my hijab at all.  Sometimes, they’d ask me questions about it, but they were always questions out of curiosity, not malice.  They generally respected that I wanted to wear hijab out of devotion to religion.

I also became confident in my intellectual work.  One of my mentors said that I had a quiet confidence, and I believe that it stemmed from me knowing that my intellectual work was judged solely on it’s own merit, not anything else.  It’s a hard concept to explain, but I learned that if I worked hard, I would achieve my goals.  People could take away my perceived beauty but they couldn’t take away my thoughts or my actions.

I am always sad now when people talk about hijab as oppressing women.  I know many women who honestly feel less oppressed because they wear hijab.  They feel like they are free of societal pressures for beauty and free of catcalls on their appearance.  They feel like they can focus on inner beauty and strength.  For a lot of hijabis, they can’t imagine life any other way.  All hijabis have my respect because I know how how hard it is to wear it.

As cliche as a it sounds, wearing hijab taught me that true beauty isn’t visible.  My mom and grandmother are very kind people, and I always thought they were beautiful.  Now, when I see other women in hijab, I can’t help but think that they are beautiful as well because they shared a similar cultural lifestyle.  I just remember how perfectly my grandma and my mom could find hijab that matched the color and style of a dress, sari, or salwar kamese and make me feel beautiful while being modest.  In my eyes, they were always so confident in what they wore and how they walked and how they welcomed the challenges of the world everyday.  They held the sorrows of a thousand lives but somehow always seemed to find a shimmer of hope in the darkness and grow it into a blaze of love and wonder. That’s the kind of beautiful I always wanted to become.

2 thoughts on “Experiences of a former hijabi”

  1. Neem, your blog just keeps getting better! Thanks for sharing your stories so thoughtfully. I’ve mostly read about modesty culture from a conservative Christian perspective (check out the Love, Joy, Feminism blog if you haven’t already – I think you’d enjoy it). It’s interesting to hear your own complex experiences.

    One thing I’m curious about how is how queer Muslims deal with modesty – do you know any women who have same-sex attractions and wear hijab?

    PS – this passage is gorgeously poetic: “They held the sorrows of a thousand lives but somehow always seemed to find a shimmer of hope in the darkness and grow it into a blaze of love and wonder. That’s the kind of beautiful I always wanted to become.”

    PPS – I LOL’d at the doctor joke. 🙂

    1. I do know a couple, but they haven’t come out to anyone. One friend always tells me how conflicted she feels because she’s attracted to other women while they wear hijab, but she doesn’t know if she should be allowed to see her friends when they take off the hijab in front of her. It’s complicated 🙂

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