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Why people need to accept that the hijab is about so much more than obedience

By Zeynab Mohamed

Human rights

Dec 12, 2019

It wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I realised people held opinions over my hijab. I was on a French exchange trip and as soon as I arrived at the school, I was whisked away to an empty canteen and told that I wouldn’t be able to wear my hijab there. I felt like I was having an out of body experience, and I was soon in floods of tears. I didn’t realise that hijabs, along with other visible religious symbols such as kippahs and crucifixes, had been banned from French schools since 2004.

This was my first experience of real heartbreak. I was distraught and furious with my teachers for not warning me; with the school; even with the law. The irony is that for the whole time I was on the exchange, I wore this hideous pink bandanna that entirely covered my hair. It gave me back a sense of control and comfort, which I had come to associate with my hijab. Of course, because it was a bandana, it wasn’t a problem anymore.

I started wearing a hijab at age 13, when my mum presented me and my two younger sisters with hijabs and asked us if we wanted to wear them. My mother is a woman of few words, so there was no explanation, no bid to encourage us. It wasn’t a surprise—I’d grown up around hijab-wearing Muslim women—although my sisters both rejected it at first. I was excited by the idea of the hijab and had taken to it beyond the expectation of my mother. For me, it symbolised maturity and adulthood. I was more than willing to engage in anything that proved my ‘adult status’.

I had grown up in an environment where the hijab didn’t foster any negative connotations, and I was desensitised to its different interpretations. I was presented with a positive view of it, and was more than happy to accept this perspective, content with the idea of eventually wearing a hijab.

This isn’t the common trajectory for all Muslim women, as some decide not to wear it. Ultimately, the reason they chose to wear the hijab is an act of religious worship. Part of being religious is implementing acts of worship in your everyday life as a way to build faith.

Recently, I’ve started to feel the same way I once did, at age 15. With Boris Johnson firmly installed, I fear that I will be put in the same position in my home country as I was put in on that school trip in France. In a Sunday Telegraph column, Johnson likened Muslim women in burkas to “letterboxes.” In a 2016 YouGov poll, 57 per cent of the British public voted in favour of banning the burka.

Is the hijab different from the burka? Yes, aesthetically. I’m personally not ready for a burka, the hijab is enough to connect me to my religion. But, to debunk a big myth here, the burka and the hijab essentially represent the same thing. They’re both just the outward expression of acts of worship. The problem isn’t the act of wearing the hijab or even the hijab itself, because it is only a piece of cloth. The problem is what it has come to be associated with it. The hijab now represents for many a form of dictatorship on how women should dress. But for a lot of Muslim women, it is, in fact, the complete opposite. Religion and the female dress code is impossibly complicated, but rarely do people consider what it means to the individual female. For me, it’s neither about obedience nor modesty, but rather engaging in worship while also expressing a part of my identity.

With Muslim women commonly portrayed as passive, oppressed and a vehicle of strict Islamic regimes, people develop their own preconceived judgements. Last summer, while I was away on holiday with my family in Lisbon, we were having dinner, and a lady approached our table and asked whether she could take a photo of us. We were completely baffled, but quickly assumed that she wanted us to take a photo of her and her partner. That was not the case; she really wanted to take a photo of us. Why? She told us she had never come across happy and smiling Muslim women. Was it truly a rare occurrence or was this the view commonly portrayed of Muslim women firmly cemented all over the world?

I had never been made to feel so small and uncomfortable in my hijab. I was angry—I still get quite angry thinking about it—but also filled with an overwhelming sadness to think that when a person sees me, they see an unhappy controlled Muslim woman.

This crusade against the hijab may not only be fruitless, but actually harmful to many Muslim women who choose to wear it. Reports show that a considerably higher proportion of attacks on Muslims are launched against women who wear the hijab. I am aware that my hijab makes me a target, but it also, somehow, offers me protection. I am not afraid to wear it, because I am not afraid to be myself. But I am cradled by the fear that my expression of my beliefs could be so easily taken away from me. Poof. And then, suddenly, like millions of other women, I will be forced to do my hair nicely every morning. And that’s a mundane act that I am terrified of.

The many ways of being Muslim during Ramadan

I’m taking a fast from Instagram right now. I’m also taking a fast from food, water, bad habits, and only emulating good energy during sunlight hours—you guessed it, it’s the holy month of Ramadan.

For 30 days, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world take part in trying to unlearn any Earthly bad habits and essentially look beyond themselves. It’s way more than not eating food and trying to curb your ‘hangry’. It’s an act of being consciously grateful, giving as much as you can, especially to those who are not as fortunate as you.

It’s also the time when many Muslims rekindle with their faith. They may pick up the Quran again, they may start praying traditional salaat and even go to the mosque for nightly Taraweeh prayer. Every once in a while, when my thumb slips on the App Store and I download Instagram again, my timeline, the rest of my social media, and even within the discussions I’m having across various circles—we’re are all talking about Ramadan—the array of personal feelings people have around faith bubble up to the surface once again.

With the rise of Islamaphobia in response to terrorism,  a recent example being the racist and xenophobic Christ Church attacks in New Zealand, I’ve seen a noticeable amount of Muslims across generations from millennials to gen X, Y and Z take a stand—and be proud—to do Ramadan this year. I’ve also read the other side of the story.

Though a common sentence I hear from other Muslims, practising or not, is that the air feels different in Ramadan (which I completely agree with), those are not the only narratives we as Muslims should be considering. Journalist and debut author of The Greater Freedom: Life As a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes Alya Mooro, shared an Instagram story on the first day of Ramadan, celebrating the holiday with the words “Ramadan Kareem everyone!”. But it was her second story that hit home. “To everyone celebrating Ramadan (or not), #freedomfrom and #freedomof”.

The term ‘cultural Muslim’ is a phrase that is more common in my vernacular than it was in my parent’s generation. The label varies from person to person but it describes those who aren’t religious yet still respect the teachings Islam has to offer to those who have left the religion (and may or may not have come out to their parents about it). Ramadan is a time to reflect; it can also be difficult for those who are grappling with their different personal beliefs. For many who are ex-Muslims or aren’t simply as religious anymore, 30 holy days can bring a whole month of ‘Muslim guilt’.

For people like Fabliha Anbar, a queer Muslim womxn of colour, navigating communities that you are a part of, and that have also shunned you, makes Ramadan complicated. In a recent Instagram post, Anbar spoke openly about what it’s like for your personal connection to Allah to be policed and how this can then complicate what should be a celebratory month of practice and prayer.

These stories may seem like outliers, and some people may argue that Ramadan is about God and those who don’t have as much as us, but grappling with faith is something we all go through regardless of the outcome.

In conversations such as these—ones that can easily be disregarded as being ‘sinful’, narcissistic and even unholy—we need to unlearn and remember that fasting is also a cleanse from what you think you know while taking a step back to evaluate what’s missing, and what you need to pour into yourself and others. If this is a month about looking beyond yourself, that also means recognising other people’s pain through your own biased lens and frankly, humbling yourself.

For people to be ostracised and then generalised into the ‘bad’ category only because their connection to God doesn’t seem strong is an issue for our Muslim communities. To judge and act as though our way is the only way, especially towards young women in a time where patience, forgiveness, mercy but mainly, empathy is the foundation of this month is truly what is contradictory. Ramadan is a reminder of coming home to yourself, it shouldn’t be four weeks of having to explain your existence. Just like there isn’t one way to look Muslim, there isn’t one way to believe in Allah or anything you may feel is divine, regardless if you’re a part of this month or not.