NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar year, which Muslims observe with fasting, worshipping and family gatherings, starts this year on the evening of June 28. The month-long holiday is also a time of self-reflection.
Looking ahead to that, three Muslim women reflect on their often attention-getting decision to stop wearing the hijab, the Islamic veil that covers the hair and chest of a woman past the age of puberty. Presented as a cloth of modesty, the hijab is worn by Muslim women in the presence of adult men outside of their immediate family.
Assma G., 23, is a psychology student living in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. She wore the hijab for 14 years starting at the age of 9 “to please Allah.” In September 2011, she launched a Youtube channel to show “girls they can still feel beautiful in their hijab and not have to take it off.” Last month, Assma G., who didn’t want to give her last name, decided to stop wearing the Islamic veil.
“I used to think that wearing a scarf on my head was my highway ticket to paradise. I looked down on others who were not dressed as modestly.”
“Then I began to dress in a way that was not Islamically correct and my behaviors contradicted with the way a ‘hijabi’ should behave. Whether we like it or not, a hijabi is forced to be a representation of Islam and a role model for younger Muslimahs. Hijab was supposed to be a decision between me and God, not for people. I was shunned from the Muslim community for not abiding by what they thought hijab should be and I was shunned from my Canadian community, as I was still seen as an outsider. My religion and my choice of what I put on my head became other people’s business.”
By Adamajan Bah, Hibo Abdullahi and Mariam Bah
Teen Voices Rising commentators
“I was lost for a year. I was confused and scared and I thought I was good for nothing, only good for ‘fuel for hell fire’ as I was told repeatedly. I became sick and suicidal at one point and did not understand why these things were happening. I met up with a friend who has also taken the decision to remove her scarf and she explained to me why she removed it and for the first time in a long time I felt understood. I felt like I was not alone and I was not crazy.”
“My family is supportive and understands this is what I need to do for myself and inchallah [God’s will] when I return to wearing it (because I am planning to) I will return wearing it when I value it and appreciate it. My biological father came to visit me when I was sick and he was upset but open minded. He told me I need to wear it again, but we have not communicated since then. My friends were very supportive and encouraging. But one friend whom I thought was very close to me–the one who was supposed to be there for me through thick and thin–cut ties with me and told me I have changed a lot. I get a few random messages calling me a whore or prostitute or b*tch from my Youtube viewers, but I disregard those and don’t even care to let them get to me.”
Sharmin Hossain, 21, is a political educator and youth trainer at the YaYa network in New York, which describes itself as “a citywide anti-racist, anti-sexist organization and allies with the LGBTQ community.” Hossein started wearing the hijab in middle school at age 12. Last year, at 20, she took it off. She submitted a photo of herself wearing hijab because, she says, “I think I look beautiful in it. I don’t mind posting one with it and just wanted to remind myself I can still rock the hijab.”
“The hijab for me . . . in many (not all) experiences was a statement against the traditional male gaze that owns the femme/queer/gender non-conforming body. And it represented my relationship to Islam in a world filled with islamophobia and the hatred of women who were making decisions for their own body. Growing up in New York, I still experienced cat calling and relationships with sexist misogynist men who used patriarchal notions of modesty and honor to perpetuate oppression. Many of my relationships were tied to these notions of sanctity that created the virgin/whore dichotomy, while also creating a hidden space to explore/discover sexuality and the freedom to define these experiences before committing myself to someone ‘forever.'”
“Since I took off my hijab, I have been navigating and negotiating my Muslim identity without the hijab defining it for me in the Western reductionist complex, nor in the Arab-centric definition that alienated my Bangladeshi-South Asian body. Taking off the hijab allowed me to think of my values beyond the external, and let me get comfortable with skin and the idea of hair not necessarily being a hyper-sexualized object that needs to be covered in order to justify a mandate from the Most High.”
“The turning point was being honest with myself, being honest with my needs and the ways in which I have internalized and normalized a practice that I never questioned. It became such a norm for me that taking it off became scary since I couldn’t imagine what people would think of me/my honor/my self-respect/relationship with God. It was a turning point to just go to the gym regularly and take off my hijab while I worked out, since I get over-heated and irritated easily. It was a climactic point to just walk to work, a safe space and ask what was changed about who I was. I decided to change my style up a bit, since I never experienced my sexuality, gender and romantic life without the hijab.”
“My mother said, as soon as I told her I wasn’t going to wear hijab, ‘That doesn’t change your Islam. Your prayers, heart and insides are what count as hijab.’ My friends allowed me to grow, challenged me to question where I found beauty and what felt the realest. My father still refers to it as a beautiful period in my life, but never fails to acknowledge I still embody greatness and beauty without it.”
Photo Credit: Chris Smart
Aminah Sheikh, 29, was born and raised in Toronto. She recently graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies at York University where her research focused on faith-based organizations, women and socio-economic development in Pakistan. She was one of 12 women featured in the viral Mipsterz’ video, “Somewhere in America,” released online in December 2013. Six months ago, Sheikh stopped wearing the hijab.
“I feel more confident in spaces. I feel I can blend in and not question my own belonging. Hijab is to be celebrated and we see that happening globally. But in secular spaces, it can be a constant battle against huge discourses and cultural hegemony. I found it mentally exhausting after 10 years. It is a fight in many ways, and I have so much respect for women who continue that struggle against the normative discourse on how women should dress and present themselves.”
“Men harass me more now in a very different way. Hijab does not serve as a barrier, it does not prevent sexual harassment from happening or (assault/rape) as some would claim. But, I feel now without hijab the number of men bothering me has increased and it is rather annoying. However, with hijab men would still approach me, especially old white men. It is kind of peculiar but made sense. Hijab is often fetishized, and this is not discussed at all. A lot of older white men would always reach out to me in public places and ask me out. I would be stared at a lot more and I often felt like a zoo animal, is that rude? I guess that is the truth. I felt like an exotic carpet from the Orient that would be stared at in spaces like I was on display in a museum. I started feeling a huge desire to just blend in and I felt I would lash out at people. I had to be on offense and defense all the time, to show people that Muslim women were not weak.”
“In hijab, you are a constant role model and teacher, whether you want to be or not. I give a lot of love to my sisters in hijab. But you really need to tell the world to shut up on how you perform your gender role. Practice saying ‘shut up’ in the mirror.”
“The turning point was when I was thinking about taking it off more than an hour a day. I was thinking about it three hours minimum a day. When you start crying consistently and hating yourself; when you wake up and think you are hideous creature and resent people. I did analyze the pain and knew much of this self-loathing would not disappear. Honestly, it has really reduced. I feel a lot happier, comfortable and safe in my existence.”
“My family is super supportive. I am also a grown woman with a strong voice. They know how I dictate my own life. They respected my decision when I wore it and now respect me without it.”
“I became scared that I lost a whole community of friends and thought that I could no longer be close to other hijabis. But I started realizing most hijabis go through phases. I did not do an ethnography on this but most hijabis wear it and take it off. Like I said, maybe our community has a hard time grappling with this, but it is a fact. At least 80 percent of the hijabis or non-hijabis take it off and put it on in transitions of their lives. For me and I am sure others, it has become normal.”
“I do not wear hijab now and in many ways I feel more closer to my faith than ever.”
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.
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