I’ve been thinking about it on and off, day and night, yesterday and today. My thoughts are consumed by it.
I’ve worn hijab for almost seven years now. I started wearing it in the fifth grade when I turned 11. There wasn’t any serious reasoning behind it. I grew up around strong, confident women who wore hijab. The masjid had always been a place where I felt happy, where I felt I belonged, I found a sense of community. Everyone at the masjid wore hijab. All the “Young Muslim” bajis that I looked up to, who I thought were the coolest people in the world, wore hijab. And I wanted to be cool like them.
Starting middle school at eleven years old, all my masjid friends were going to start wearing hijab full-time. I thought I might as well too. I mean, we’re all BFF’S and could do this together. The hijab could be like a pact of our friendship. And so my hijab journey began.
I had always been bullied at school for being Indian, for having a small house, for how I dressed. I was recognized as different in some way, shape, or form. I had come to accept it as a part of everyday life, for better or for worse.
Deciding to wear hijab in middle school, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. Though the thought of removing the hijab to fit in never occurred to me, I did possibly everything else. I’d wear shorts and hijab, I’d take pictures without it on. Literally, everything you can think of! Wearing hijab was like a tug of war for me, I loved it when I was with other Muslims but felt suffocated around non-Muslims. I never could understand why.
When people asked me why I wore it, I rarely had an answer. Because I didn’t even know. The concept of perception, stereotypes, and how others saw me in general, weren’t things that had ever crossed my mind. In middle school, I was just the loud, outgoing girl who just wanted to make lasting friendships and have a good time. I didn’t understand that what I was wearing on my head was projecting a message to the rest of the world, a statement that would speak before I even opened my mouth. So, when I was mistreated, it never occurred to me that it could be connected to being one of the only two hijabis in the entire school.
When I was 13, my family moved to a different state, and it was then that I had a transforming spiritual experience, which created a genuine relationship with my faith. I actually liked being Muslim, for the first time. It made me feel spiritually alive. I began to think of my faith as what filled me with joy, what gave me purpose, and meaning.
My newly found faith drove me to get straight A’s in school, to better my relationship with my family, and to do good deeds without seeking anything in return. I consider this the most religious phase of my life. My hijab was pinned tightly under my jaw and came down to my bellybutton and my shirts always reached my knees.
However, I had an overly simplified understanding of Islam. I looked down at Muslims who didn’t follow as I did. My own prayers were on the dot, I was confident in my faith, and had even gathered the courage to ask my school for a separate prayer room. I helped other hijabis become confident in their own faith.
At the same time, I was to an extent, socially inept. When I interacted with people, I carried too much pride. I didn’t speak to non-Muslims, and if I had to, I talked down to them. In school, I constantly felt like I was being ostracized, but saw it as an opportunity to show that I was just being a good Muslim, and I think on many occasions, I succeeded.
By freshman year of high school, I was in the spotlight. It was one of the first times I was directly asked to answer questions about Islam and essentially speak for Muslims. People would again question why I wear hijab, why I do what I do, and what exactly I was all about. It was scary. It was weird. It was a lot. I wasn’t ready or comfortable to answer, but I tried.
This was the first time I became aware of how I and the Muslim community were perceived by mainstream America. I felt their discomfort when I walked into a room, their hesitation when they interacted with me. Because I had grown up feeling like an outsider, I was used to getting foreign looks from fellow students and teachers.
I didn’t like how I felt when a teacher asked me, “Muslims do ______, right?” or “why do you do ______?” I was forced to publically articulate my identity because other people made me weary of it.
During freshman year, I also began to deal with the baggage from my childhood—of being ruthlessly mocked and ridiculed for my ethnicity and heritage to the point that I had disassociated myself completely from it. I was battling an eating disorder and had major self-esteem problems. Though I was openly Muslim, I was still lying about my race. I was still intimidated by white people. I so desperately wanted to be normal: someone who was liked, accepted, and didn’t have to constantly talk about who they were and their identity all the time.
But I wanted to change that, so I began trying to make hijabis more relatable to everyone, trying to make hijabis seem cool. I followed all the cool hijabis on Instagram: Noor Tagouri, Ibtihaj Muhammad, the fashionistas, and hijabi bloggers. I found the rope to hold on to my faith, my hijab, and my fingers clenched tight. To prove I could become the catalyst for change, I ran for class Vice President because I wanted to change perception. Everything I did led back to perception. It came to a point where I wasn’t even authentically expressing myself and my thoughts. I was tailoring my actions, my words, my behavior, my dress in order to please the dominant thinking. I wasn’t an individual—I was a representative and my thoughts and personality had molded to be just that. Instead of existing for myself, I was existing for the sake of changing perception.
By sophomore year, this ideology started to become even bigger. I over analyzed YouTube videos produced by fashion hijabi bloggers. They were gorgeous, their fashion was relevant, and most importantly, they wore hijab. I wanted to be them. I wanted to represent hijab like them. So, I did.
I did my makeup like them, I wrapped my hijab like them, I dressed just as fashionable as them. And people noticed. People told me I was beautiful, I was fabulous, and was the “prettiest hijabi” in the school. I learned about feminist theory and decided I was wearing hijab because my body was mine, and I didn’t believe other people were entitled to see or experience it unless I chose otherwise. My goal was to be so cute, so pretty, so beautiful in hijab that people would think, “wow, hijabis are so pretty” and that would finally change their perception of Muslim women. I had convinced myself that this was feminism, this was how to change perception.
Even though I was known as the ‘golden hijabi’ who smashed stereotypes while radiating confidence, the reality was, I was dying on the inside. I was still struggling with my eating disorder. I hated caking makeup on every morning. I hated how I dressed, hated how my clothes were tight in certain places, I hated feeling like my purpose was to be pretty, to be attractive, to be beautiful. I felt like I had to make up for covering the clearest part of what is considered a woman’s beauty by beautifying all the other parts of me. I still felt pressured by mainstream media, by sexism, by men, by society to adhere to certain standards. This wasn’t feminism and this certainly wasn’t the purpose of hijab, as far as I was concerned.
During the second semester of my sophomore year, things changed. I started hanging out with a group of skaters who were known to experiment with drugs. And they accepted me. Part of me couldn’t fathom how they could “accept” me if I wore hijab. I began dressing more like my new group of friends because I was spending more time with them. I approached these friendships with gratefulness, as though they had bestowed some sort of royal honor on me by not rejecting me. I think I became so obsessed with trying to make Islam seem cool that I stopped embodying or even practicing anything close to Islam. I think much of sophomore year, the only Muslim thing about me was my hijab.
Now, at the end of my junior year, my projection of myself has no correlation with my real self. I approached junior year with a wall around myself, a wall for protection, for safety from ignorance, from racism, from people who wanted to stereotype me and reject me as a human being because of my attire.
Wearing hijab is a heavy experience, especially in the United States, as a woman of color, as an individual who has been marginalized for the majority of her life. Identity is important. Wearing hijab hasn’t been easy, I’ve been made to feel as “the other,” and I’ve constantly had to validate my self-esteem.
Even through all the ups and down with hijab, I don’t regret wearing it one bit. I don’t know if this is the case for other hijabis, but it has been a big part of shaping who I am. It has allowed me to understand my identity inside and out in an environment where I am one of very few. When I look around at my Muslim peers, I find my confidence and outspokenness about my faith. I know things about myself that others don’t even bother to think about because they were not put in situations where it was required. Wearing hijab has allowed the most genuine, loving, and non-judgemental people into my life. Some of these friends have given me more insight, more perspective, and authentic love than any Islamophobic judgemental asshole from school could provide, and I am ever so grateful for that.
But at the same time, I feel there are parts of myself that I need to know and explore that would need me to leave hijab, at least for some time. This past year has been so traumatic and stressful for me. Without exaggeration, I can say that I have cried more tears this past year than I ever have. My entire life is a combination of being ostracized, mocked, and marginalized for my identity. It often feels as though I’m not able to heal because new, bad experiences always find a way to hurt me before an old wound can heal. I suppose the opposite argument could be that bad experiences are a part of life and will continue with or without hijab. But what I’ve experienced during my childhood, combined with what I’ve felt while wearing hijab is not comparable to any bad experience. It has psychological, emotional, and even physical effects that need some serious healing.
The hijab had been such a crucial part of my identity that I’ve become too comfortable with it. The significance, the purpose that it once held for me, no longer exists.
I’ve thought about taking off the hijab extensively. I’ve been searching within myself to ponder and confirm that this is exactly what I want and need to do, without even a drop of regret. I am not going to take off hijab for other people. My concern is not acceptance from others, to be liked and loved, to appear more attractive or otherwise. I need to understand myself outside of perception, outside of stereotypes and outside of my existence representing an entire population.
If my hijab has provided me with so many experiences and intrapersonal insight, I can’t imagine what insight I’ll get from the other side. I need to understand my relationship with my faith without hijab. Part of me feels that if I was to remove hijab for a while, it would allow me to address the trauma I had as a child and heal, as I would be physically representative of only that group for the time being.
My hijab has nothing to do with other people, men or otherwise. I wear it for myself and remove it for myself. It is a conviction between myself and God. I hold certainty in that, if I can understand myself without hijab, it will bring me back to hijab with an even stronger conviction. For sure, this is not permanent. I want to definitely wear hijab again. I can’t say where or when, but I know I will. I’ve thought about it so deeply for such a long time. I’m unsure of so many things in my life now, but I am positive and completely solid in this decision.
Fatima is a pseudonym used by the writer to stay anonymous.