The Toronto Star recently had an article interviewing four women about their “dejabbing” experiences. The title is “Why we stopped wearing the hijab.” However, the seemingly simple notion of removing the headscarf is acknowledged to be a complicated process. The article explains that “From safety to spirituality, each woman has her own reasons” for no longer wearing a headscarf, and that some women “may go back to it.” Note the plural “reasons” here and the fact that dejabbing is not always (although it can be) a categorical casting off of the hijab forever. A few days later, in response an article by a young hijabi woman expressing her fears of being attacked, Richard Dawkins expressed the more familiar unveiling-as-liberation notion, encapsulating it in a tweet asking “why not throw off hijab in Islamic defiance of Isis?”
As we at Muslimah Media Watch discussed the Toronto Star article, and Dawkins’ question, we shared our own broader thoughts about and our experiences of dejabbing.
Tasnim: I think those of us who wear or have worn hijab at some point in our lives have all faced the question “why do you wear it?” and have had to formulate some response to that. But what’s the best way to talk about removing hijab? Let me start by saying I’ve worn hijab from quite a young age, and still do at this point, though my views about it have evolved – for a long time now, I have believed that it is not a make-or-break religious obligation in any way. What are some of your experiences with hijab?
Sya: I was encouraged, but not particularly forced to wear hijab since I was very young, so it became something I wore outside the home. I always thought I would wear it full-time and I eventually did in university, although I went through periods of less-than-100% conviction where I went a year or two without it. The last time I wore it “full-time” was my last three years in university. Before this I honestly thought that it was a religious obligation and I felt like a sinner when I didn’t wear it. But also during this period, I had been studying the Quran on my own, as well as going to lots of classes and seminars. I was also working in a mosque and in a religious school and was surrounded by many wonderful, pious Muslim friends. Towards the end of this period, my personal research had led me to conclude that the hijab was not an obligation, and I felt like a hypocrite explaining to others at the mosque the conventional reasons behind hijab. Even though I was wearing one at the time, I didn’t think that nine year-old girls should have to.
Shereen: I only began covering a few years ago. The support from my family was always incredibly positive and supportive but personally it was a challenge. As my faith strengthened, I wanted to move to the next step, which for me was wearing the headscarf, but I battled with how different I looked in the mirror and the fact that I immediately separated myself as ‘different’. Men don’t have the same experience so they aren’t subjected to the same type of scrutiny.
Izzie: I started wearing the hijab after my marriage, which made a lot of people assume that I was forced into it, or that I suddenly stopped being liberal. I was also seen as an “ideal” Muslimah, someone who would know all the religious text, know all the answers. But all this was just uncomfortable at best and I could always live with it. Hijab was not a “problem” for me in India – although it is not a developed country and we have had our own share of communal riots, for the most part we live in peace with all the religions. While there might be some prejudices or preconceived notions, Muslims were never equated to terrorism in India. So I could pray freely, wear a hijab or not wear it, without the fear of being attacked or profiled in public. Most of my hijab related struggles were private.
Anike: I wore hijab from a young age (I was 16) because I believed it was a necessary part of my faith. I took it off after four years wearing it because I didn’t want to wear hijab anymore. I’m not one to do things if I don’t want to.
Tasnim: That’s ideally how it should be, right? You wear it out of choice, and if you stop wearing it, that’s your choice. I remember “choice” was repeated over and over in an NPR multimedia feature on removing the hijab from a while back, which has one of those groan-inducing punning titles, “Lifting the Veil.” But the idea of choice can be very fraught I think in relation to notions of modesty. Mona Eltahaway speaks about this in her writing. While I don’t agree with everything she’s written on this, I agree that just saying “it’s a choice” can elide the complexities of social pressures.
Anike: Of course. When I stopped, I didn’t think it would cause any problems. I had started wearing hijab on my own choice, my family didn’t have influence on that decision, so it was surprising to learn that random aunties and uncles were complaining to my mum about the fact that I dejabbed.
Sya: In my case, a lot of my friends and colleagues had assumptions about my decision but no one asked me directly. But it was and is a process: the more I read and reflected sincerely, the more I feel that God created us just fine. The discomfort of wearing hijab all day long in a tropical climate just seemed absurd (and I really hate comebacks of how Hell is hotter — save it). I believe that the head and ears (and mouth and nose in the case of niqab) serve divine purposes of creation (releasing heat and sweat, hearing), which should make it perfectly permissible to leave uncovered. With this conviction in mind, I stopped wearing it full-time in April 2010 and only put it on during congregational prayers (I don’t even wear it for individual prayer).
Nicole: I think the reasons for putting on hijab and the reasons for dejabbing are quite complex for everyone. I also think there is a tendency to not accept inconsistency in Muslim women the way we do with Muslim men. Like, a dude can cheat on his wife and still roll up to Friday prayers like an akh (brother) but if a woman dejabs, she must not be on the haqq (truth) any more. So tired of brothers living these horrible lives (which is fine, I am not judging them) but a sister takes off the hijab and people go crazy. It is the gender difference that bothers me.
Sya: What bothered me was how the hijab created a literal barrier between men and women. I always felt a heightened sense of propriety when wearing it, and I observed that a little transgression (e.g. a bit of neck showing in the wind) would lead to absurdly exaggerated policing by men and women. Whereas women who did not wear hijab were not policed — to me this contradicted the aim of the verses meant for women’s protection, and for both sexes to remain modest. Also, as a hijabi I received ‘advice’ from my parents and friends to be more conventionally feminine (wear nice hijabs, pins, dresses, makeup) which again, I felt contradicted modesty.
Tasnim: I came across an ethnographic article recently with the title “Hijab and Feminine Allure” which argues that men in Tunisia often “interpret hijab as a sign the young women are interested in marriage.” And there are all these articles struggling with femininity and hijab which ask questions like does the hijab negate femininity, how can you be feminine in hijab, advising women on how not to be frumpy as hijabis and so on – it is quite depressingly familiar.
Nicole: I really, really did not like the sexualization of my persona in hijab. As a “larger” woman who is not conventionally attractive, I am not used to male attention, positive or negative. Fat women are often treated as they are invisible, and as I was in a phase of wanting to “pass,” being invisible was fine. In hijab, I got approached by men almost daily. If I forgot to wear my wedding rings (not even sunnah y’all) guys would accuse me of lying about being married and pester me to the point of harassment for my number. I would get followed home, and living alone for the first time in fifteen years, I did not have the social skills to deal with that kind of aggression. After my divorce, I felt like I not only lost part of my identity, but also my support system in my ex-husband and my in-laws. That isn’t to say it was their responsibility what I did with my clothes- more rather, that I felt quite bereft. So the combination of feeling like my support network was gone and the fact that hijab brought me all this unwanted male attention I had no desire to entertain.
Tasnim: I think “born Muslims” are often uncomfortable talking about how converts, especially women, and let’s be honest, given the racism in some Muslim communities, especially white women, can face being treated as “trophies.” I know someone who has experienced something along those lines who has faced both this strange trophy-ism and the criticism of her family for becoming a “traitor,” and I know she struggled a lot with the decision to wear the hijab through this period.
Anike: I still don’t wear hijab almost a decade after I chose to wear it, but there are still complaints – and interestingly I was told that one of the reason I’m not yet married is because I don’t wear hijab. These days I rather prefer wearing the West African hijab equivalent, which is basically clothes sewn from Dutch wax fabrics, along with a headwrap and a veil tossed around the shoulders, which is perfect as I live in Nigeria.
Shereen: I had the privilege of covering in an Islamic country at first. On returning home to the UK, I found my whole wardrobe had to change so I didn’t stand out too much. I wore the scarf loosely and most people thought it was a fashion statement. I would feel uncomfortable about seeing people I knew because I looked so different to how I used to and it invites people to ask me questions all the time.
Tasnim: I like the idea of hijab equivalents – and the ambiguity about the scarf as a fashion statement. It reminded me of your recent article, Shereen, about Swedish fashion designer Iman Aldebe switching to a “turban” style because it is somehow less Muslimy. I know that for me, where I’ve lived while wearing hijab has made a huge difference in how I feel and even how I wear it. I’ve lived in the Arab world, and being a hijabi in Europe is very different and often difficult – as difficult as I imagine being a non-hijabi would be in the Arab countries. I think this is something we can talk about more. How does where we live impact the way we hijab/dejab?
Read part two here.