We are inundated with images of the Muslim woman: her headscarf neatly tied around her head, modestly dressed and the epitome of virtue.

Though, as is the case with most media stereotypes, and even stereotypes within the Muslim community, the Muslim woman is in fact varying shades of headscarf, hair, and clothing. No two Muslim women are the same, and as a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the headscarf, I feel that we are underrepresented and silenced.

We are in the age of YouTube and social media, and what an age it is. Of course, one can list the negatives of these media outlets, but let us not forget how important these sources have been in elevating the Muslim woman through business, fashion, and much more. You don’t have to look far to find beauty and fashion bloggers from all over the world presenting themselves to an audience of millions, representing Muslim fashion and modesty, whilst also enjoying the beauty and holistic therapies that many women — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — enjoy.

I admit, I enjoy watching the YouTubers who use the site as a platform to talk about wearing the headscarf, new styles in which to wear it, and so forth. Though I don’t wear a headscarf myself, it’s still something that plays a part in my religion, and their modest fashion choices can also play as inspiration.

However, what I have seen so little of is the presence of these bloggers who are Muslim but don’t wear the headscarf. I feel that the headscarf has become the pinpoint on how to categorize a Muslim woman. I’m often met with, “Oh you’re a Muslim?” and this is, of course, because I am not veiled.

It has been a discourse that has resonated with me for some time: how has the hijab become the symbol of the all-pious, Muslim woman?

I appreciate that there are the bloggers who, time and again, offer the disclaimer that they are in no way perfect, and that they are simply offering their version of lifestyle, with no bells or whistles attached. However, one doesn’t have to look farther than the comments section on social media to see that the hijab and Muslim police are always on patrol, with, “sister, that’s not how you wear a headscarf,” or, “sister, we don’t wear turbans in Islam.” It’s an interesting battle to see: on the one hand, these woman are portraying a positive image of the Muslim woman, while on the other, they are sometimes targeted for being seen as not Muslim enough.

So where does that leave the likes of me and other fellow non-hijabi Muslim women?

It’s easy to go into the politics of the hijab, dissect numerous verses of the Qur’an to prove your right to not wear it, or hadiths that implement the headscarf as mandatory. Yet, I’m not interested in this. Society has a way of picking and choosing its rules; what it wishes to follow, what it wishes to preach, and what it wishes to demonize.

As a Muslim, I have never thought that a hijabi Muslim sister is better than me, or more pious. And I have wished that these feelings be reciprocated. However, this has not always been the case. Many a time, during my childhood and teenage years, growing up with young Muslim girls, I was told what I was doing was wrong, and that they hoped Allah yahdeek: loosely translated as ‘may God guide you’ (to the right path). There was no discussion, debate or even room to allow me to defend myself. Instead, I was prayed for.

The most basic regulations within Islam lie in the main foundations of the five pillars: these are the testimony to the faith, to fast Ramadan, give to charity, pray five times a day, and journey to Makkah at least once in one’s lifetime. Yet, the outer image of a Muslim has become more of a concern than the inner intentions and acts of the Muslim woman. I think to myself often that if the headscarf instigates these women to pray, fast, and genuinely help them in their path of faith, then I am all for it.

Yet what about those who feel the headscarf has done half their duty for them? It’s like having a padlock but no key: you may be wearing the headscarf, but it hasn’t unlocked your intention to follow Islam in its most basic form.

This sometimes harsh judgment shown towards Muslim women who do not wear hijab can lead at least some Muslim women to become alienated from the Muslim community, and could lead to a loss of Islamic practice. A similar situation prevails regarding evaluation of the headscarf as a token of Islamic faith. The depiction of the hijab as a unifying element within the Muslim community is not well-founded, and breeds a seed of intolerance to those of us who don’t wear it. In addition, it has become a token political symbol, fuelling public debate by non-Muslims, never mind Muslims themselves.

Modesty is not uniquely an Islamic requirement. For many without a religion, it’s a personal choice. Not everyone wants to bare all. And for those that do, that is their prerogative.

The hijab, for some, is genuinely out of piety, while others are conforming to local customary dress. Some are rebelling against state politics, some are acting like testy teenagers, and some are making a statement about religious identity.

The hijab should not dictate what a Muslim woman is.

I am a Muslim who also happens not to wear the headscarf. It has never caused doubts in my mind, and it shouldn’t be a topic of interest to those who wear it. I am free to pursue larger issues and purposes that we all, as humans, are called to fulfill. This unrelenting discourse that focuses only on the head coverings of Muslim women gives an oversimplified version of Islam’s teachings.

As a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the headscarf, I am not invisible. I practice my faith and adopt modesty not only in my clothing, but my words also.

  • Naila Missous is a translator of Arabic, French and English. She also works as a freelance journalist, focusing primarily on the Middle East and North Africa.