I was hauling my luggage onto the conveyer belt at LAX when the TSA officer asked me to remove my jacket.
Panic flooded my chest as I realized my dilemma – in the rush to catch my London flight, I’d forgotten to wear a long-sleeved shirt beneath it. Helplessly, I glanced at my companion, a 20-something I’d met during Cambridge orientations, who was busy throwing things into her bin. As my mind flipped through possible explanations for not removing my jacket, I began a slow, apologetic head shake.
My travel buddy turned to me questioningly.
I looked back at the line behind us and the officers ahead. And I felt something shift inside. In that moment, under the bright airport lights and careful scrutiny of the security personnel, I made a decision that brought my breakdown to its knees. Slowly I doffed my jacket and placed it in the plastic tub.
Then I reached for my hijab.
Avoiding the officers’ eyes, I stepped through the metal detector. I haven’t given in to you, I wanted to say. I’ve given in to me. And just like that, I entered a world I hadn’t navigated in over thirteen years.
As my travel partner and I walked toward our gate, I braced myself for the inevitable why. Stroking my uncovered hair absently, I gave the only answer I knew — I need to feel something again.
Though I had an entire European summer to reflect, I spent it embracing my experience. I forged new friendships, explored, punted, stood through a rainy King Lear at the Globe Theatre, wrote, read, and laughed till my sides ached. It felt good to fill those forgotten parts of me. For a time, my enduring depression was lifted and I was given the headspace to clear the deck.
While I explored the world beyond my family, my splintered community, even my convictions, a conversation commenced about my fall from grace — without me. Theories abounded as social media devoured my “hijablessness” on tagged photos flooding unsuspecting newsfeeds.
And then it began.
The backlash, harsher than I’d anticipated, had found me too early in my escape. I still had three more countries to go. One after another, the emails deluged my inbox. Pages of Quranic verses and Prophetic traditions, arguments for hijab, appeals to reason, insults, taunts, even contrived concern from old acquaintances. On the flip side, those who didn’t agree with hijab or care either way patted my back and applauded my great liberation.
Neither group understood that my quasi-rebellion was less about the fabric on my head or even my core beliefs, and more the result of a morbid depression and the consequent schism between idea and practice. Both seemed to need drastic action to force change.
During my blackest period, someone wisely suggested that sometimes when the cup overflows, it becomes necessary to empty it a little before refilling it. The idea offered me a frayed corner of hope. Removing my hijab wasn’t an isolated act devoid of meaning. It wasn’t a willful disobedience of an obligation I well understood. There was no point to be made.
And I certainly wasn’t liberated.
My struggles persisted long after the big reveal. But at the moment my albatross grew heaviest, it gave me breathing space to find and examine the mangled parts in me. It allowed me to simply be — without expectation, self-doubt, hopelessness, and the need for external affirmations to define my worth.
It created an opening to rebuild my creed, ground-up.
The spiritual and personal makeover wasn’t instantaneous. Shedding the hijab brought a firestorm into my life just as when I’d first donned it. Like before, ugly whispers dug into my character, highlighted my flaws, and sanctimoniously exposed my sins. This only reinforced my need to draw further from the community. Once again, an independent decision had become a communal discussion.
The act of covering carries consequences. It’s one of many choices observant Muslims make, and it isn’t the only one I’ve made since I first embraced Islam as a teen. But because it’s a public expression, unlike prayer, it becomes subject to public bashing — from hijab-lovers and haters alike.
Eventually the fleeting affiliations that briefly supported me also faded away. I found myself as isolated as I did when I “covered.” And I realized the khimar that had become so stifling was really nothing more than a head-cover. It rightfully suggested adherence to my belief. But it didn’t actually define me.
It was simply another part of a whole that needed to be filled.
On any given day now, someone will approach me to reveal her tussle with hijab. I say to her what was never said to me: Islam recognizes struggle. Your strength in it can oscillate. If things get too hard, focus on the easy stuff — things you can do, that offer some relief. Emptying the cup doesn’t have to abandon the obligation. But if it does, seek forgiveness, let yourself be, and try again.
The familiarity of my home and persuasions cocooned the warning signs of my crumbling faith. But that moment in the airport became catalytic to a change, which uprooted then tethered me to my faith in a way I hadn’t been before.
It wasn’t planned or pretty.
But it became necessary. It revealed. It healed.
Most tellingly, it released me from the tenacious clutches of validation and drove me into my own accepting arms — without apology.