Gender, Social Justice

My hijab doesn’t give the Muslim community control over my life

I sometimes miss the days of anonymity, when no one expected me to serve as a spokesperson for Islam.

For much of my life, I’ve not been easily identified as Muslim.

It’s not that I hid the fact, but I didn’t exactly wear it on my sleeve, either. I still remember one of my best friends from high school expressing surprise when I told her that I’m Muslim.

These days, there’s no doubt about my religious affiliation. Everyone knows.

That’s because I wear the headscarf now, commonly referred to as hijab. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t realize that wearing the headscarf would affect how people approach me and their expectations of the kind of Muslim I ought to be.

Although it’s nice to be acknowledged by a fellow Muslim I happen to encounter on the street simply by virtue of wearing the headscarf, the headscarf also comes with some unspoken demands that I feel have taken away from what ought to be the most important aspect of my religion: my personal relationship with God.

I’ve been observing hijab for almost seven years now, and though I have a story just like everyone else, I’ve actively avoided participating in public hijab dialogues. During Islam Awareness Week a few years back, our Muslim Students’ Association organized a “‘Wear a Hijab Day” event. In the evening, the headscarf-wearing board members were asked to be on a panel and lead a discussion with those who wore the headscarf just for that day. Though I was Vice President of the MSA and expected to spearhead the discussion, I was secretly relieved that I was unable to participate and didn’t have to share my personal story.

Maybe it’s because I’m shy and avoid public speaking whenever I can, but more so, I think it’s because my hijab narrative is not the one people want to or expect to hear. I have no upsetting stories to tell about how I’ve been discriminated against nor, on the flip side, do I think the headscarf is the biggest blessing in my life that I am so proud of.

I fall somewhere in the middle. On most days, I’m rather nonchalant.

Honestly, I don’t even like identifying myself as a “hijabi.”

It’s obvious that I cover my hair. I don’t feel the need to draw even more attention to this fact. It’s not because I am ashamed because I’m not – wearing hijab was my choice and remains so to this day. But I know a lot of Muslim women who don’t cover their hair, and sometimes I feel the label can be extremely alienating. I don’t want anyone to feel that I think I’m better or more pious than they are just because I happen to do something more obvious than they do. Some women who don’t cover their hair actually dress more “modestly” (a very subjective term that I even now reluctantly use) than those who do.

Why is a piece of cloth held as the measure of piety anyway?

I think the headscarf is given more importance than it deserves, by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If we want to get technical, the term “hijab” actually refers to more than just women covering their hair and is more about how Muslims, male and female, conduct themselves overall. The concept of hijab is more expansive than the trope it has been reduced to. But no one ever talks about the inner dimensions of hijab.

It’s not as catchy or reductionist.

For me, hijab is neither a burden nor a liberator. I don’t want to be defined by my head covering, nor do I want to turn it into a political act. I chose to wear the headscarf at a time when I felt it was a religious obligation for me.

That’s it.

How do I feel about the headscarf now? I’m not sure, which explains why I don’t like talking about it (and yet, here I am writing about it!) I don’t really know how I feel these days. Is it absolutely obligatory, as more conservative Muslims will tell you? Or is it an issue of historical context and thus no longer necessary, as some more liberal interpretations say? I couldn’t tell you, nor do I feel it is my place to. I acutely struggled with this question when I was doing my Master’s – I considered it being the subject of my thesis – but I’ve yet to reach an answer I can fully and coherently articulate for myself.

I sometimes miss the days of anonymity, when no one expected me to serve as a spokesperson for Islam.

I understand that people are curious, and for the most part, genuinely want to learn, but hijab is way too personal of a spiritual struggle.

I’m still figuring out the details of my story myself.