Gender & Identity Life

My choice to wear hijab is judged by my Pakistani community every single day

It might seem hard to believe, but I have Pakistani Muslim friends and family that object to me wearing the hijab.

Not necessarily on the grounds that they worry about my safety, though that is a factor as well. The appearance of a girl in hijab puts other Muslims, particularly from South Asian or Desi backgrounds on an unnecessary defense. My Middle Eastern and convert friends are surprised at the reactions of fellow Pakistani Americans.

But I am not.

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[Image Description: A woman in the midst of people taking off her hijab and disappearing along with it.]
Among Muslim communities in the West, we usually see our Arab friends wearing hijab more often than Desis. Desis are more likely to be seen in a loose dupatta while Arabs typically have well-secured scarves.

Some of the Desis with more secure scarves, or with any head-covering, usually come from families where women wear hijab already. This could possibly be why I faced more resistance or felt more tension when my own scarf was well-secured, or on my head at all. I look different, and it seems more deliberate

Would people in my community have the same qualms and opinions against me if my mother and sisters wore hijab too? No.

They might view my family differently though.

In an attempt to bring light to the cultural resistance that some Pakistanis express against the hijab (and sometimes even the beard) I’ll say this much:

In Pakistan, our identification with our faith, our nation, and our culture tends to blur. It’s almost hard to tell where certain cultural understandings comply with our faith or defy it. For certain groups or individuals, there is a variation in how much our faith applies in our culture if it hasn’t already influenced the culture overall. On top of that, Pakistani Americans are a people who are struggling to integrate.

How we have been going about this has added to the tension between how different communities, families, and individuals operate.

Therefore, I do have to worry about other Muslims’ opinions.

My family gets a kick out of my tendency to answer aunties when they comment on my weight and height, but I’m more limited in my diplomatic options when I get unwarranted remarks on the hijab.

A wrong move gives Pakistanis who are wary of religious attire all the more reason to hold a grudge against it.

Family and friends alike are ready to inform me that there are people who wear hijab (and niqab and burka) who are not “good” people, (ergo probably not “good” Muslims). After nearly two decades on Earth, I had not remained unaware of this possibility. If a person in a hijab, burka, niqab or with a beard has ever acted unjustly in your eyes I can’t apologize for that bad taste in your mouth.

It’s just not up to me.

Not to mention, those who outwardly “look” Muslim aren’t exactly at an overall advantage in the United States.

That being said, hijab is not limited to a culture, but I’ve seen and heard Pakistanis treat it as something that should be excluded from ours.

It’s an interesting type of conservatism, isn’t it? There simply is no fine line between Pakistanis who want to conserve their faith and their cultural identities.

One can be both.

Aside from cultural conservatism, insecurity hides under the tension between Pakistanis and their friends and family who wear hijab. It’s normal for people to worry about being judged by people whose outward appearance reflects their faith.

I know this because I also felt insecure before I wore hijab (I still do, because dressing modestly is hard when the standard is blurry) and people who acted awkward about my decision admitted this issue too. If you walk on eggshells around people who dress a certain way, you are only reinforcing the notion that they may have some higher moral standing than you, and we all know deep down that this does not have to be true.

Neither friends nor family were ever supposed to feel like I hold anything against them for the way they dress. It actually cannot work like that. I just wanted to continue to take pride in my culture without feeling like I had to put my faith behind it.

As people who are constantly judged for their outward appearance, those in hijab or beard ought to know better than to hold someone’s lack of against them.

When you’re a Muslim in the Western world, you carry this weight of ensuring that whatever you do, you don’t leave a negative impression.

You feel this weight most if your name or appearance gives away your identity.

Imagine feeling that weight out and about among non-Muslims and around other Muslims too.

It was not fun to see the friends I grew up with watch as elders made faces at my attire and made comments that I couldn’t respond to.

Though it’s not something that’s easy to smile through, I was okay, more than okay. The concerns of how you look in your scarf and what others think (at times excluding concerns about safety) go through you so easily when you remember why you made this decision.

At that point, nothing else matters.

It goes from something frustrating to something peaceful. In a culture where “what will people say?” is over-emphasized, to remind yourself that people will simply say whatever they say is a reclamation of self-control. Wasn’t the hope that I could prioritize God-consciousness over petty opinions not a heavy factor in my decision?

It will always be a struggle and I wind up back at square one every day, but its worth it for me.

At the end of the day, Pakistanis are mostly harmless about these things (I think). It probably helps that my family has mostly digested my situation. My mother and sisters have stood up for me because you can make fun of your family, but no one else can – and because they have come to somewhat respect my decision. Some of my Desi friends genuinely wanted to look out for me from the start. Some of them didn’t say anything and I knew why.

Things feel okay now though, maybe even more than okay.

[bctt tweet=”In either case, I can’t apologize for ruining family photos by sticking out. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Some people, including Pakistanis, are actually very kind and tell me that I look beautiful in my scarf out of appreciation of seeing me in it. Many people genuinely want me to be safe and free from discrimination as I proceed through life. Honestly, I do get scared at times- that’s a separate issue though.

Meanwhile, some are still waiting for me to change my mind, and many are surprised that I haven’t yet.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

By Tania Dawood

Tania Dawood is a Political Science major at UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas). She is a native of Las Vegas and is always looking for fresh narratives and a new way to get her voice out. She especially enjoys learning comparative politics and staying involved on her college campus.