No, I will not be taking my hijab off for my wedding and you can’t make me

We often talk about how the hijab is viewed negatively in the Western world. But I don’t think that many people realize that discrimination against the hijab doesn’t only happen in western society. In my experience, it also occurs in my home country, Pakistan, and my own family members are a part of the problem.

My sister and I started wearing the hijab when we were 15 and 13, respectively. For us, it seemed like a natural choice since we’d spent most of our childhood in Saudi Arabia, where the hijab was mandatory. When our family in Pakistan found out we still wore the hijab after moving to Canada in our teen years, they were ecstatic. They thought it was wonderful that we chose this for ourselves and praised us for making seemingly religious choices. 

But that all changed when my sister turned 20 and someone tried to propose to her. Our mother rejected the engagement and it sparked a debate within our entire family. Most of them believed that more proposals would come her way if my sister took off her hijab. I still remember my mother arguing with our aunt who said that hijabs are only meant to look good on girls who are “white, thin, and pretty.” She thought that I was too dark and my sister was too fat, so we were ruining our prospects by sticking to our hijabs.

The worst part about all of this is that my aunt wasn’t entirely wrong. The hijab didn’t make men jump at the chance to marry us. Due to pressure from extended family members, my mother was constantly on the lookout for potential matches for my sister. But every guy who approached would run away just as fast once he heard that she wouldn’t be taking her hijab off for him. 

After a while, my sister did it. She found a guy who seemed accepting of who she was and agreed to marry him after a year. Suddenly, the tune the family was singing changed, but not for the better. Everyone asked if she’d be taking her hijab off for the wedding and discussing how beautiful she would look in this or that hairdo. They tried to talk my mother into making my sister buy lehengas, which would show off her midriff and arms. This completely goes against the very purpose of wearing a hijab.

To reach a compromise with my family, I nominated myself as my sister’s makeup artist and hairstylist for the wedding day and began experimenting with different hijab styles. We naively thought that if we could show them that the hijab could be dolled up, they would accept her decision. They did not. In the end, when the engagement was broken off, they simply returned to their earlier comments about taking off the hijab to score a husband.

The sheer amount of criticism that came with all this has my sister unsure about whether she ever wants to have a wedding, let alone one in Pakistan with our family. It hurt to watch my sister try and deal with the harsh judgment and then come to realize that her opinions hold no value in our community. It hurts more to think that other Pakistani brides might have to put up with the same level of harassment all over one headscarf

My sister was always much more staunch in her love of the hijab. Truth be told, I started wearing it on the condition that it would be pink and glittery. If you asked me just two years back, I might have given in to the family pressure and agreed to take off my hijab for my wedding.

Yet, knowing the struggle and judgment that comes with making a choice has given me an appreciation for the fact that it was a choice. However petty my reason is, it is my choice to put on the hijab, and I will be damned if I let someone else try to make decisions about my body and my attire for that one day in my life.

Now I can say with confidence that I will not be taking my hijab off for my wedding.

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Gender & Identity Life

Dear aunties, stop using my body for your gossip

Under the dimmed lights of the wedding hall, bhangra music played loudly in sync to the rhythm of the dhol drums. My Muslim friends shook their hips on the center dance floor in the midst of a crowd of men, huddling their heads together in laughter and clapping along to the music.

I sat by myself at one of the empty tables bopping my high heels to the music, pretending that sitting alone for the second night in a row during a week of aunty-approved wedding festivities, didn’t bother me. I was dressed in a blue and magenta shalwar kameez. Neatly tied around my face, in sharp contrast to my friends, was a matching navy hijab.

That evening, my smile was my best accessory. It hid the dawning realization of my outsider-status as a hijabi in my Muslim community. 

I was holding back tears.

I grew up in a small suburban town in upstate New York with a modest-size population of Muslims, the majority of whom were of Pakistani descent like me. This community was an isolated bubble, sheltered from people’s lived realities, on-going politics, and rampant Islamophobia. Having attended Islamic school from a young age, I was taught a black-and-white vision of Islam: boys are haram, hijab is obligatory, and meat must be zabihah or kosher.

The conservativeness of our community was only enhanced by my parents, who began every conversation on womanhood with the word “haram,” or “forbidden.” The word was pervasive in their vocabulary and – although God-forbid anyone says it aloud – subtly associated with sexuality.

 Women singing in public was haram because of its so-called sexual allure. Women were forbidden from dancing in front of men because it was deemed sexually enticing. And for every strand of hair, a woman failed to hide behind a cloth was another day of punishment waiting in hellfire. 

My entire existence was perceived and understood in relation to men.

While most would rebel under these stringent rules and ridiculous principles, I embraced it. My strong belief in God’s goodness was enough for me to see the beauty in what I believed was God’s command. We were taught that God wanted to protect women from the uncontrollable gaze of the opposite sex, who make up 50 percent of the population. 

These rules were not oppressive, but liberating and cautionary.

During Ramadan in sixth grade, I walked through the front doors of school with a hijab covering my hair for the first time. Other than a few comments about my “do-rag,” my change in appearance went largely unrecognized by the student body. Ironically, the most ruthless comments came from outside school, from aunties in my Muslim community, the majority of whom did not wear the hijab at the time.

One aunty laughed, “She even wears the hijab in front of my son!” As if I thought I was a sexual muse for her son, rather than carrying out a religious mandate.

This was my first introduction to what I have since dubbed aunty culture: the innate need of aunties to voice unwarranted opinions and attempt to control the lives of everyone else in our mosque community.

The first time our community was exposed to the controversial idea was by Brother G, a trusted Islamic school teacher. Aunties and uncles came at him with knives and pitchforks ready to drive him out. There were threats of banning him from teaching (though he generously taught Quranic Arabic for free to high school students), letters of nasty words were exchanged (“third-world country” took on a whole new level of meaning) and board members demanded he explain his “extremist” textual methodology at an emergency town hall meeting.

The topic in question? Hijab.

Brother G concluded the hijab was never an obligation, but a remnant of a culture that gave birth to Islam. This kind of talk was unacceptable and it became the community’s sole mission to cast out all deviant voices.

Watching the unfolding drama revealed an entirely different facet of Islam to me just as I went off to college—one where people disagreed on the interpretation of the Quran. And so as I moved to Boston for school, I began to explore the multiple Islams through my Anthropology and journalism studies. Over a span of four years, my views changed and crumbled and my faith wavered in highs and lows.

Exiting the confines of my small town, I became frustrated with the hypersexualization of women’s body and hair. I detested the limitation of my mobility when men were present. I resented the discomfort of the cloth on my head, which never rested comfortably on my shoulders. I judged Muslim men who dared to utter the word hijab in my presence. I questioned the positioning of hijab in a continuum of gender and sexuality notions. 

And I hated the constant feeling of being “other,” both inside and outside my Muslim community.

Aunties – my role models, my mothers, my friends – became the cultural agents by which contradictory depictions of femininity were enforced. One day dancing was classified as erotica, the next day it was a measure of my religious progressiveness or lack thereof. Flexibility was not an aunty-sanctioned option.

The mosque had become a space of hostility and othering. Here, it was impossible for me to not question gender-sexuality norms and the role of the hijab in my own marginalization.

None of my female Muslim friends wore this simple cloth that is now a contentious battleground for political, religious and economic ideologies. 

They will never understand the burden of wearing your religious identity publicly, facing discrimination during countless job interviews, to overcome preconceived assumptions while conversing with a professor, or the fear of walking down a sidewalk after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Worse, they will never understand how it feels to be made invisible and under-prioritized by the women of their very own Muslim community.

I spent my youth desperately looking for someone to rise up and define a new normal among Muslim women—one that empowers relationships, emancipates the female body from a field of controversy, and embraces a spectrum of differences. 

All these years later, I’m still looking.

So as I watched my Muslim friends dancing at the wedding from afar while I sat, decked out and alone, I never felt so distant from my faith, my Muslim community, and the larger American society.

It is a paralyzing realization.

Gender Love Inequality

Let’s not appropriate hijab

 There is an emerging trend in the hijabi world that has me extremely concerned. I’m talking about women wearing hijab not primarily for spiritual reasons, but because they feel it is increasingly fashionable, a way to “stick it to the man”, or a means to show solidarity with minorities and social justice causes.

It’s as if these individuals are saying, “We want to use hijab to stand out, but heaven forbid we’re pegged as religious as well.” As someone who took the decision to wear hijab extremely seriously, this is incredibly troubling. Tossing aside religiousness and spirituality for rebellion and style not only disrespects the sacredness of the hijab in Islam, but it also completely misses its point: to symbolize one’s personal relationship with and devotion to Allah.

My own decision to don the hijab in my early twenties was not an easy one. In a world where appearances were paramount and Islamophobia ran rampant, I knew that dressing conservatively and putting a scarf over my hair would leave me vulnerable to anti-Islamic vitriol as well as exile me to a non-existent fashion category altogether. (This was back in the pre-Instagram days when hijabi fashionistas hadn’t yet gone viral and hijab was definitely not cool).

But I also understood that it was time to submit my own desires to Allah’s and follow His command, regardless of what others might think. I threw out my short-sleeved tops, bought a couple of scarves, and braced myself for the backlash with a prayer and full faith that Allah would help make my transition to the hijabi world a smooth one.

Flash forward a couple of years later and I have no regrets about wearing the hijab. But I am beginning to feel quite “old school” about my reasons for doing so. Hijab is no longer the symbol of modesty it once was.

Today, many hijabis in heavy makeup, skin-tight skinny jeans, and short tops flood our Instagram feeds and fashion blogs, talking about wearing the hijab to look different, to stand with the oppressed, or to secure a racial or socio-political identity. It’s as if the meaning and responsibility that used to accompany it have completely vanished, degrading the headscarf to a malleable accessory.

Being an “old-school” hijabi in a world where the hijab is becoming more and more popular can be a very lonely place to be at times.

In addition to being ostracized in a largely non-Muslim society, we now face scrutiny from our fellow Muslimahs as well. We are pegged as backwards, too conservative, and comparably unattractive as we stand next to a hijabi decked out in the latest body-hugging fashions. And where does it leave women who don’t wear hijab? Are they homogenous, indifferent to social justice issues, and incapable of sympathizing with the oppressed simply because they blend in a bit better with the crowd?

This is not the first time that hijab has been appropriated. Historically, women have used it to rebel against the West and support Islamic nationalism while governments have enforced or outlawed it to exert power and influence.

Rarely did these movements recognize the hijab as a personal act of worship or grant it the respect it deserved. Today, most of the countries where this new trend is occurring don’t have issues of political oppression. Women living there have the ability to go way beyond their clothing and hijabs and use their words, actions, and organizations to make a statement, fight for social justice, and show solidarity with people of color.

This lack of respect also underlies the issue of women wearing hijab primarily because it is increasingly fashionable to do so. I completely understand if people want to customize their hijabs with different colors, styles, and outfits (I myself enjoy doing so) but to go so far as to make fashion the main motivation defeats the purpose of wearing what is supposed to be a reminder to not focus so much on outward appearances.

Would the same people don a nun’s habit or Jewish yarmulke if it seemed fashionable? Why isn’t the hijab afforded the same deference as other sacred elements of religion?

My purpose for writing is not to pass judgment in a “holier than thou” attitude, but rather to express my discomfort with what hijab is becoming. It’s as if the purpose behind the hijab, an outward expression of one’s spiritual state, has completely shifted from what it once was. But if fringe benefits, such as appearing unique, fashionable, or rebellious are the main motivation behind wearing it, then is one’s intention really to please God or please oneself?

At the end of the day, a woman can decide to wear a hijab for whatever reason she wants, as Allah is the ultimate Judge. I simply hope that every woman who chooses to wear the hijab does so with the careful thought and clear intention the decision deserves.