After 21 years of being cap-less, why I decided to wear my hijab, and have never looked back since.
I like to think of myself as quite a standard, British-Pakistani Muslim woman, waist-deep in Western Culture, the other half of me in Middle Eastern and Pakistani idioms. Like many, I’ve been to high school, college, university. I’ve watched the popular American tv series, the dry-wit British stand-up shows and the thought-provoking Islamic lectures and Ted Talks. Not to mention all the Lollywood and Bollywood films you can think of, which certainly added a spice of my cultural awareness. Unlike the generation before me (my eldest sister included), I DIDN’T have as much of the cultural struggle and internal conflict that they did – probably because they fought a lot of it out for us. I grew up quite sheltered and protected by siblings and parents alike – and in all truth, never realised it until my adult years.
My family is not like those families you may sometimes hear about. My parents never tried to take us on ‘holiday’ to Pakistan and get us married, although they did express their preferences that we marry someone they approve of, and wouldn’t have minded a cousin either. They never tried to force religious beliefs on us, although they raised us strictly in our faith, and tried to prevent us from veering away from it. They never stopped us from educating ourselves (although we did hear of parents who didn’t see the point in getting their daughters educated, and some of them did question our parents allowing us to go university) – nor did they take us out of school to work/clean the house/look after kids.
They did, however, do all the other things you hear Asian parents doing. We used to put foil on our cooker for years (we made our mum stop doing it after a certain point because it got too embarrassing!). We used to keep the plastic on our remote control until it fell off. We had the plastic sheeting on our carpet for years, which was normal because every other house down the road did the same thing, and we used to all come and look at each other’s furniture and buy the same thing if our parents liked it. But that’s a post in itself, and one for another day. Think Goodness Gracious Me, that was us.
My sisters and I, as young Muslim girls, had a fair amount of freedom (which comes with curfew, obviously), which meant we could socialise to some extent, as well as making our own decisions about careers and marriages (although I’ve never heard the end of my decision not to become a doctor-mathematician-accountant!) While our parents made it clear what they expected from us and what they saw as our duty, we were never forcibly made to practise certain things Islam requires; rather they nagged us a bit, taught us its relevance, then left us to it. Wearing hijab was one of those things.
I’ve been wearing hijab for about five years now, something which I have never regretted since. And even now, I find it really strange that someone may refer to me as a ‘hijabi’, a term which I feel oddly dis-associated from. Logically, yes, I am a person who wears hijab. But as someone who spent most of my life trying to define myself as funny, pretty, popular, as a writer, a drawer, a painter, a reader, a film buff, a sister, a daughter, an internet troll, a student, a teacher of sorts, a friend, a quirky person, a feminist and a traditionalist, English and also Pakistani – I then find it very strange that the first word used to describe me by some people is ‘hijabi’. As in, “Oh that hijabi over there in the pink scarf”. We’re all conscious of our first impressions on people, and it’s nice to be able to try to control it. I’ve heard a lot of descriptions of myself, but ‘hijabi’ isn’t the first one which comes to my mind.
Perhaps this is because I tend to forget that I am one. My decision to wear a scarf was not a spectacular religious relevation, nor did I have an epiphany one day and decide that ‘the sky is blue, the sun is shining, I must wear hijab or the world will end!’. My decision was gradual, and thankfully enough, it wasn’t as superficial as it could have been.
I’d always intended to wear hijab One Day. I remember thinking this all the way through high school, sixth form and university, safe in my guilt-free promise that on an ambiguous One Day, I’d do what I’d promised to my younger self. In university especially, I felt most conflicted – I envied the respect that scarf-clad sisters got from all the guys, but I didn’t want to get sister-zoned by them. My view was that I’d have a bit of fun with my hair-styles first (I know it sounds shallow, but my hair was my best asset, it’s waist length, naturally straight and deep black); find a guy to marry that my parents would happy with, then I’d wear a hijab somewhere in-between and all would be happy. As it turns out, I only knew two hair-styles which I used and re-used, guys in university are too immature and the hijab issue would require a bit more thinking. The last thing I wanted was to start wearing it, then regret it and want to take it off, especially if I compared myself to other girls with lovely hair my ages, who looked (in my eyes) more beautiful than I ever could be. To me that would have made a mockery of the concept of hijab, better to get it out of my system first and then get on with it.
My turning point came after three years at university, which made me feel a little disillusioned about being a young teenaged Muslim. It was easy to say that I was young, that there was plenty of time to enjoy myself; that I should look great, feel great, measure myself by how good-looking or girly other people thought I was. The feminist in me was fed up of it, and so was the Muslim. I’d been taught for years, that a precious thing like a woman should be covered, that if I wanted respect then I should stop looking for it with skinny jeans and fitted tops, and that perhaps I’d need a bit more than extravagant eyeliner.
By the time I had my 21st birthday, I’d made my mind up. I remember having a realisation that one could not tell I was a Muslim by looking at me – I could have been Sikh, Christian, Muslim or Hindu or Jedi and no one would be any wiser just from looking at me. I’d always meant to wear hijab, but now it was more than just covering my head – it was an act of symbolism for me. Sounds cheesy, but it really is genuine. Also, in my little Emo way, I was a little fed-up of the (what I saw as) hypocritical behaviour of my peers around me, and decided to act on my feelings. True, I did celebrate by having a massive fancy dress party in a hired penthouse in true-blowout style, but at least I can say that I ended my hair-years with a bang.
The following day I met up with my friends (we actually had to go and clean up the pent-house, I didn’t get to stay over but some of my friends did, as we’re hired it for the night), and wore a planned outfit which included my hijab. A grey dress, silk green scarf, black jeans and green shoes. (Even now I still have a tendency to match my shoes to my scarf. People make fun out of me for it, but I know that’s just jealousy talking). And the hijabaliciousness went onwards from there.
When I’d announced the decision to wear a hijab, my mum praised the news and proudly told a few of her friends (my dad was a bit more skeptic admittedly, he kept waiting for me to throw it off for a short while). Most of my friends were quite accepting and understood, it was more than just a decision to wear a scarf, it was also about shaping how I wanted to be seen and how I wanted to lead my lifestyle.
I did get a few negative comments here and there, and surprisingly they were from a few young Muslim girls and a couple of Muslim men. It was also strange that the non-Muslim friends understood why I wanted to wear hijab, and the idea of wanting to do something meaningful, as I’d expected a lot of questions from them. From the small group of Asian girls who were slightly disparaging (“But it looks ugly”, “But you don’t even NEED to”, and best of all the clichéd “So what, you’ve become religious now?’) I wasn’t put off, although slightly surprised. I assume their negativity was due to their own feelings of guilt or insecurity, or perhaps it was just something they didn’t understand.
I also remember one young man whom a friend had introduced me to, who spent the whole day joking pretending to pull my hijab off and making statements like ‘I don’t think women should wear hijab. It’s just pointless’ and even ruder, ‘Take it off. Just take it off’. Needless to say I never saw him again, although I did develop thicker skin after that! (I did hear he is married now. Good on him.)
Wearing a hijab has the effect of making your face feel magnified, and also makes your feel very self-conscious, particularly when you first begin wearing it. No matter how confident or pretty you feel, wearing a hijab can have the effect of making you feel ugly or dowdy, which was something I certainly found. On the other hand, I also found that I received new-found respect from men, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I remember marvelling at this also, the fact that without knowing me or my achievements, a piece of fabric could change someone’s world-view of me. Where in the past, I’d sometimes get ignored, now I’d get a quick ‘salaam’ from passer-bys, or I’d get kind men offering to help me with bags, with getting on trains and generally having a more respectful manner. I’m also a lot more likely to get free food or a bigger portion too when I’m in a deli or food shop. Thank you Ambala!
And yes, I have in some cases, effectively been sister-zoned. If anything, that’s probably a good thing, with some of the male friends I’ve gained. And the weirdos I’ve avoided.
I’m lucky that I live in a diverse city: London is full of Muslim men and women, and in general London’s inhabitants are quite accepting of different cultures. I’ve also been lucky that I haven’t received a lot of abuse (like some sisters who have told me stories of hair pulling and being spat on), and that I’m able to play with my ‘hijab-style’ with colours, styles and accessories without being judged by others.
At the end of all of this, I remain convinced though, that hijab itself is more than just a piece of fabric worn on the head. This is why I also have an issue with the term ‘hijabi’, not because of it’s blanket expression, but because it ignores all other aspects of us. Hijab for me, is an expression of our faith, but it does not mean that it automatically is enough, or that you can judge someone by the way they look. I’ve met scarf-clad girls who rap, body-pop and sport heavy gold chains, I’ve met niqabi girls who have minds like gutters (and I’m so proud of them!) and I’ve met burqa-fied women who look like typical Asian women until they open their mouths and tell you about their business plans, or spout poetry, or heck, tell you about their ambitions to be ballerinas. And then, there are the girls who don’t wear hijab and still have amazing minds without veering away from their faiths, be it Islam, Christianity or Jedi-ism.
For me, hijab is in the heart. It is a desire to be compassionate, to want to better yourself, and to want to follow your faith. I chose to wear hijab because it symbolised a change for me, both religiously and as an adult – and it’s something I’ve never regretted. What I do regret though, is not scaring people enough with my loud zebra print scarves 😉