Keeping my Hijab
I’ve never really struggled with my hijab the way some of my fellow Muslim sisters have, mostly because I’m generally quite comfortable in my self-identity, and it also strongly helps that I live in such a diverse multicultural society. I have heard plenty from fellow sisters though – stories of girls who feel that they have lost their identity once wearing the hijab, girls who want to prevent harassment they get because of it, even those who were made to feel like they had to wear it as young girls and feel a lot of anger and resentment towards it. Personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to have enough support around me to never make me feel that there was anything that I lacked or which made me less of a person than anyone else around me. If you’ve read my hijab story, you may understand why I chose to wear it – it was a symbolic act for me as well as a form of progression, and it definitely signalled a stage of life where I looked forward to the person I wanted to be.
In the last few months, or even perhaps year or so, I have felt a little unease – not with my own self-image or internal struggles, but with the external pressures – world events which have increasingly put the spotlight on us, the attitudes of people around us and even the growing islamophobia and fears a lot of us have begun to come across.
For me personally, it’s not so much the big things, but the little things which have made a difference. I remember my sister telling me about attitudes after the 7/7 attack ten years ago, when a few Muslim women in London were spat on, attacked or had a lot of racial abuse – there were some instances of this but on the whole, a lot of London rallied around and refused to call their fellow citizens terrorists. Certainly, myself, I didn’t feel excluded or as if I was treated differently, although perhaps it was a little different for me as I was in university at the time and was surrounded by peers who understood I was just a simple east London girl, and not a terrorist.
These days, I’m feeling a little differently. I think the recent Paris attacks, the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ incident and various terror incidents around the world have caused some sensational headlines and reactions, which is understandable but also a little scary. I’ve noticed it, as I have said, in the small things – the rude comments when going home on the train from white, male strangers, the dirty looks from an older couple who don’t know who I am or what kind of person I am, even the younger generation who have perhaps heard their parents talk about ‘Pakis’ and what we ‘do’, and feel that it is okay to call someone a name. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it has happened. I think my sister described it best – sometimes these people think that it is okay to treat someone like this because they don’t know how to express themselves, and they don’t know how to say to someone ‘I am scared of you because you are different.’ Perhaps too many of them have read dramatic headlines from The Sun and think that because it is printed, it must be right, and perhaps, some of them just need an excuse to channel their frustrations.
And of course, this isn’t just restricted to hijab scarves worn on the head – it’s any form of hijab. I’ve had sisters tell me it’s so much harder projecting a positive image, whether it’s from the turban hijab, the burqa or the niqaab (face-covering veil). All of these have an influence on people’s first impressions of us, and it can be a little depressing that some people may revert to negatives when seeing it.
It puts me in mind of a colleague of mine, who I have known for a few years – she joined my team from another department a while ago, and it fell to me to train her. This was a sister who wore not just the hijab, but niqaab (face-covering veil), although she opted not to wear it in the office until she went out, partly because of office-policy. It was easy for me to treat her normally because the niqaab is not a scary thing to me, and I have grown up understanding it. But when it was time for her to go out for lunch, or make routine visits which required going outside, and she would stand up to fix her hijab and put on her niqaab on top, there’d be a slight drop in conversation, a lull where people in the team tried not to notice. Speaking to team members on separate occasions, I heard a lot of comments about why she chose to wear it, about how it was a little off-putting, and the assertion/reassurance that ‘oh but you’re alright, I like you’ because I was more relatable and less scary than someone who wore a niqaab and covered her face. It made me see that although there isn’t a deliberate intention in this attitude, there is a little ignorance, and it’s too easy for those who don’t understand to resort to rude comments or hostility.
I had a conversation recently with a colleague of mine, an older man with two daughters in their late teens. He said that his eldest daughter wore a hijab and had chosen to do so herself, and it was something she didn’t have any issues with either. However, as a parent he was concerned about her safety travelling around London after the Paris attacks, and suggested to her that it would be okay if she wanted to take it off.
“I told her that if she wanted to, if she thought it would make her feel safer, she should remove her hijab. I know why she wears it, but as a parent it’s also worrying that she may face harassment because of it, we all want our children to be protected. Of course, she straightaway answered ‘Dad I’m not taking it off, don’t be silly, I would never do it’. She doesn’t understand that I just want her to be safe. But in my heart, when I heard her say that, it made me feel so proud. I was so proud of her because of her strength and her faith, even though I do still worry.”
This isn’t an unfamiliar sentiment, and it’s also not the first time I’ve heard from fellow Muslims about the idea of taking it off – even my husband tentatively suggested to me once that perhaps for safety, I shouldn’t wear my hijab it to a European holiday we went on earlier this year. I answered that the best way to educate someone would be to stick to your beliefs and show that Muslims are people too, and can have fun on holidays, rather than conform to someone else’s fears and feel restricted. He’s never asked me since whether I would do this (perhaps he knows how stubborn I am), but I know I am certainly not alone in this feeling.
I won’t deny it is worrying – my eldest niece has worn a hijab at a pretty young age, and as fierce as she is, she is still a young girl. She has her own influences – hijabi bloggers, her mother, Youtube tutorials, friends at school that she shares her hijab tips with – and while I know she is too strong to be put off the hijab, I hate the idea that a stranger can treat her differently because of it. It makes me angry and it makes me upset that a first impression can be almost callously created like that – but it also makes me more determined.
Determined because I know that we can do our best to prove the opposite, so that our fellow Londoners can see the best of us, and because for every ugly, ignorant person I can met, I have encountered dozens of kind-hearted, open people. Perhaps I love London so much (I did do my University dissertation about the city, after all!) and because I have lived here my whole life, it makes me believe that it really is a multi-cultural society which embraces our quirks and differences and makes us proud to have them.
I’m waiting to see how things change in this new year – perhaps I’ll see more patience from people who are willing to see us and not the skin colour, hijab or ethnicity we have. Certainly I’ve met enough bloggers, fashionistas, artists, chefs and charity-runners recently who have done everything they can to make a difference. I point you to Maha, a friend of mine who not only went out to Turkey and Greece last summer to meet Syrian refugees and raise money for them, but also went out to Calais during her Christmas holidays to visit more of the displaced and homeless, in order to give them food and clothing. I point to someone I met a few days ago, Nabila, who ran an event to raise money to sponsor orphans. A long-standing acquaintance of mine Rahima, who has endlessly been running a charity to help minority groups such as the Rohingya over the last decade. Farrah, a radio presenter who holds charity events to raise awareness and money for little-talked about issues such as Asian women with depression, or suicide.
In the end, I’m hoping that the anger and anxiety around us gives way to a more sensible mentality. While there have been ignorant views and unkind words from some, it does cheer me to see a lot of people defend us hijabis as well, and show their common sense and compassion. I hope my (not-so-little) rant makes sense to you, and I’m definitely hoping there’s readers out there who see my concerns. Perhaps one day I’ll be proved wrong, heck, I’m hoping my nieces and those of the younger generations will wonder on on earth I’m thinking about because it’s never cross their minds : )