Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics! This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on this introduction post. This post features Muslims from various backgrounds writing about their experiences with the hijab:
I’ve been wearing a hijab since I was 12 years old and now I honestly can’t imagine a life where I don’t wear it. Over the years I’ve grown and developed as I’ve studied more about the hijab and Islam which has just made me more confident in wearing it.
Everyone has their own experience but mine has been generally positive I love wearing it. I love how I feel wearing it, it’s my comfort place when I go out. That’s not to say that I haven’t felt uncomfortable or felt out of place or even afraid, I have and still do but for me I still know that there is no way I can not wear it.
Wearing a hijab makes me visibly Muslim, makes me stand out and there have been times that I felt like I don’t belong, people stare, they don’t know how to speak to me. Assumptions have been made about me, from people thinking I don’t speak English or I’m just a submissive little housewife, all because of the way I dress. I’ve also had people compliment my hijab, people saying how they love it and how it looks so beautiful.
Then there is the reactions of other Muslims, from people telling me I won’t get a job or a husband if I dress like that to my friends supporting me in my decision to wear a hijab and later an abaya. Sometimes the scrutiny of Muslims can make me feel as uncomfortable as those who know nothing about my religion. I am expected to perfect at all times, I can never slip or make a mistake because I wear a hijab. It would stifle who I was, I felt I couldn’t be myself and any time I was less than perfect stressed me out. But as I got older I realised something as I was learning more about Islam. It’s a hijab not a halo. I’m human, I’m not supposed to be perfect. I just need to try my best.
For me a hijab is a part of me but it is not all of me. It doesn’t define me but it is an act of worship, something I do for Allah and nothing else. I have fought to be able to wear my hijab and never let it be a barrier to achieving what I want. I have convinced my coach that I can play netball wearing it, I have spoken to my manager about being able to wear it and cover my arms while working in the hospital. My hijab makes me visibly Muslim but that doesn’t mean that you can see how passionate I am about certain topics, what my hobbies are, who I am. The more I study and learn about Islam the more confident I get in being able to look visibly Muslim and not feel uncomfortable and I feel more confident in speaking about my hijab and the fact that I am unapologetically Muslim.
Blog: The Tsundoku Chronicles
I started wearing the Hijab when I was in 10th grade. I was 15 years old. Before that my family didn’t practice Islam. We said the occasional prayers here and there but that was about it. One day I was in the food court with a friend and my mom called. We always spoke to each other every week day but this time she made a request. She asked me to start wearing the Hijab.
I was really surprised by this question. I had never quite liked the idea of covering my hair. I’m not exactly sure why that was. I think like many other Muslim girls who I’ve come across it was because I really liked my hair and didn’t see the point or the need to cover it.
Regardless I agreed because she asked me to. My sister was asked the same question but only agreed if we (she and I) got to choose colorful Hijabs. Not black or grey that we’d seen so many other Muslim women wear. Rather blues and pinks which oddly enough at the time was a rarity. As I’d never really seen many Muslim women wear that much color. My mother wasn’t happy that this was the condition to both of us wearing that Hijab. Despite this she agreed.
We bought so many beautiful Hijabs! In many different colors. Of course, my sister and I were now excited to start wearing them. We chose our first Hijabs of the school week as a family. And paired our clothes to match.
Before the school week started, I wasn’t sure how our classmates would react. Would they ghost us? Stare at us with weird looks on their faces. As it would turn out I didn’t need to worry. The only people that seemed to care about the Hijab were the females. Teachers and students alike. The two of us received lots of compliments for a few weeks. Eventually people started asking us questions regarding the Hijab. The most common one was “Do you have to wear that all the time?”
We didn’t get any bad reactions. Maybe that’s because I live in Canada and not in America. And it certainly helps that I live in a white rich town. So, the most that they do is glare. They don’t say or do anything that could harm us. Obviously, whatever the reason, I’m happy and lucky that nothing bad happened to my sister and me.
Our family members and close friends were very impressed. They were so proud of our decision to wear the Hijab. They came over and had us try on all the Hijabs we got. This went on for some time. Our white friends just loved that we chose colorful Hijabs. Depending on the color we wore we would receive lots of compliments from them.
I’m not going to lie: it was hard at first. My Hijab kept slipping and revealing all my hair. There were so many times when I would take it off because I didn’t think any males would see me, and they did. I also felt hot with it on. Specifically, during summer. Looking back on it now it was worth it.
Like I mentioned earlier, my family didn’t diligently practice Islam. This didn’t change for awhile. My sister and I didn’t feel much of a difference with the Hijab on. We continued to live our lives without any thought about Islam.
It wasn’t until my mom had told us that one of the conditions with wearing the Hijab was to say daily prayers. My sister and I were too pleased with our Hijab collection to take them off just because we didn’t say prayers. Our family then banded together to educate ourselves in all aspects of Islam. The history, how to say prayers, what was and wasn’t permitted, how did Ramadan work, etc.
Before I wore the Hijab, I didn’t realize how beautiful Islam is and how you really must be committed to follow the religion. I never thought that I would fall in love with it all! And the only reason I was able to experience any of this is because of my mother and Allah. I will never stop being grateful!
I want to stress that my mother never forced me against my will to start wearing the Hijab. At the end of the day it was my choice. And I chose to listen to her.
All in all, for me personally wearing the Hijab has been a beautiful experience. Which I will always be grateful for and never trade for anything.
Blog: Fafa’s Book Corner
In her book, Hidden Figures (inspiration for the Oscar-winning film of the same name), Margot Lee Shetterly writes of mathematician Katherine Goble: ‘Katherine understood that the attitudes of the hard-line racists were beyond her control. Against ignorance, she and others like her mounted a day-in, day-out charm offensive: impeccably dressed, well-spoken, patriotic, and upright, they were racial synecdoches, keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community.’
A synecdoche is ‘a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole’. And although the above quotation was written to describe black women in the mid-1900s, feeling they represent the whole black community in the eyes of their co-workers and struggling to be taken seriously, it perfectly sums up the exact feeling that I have every minute of every day, as a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman in 2019.
I spend my life striving to be perfect. To attempt to dress presentably, no matter how tired I am; to always be polite, no matter how annoyed or upset I am; to follow rules, and work hard, and smile. Not just because these are good things to be, though of course they are, but because I'm terrified that the people around me will see my headscarf and judge the entire world's Muslim population based on my actions. Of course, I’m only human and it’s inevitable that I regularly fail at this. But it’s a huge burden to carry nonetheless, and it consumes my every speech and action.
With the state of the world the way it is; with the news and its never-ending cycle of low-level (or high-level, depending on which outlets you follow) Islamophobia, everyone thinks they know who Muslims are. A study from Cardiff University found that between 2000-2009, references in the British press to Islam as a threat outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by seventeen to one. The most common nouns and adjectives used to refer to British Muslims included terrorist, extremist, militant and radical.
And in the face of that, what am I supposed to do? Despite anything anyone thinks they know, it’s entirely possible that the people I interact with have never before met a Muslim. So it’s my responsibility to show them what Islam really means – or at least it feels like it is. And I don’t just mean friends and acquaintances: my headscarf signals my Muslim-ness to everyone I so much as walk past on the street. Which means I can never, ever make a single mistake. If I take too long fumbling with my purse at the front of a queue, or inadvertently make the wrong comment for the situation, my anxious self isn’t just worried about what people will think of me, but also how my actions will reflect on the other 1.8 billion Muslims across the Earth.
In a 2016 article for the website muslimgirl.com, writer Hana Malik said, ‘Anytime I leave my home, I carry an invisible weight of defence because I am a Muslim woman’. That was the first time I’d seen such a sentiment articulated and, at the time, I identified with that one sentence more strongly than anything I had seen before. But I’ve since come to realise that what I personally feel isn’t defensiveness. It’s just anxiety and stress – a constant, nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me that everything I do has an impact on something much bigger than me. 1.8 billion times bigger, to be specific.
But then I also have a voice that says ‘this is ridiculous, Hana, no one’s paying you that much attention. You’re just anxious and insecure and projecting – no one notices or cares what you do.’ But I’ve spoken to friends who also feel this pressure: it’s definitely not just me. And regardless of whether or not it’s justified, the perceived weight of having to be a perfect example at all times is one that would overburden even the best of us.
I love my hijab and wouldn’t trade it for anything. But, in a world that seems determined to blame all Muslims every time a single disturbed individual does something wrong, it does single me out from the people around me. Muslims aren’t a monolith, and nothing I do could possibly represent the beliefs of all of them, or even most of them. But if people are going to treat me as if it does, what choice do I have but to lean into that and do the best I can?
When I first decided to wear hijab, it was out of necessity. I was so sheltered by my parents growing up that a single glance from a man would traumatize me. Until I got to high school, my body shape was like a boy. But since then, I expanded to my feminine side. That period unfortunately, didn’t come with a code of conduct. So I decided the easiest way to survive hungry gazes from men was to neglect my body but that didn’t work out so then I covered up my body.
Later unfortunately, it also brought another consequences that tied to our identity as the country with the biggest Muslim community in the world -Indonesia. It created hungry men who saw beyond your clothing and got sexual urges just by looking.
When I was in college and later in the work environment I started to notice, a girl who wore a hijab have more chance to be molested than a girl who didn’t. The men around me who studied or worked with me were all wolves, for a lack of better label. I got stories and tips from my friends or coworkers about how this men would use my figure as a material for their “locker room talk”. Or how they created false stories that thankfully never harmed me.
Did it deter me from wearing hijab? Nope. As time goes by I just learn to live with it. Things that couldn’t kill you, will make you stronger.
I remember it as clear as day. The moment I decided to wear a hijab. I was fresh out of university and looking for a job. September 11 had just happened and for some insane reason, when women were taking off their hijab for fear of being attacked, I thought it was the right time to put one on. But it was the right time for me. Just not for society.
No one in my family wore one. I always thought I would one day, but worried it would ‘change me’ by somehow making me more quiet or submissive. But as I got more frustrated with life, I soon realised that if I wanted to better myself and represent Muslims in public life, I had to wear one.
I recall during one of my first interviews as a hijabi, being sternly questioned by a senior female Magistrate and asked about my commitment to the judiciary. The elderly, white haired gentleman sat next to her, was extremely amiable in comparison and viewed me in astonishment. He said that he had never met anyone who was as articulate. I knew this meant he’d never heard someone who wore a hijab speak. I let it go, smiled and reassured him there were many more of us. I knew then I would have to prove myself to every colleague I met, that I’d be judged for the piece of fabric on my head, and I was right. Each time I sat on the bench, I had to prove my worth, without question–it became a tiring auto response.
When I was younger, I used to walk down the streets like I owned them. My feet would tread pavements like they belonged. Years on and after such a drastic change in people’s perceptions of Muslims, I walk with a lot less confidence.
As I walked out of the local supermarket this morning, I passed an elderly gentleman. He looked at me with disdain; like I was a foreigner, a troublemaker. To him I was probably the stereotypical immigrant who was draining the ‘system’ and putting nothing back in. Yet I was on my way to work, to make a difference in the world we share. He didn’t know that. His gaze seemed to denote I had no right to be there, simply because of the way I choose to look.
I was born and bred in England; I feel English to the core, yet my faith, which doesn’t happen to clash with my nationality, has caused a media sensation in the past decade.
People who claim to share my religion have hijacked it. Everything I believe in encourages me to behave better than I used to when I didn’t practice my faith properly. My hijab is a constant reminder to check myself.
Yet now I am afraid to wear it properly by draping the fabric around my face and chest as I’d intended to many years ago. When I attend writing events or when I travel on the train to London alone, I wear a hat or a turban-scarf covering my head. Being a lover of hats has of course made this decision more natural for me, but I do feel as if I’m constantly switching identities. Growing up, I never thought I would feel this way. I never thought I would be anxious to travel alone or have to worry about making progress in my career because of the way I look. I thought I was invincible.
Yet here I am - afraid.
Muslims are constantly misrepresented by the media. When I walk into a room, visibly different to the rest, from a religion that people now view as dangerous, as ‘the other’, I feel sad. I stand out and not for the right reasons, not for what the hijab is supposed to represent.
I fear for my children’s future. They may feel less inclined to strive for success or even to practice what they want to. They won’t have the luxury of being comfortable with who they are. They will be judged by their names and their religious identity.
I want to go back to knowing that people will judge my skills and ability and not my face, clothes or name.
I want to go back to feeling like I belong. After all, this is my country as much as it is anyone else’s. I invest in it, I believe in it, I love it.
I no longer wear the hijab, and in a lot of ways I felt like this choice was out of my hands. I didn’t feel like my body belonged to me, I had to think about others while practicing my religion. Which to me, is disturbing because religion is meant to be this personal thing but for a lot of Muslims we are forced to represent the entirety of our people. Everything we do is scrutinized, people are weary of us and our headscarves are the ultimate symbol to non-Muslims of Islam.
I will admit, I wasn’t an everyday wearer of the hijab before I permanently stopped wearing it. I wore it most of the time but not all the time, and when I did wear it, it was the turban style. I stopped wearing it all together in the year Brexit happened. For those of you who aren’t quite sure what Brexit meant for Muslims, I’ll explain. So, Brexit was a vote made in the UK about staying or leaving the European union. While this vote was meant to be purely based on economical factors, it was made instead to be a xenophobic campaign, whereby anyone who wasn’t white and British was no longer welcome in Britain. Before Brexit, there was of course islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, but British people used to be a lot more covert about their prejudice. You’d feel it as a background noise that wouldn’t go away, you’d see it in people’s eyes when you’re on the tube or walking down the street, but then Brexit happened and it unlocked this confidence in the white British population, whereby people felt entitled to attack Muslim people, black people, brown people, and even white non-British Europeans. I stopped wearing my hijab after three incidences.
The first being a friend of my mum’s who was black, being attacked. That shocked me, at the time I was still a teenager and I was really shaken by the idea of someone doing that to someone just because of their skin colour, and while that scared me, I knew I couldn’t take of my skin, I’ll always be black. And so, I became more paranoid. Then, my sister who was about 14 at the time, and her best friend got attacked on the bus on the way home. A man was yelling Islamophobic slurs and the bus watched in silence as they were berated by a bigot. Still, I wore my hijab. The last event was when I’d heard of the physical violence. Muslim women’s scarves being snatched away, Muslim women being pushed – hurt. I was suddenly scared to leave my house.
There is something sick about the reality and the options I had. I knew that I was not the Muslim stereotype. I was not brown, the only thing giving away my religion was the way I knew how to pray and the scarf I used to cover my head.
I knew that my best friend who is Pakistani who also stopped wearing the hijab would still face abuse, and I knew I wouldn’t face the same abuse. If anything, they’d hurt me because I was black. But, I felt that more so, they’d kill me if they knew I was a Muslim.
So, I took it off and I haven’t put it back on since.
Author of Upcoming Ace Of Spades.
I hope you enjoyed reading about all of these diverse experiences with the hijab! I know, as a hijabi, I definitely appreciated seeing all of the different views and experiences of it, especially during a time when many governments are trying to regulate the hijab, and the Muslims who wear them.
Thank you to all of the contributors to this post, and to Aimal for the beautiful graphic!