Me and my hijab have had an interesting journey together. It started when I was eighteen and about to enter a new phase of my life in two respects: embracing an existence as a ‘raghead’ as well as beginning university.
I had enjoyed all the freedoms I could ever have wished for at home, but living away on a university campus offered me the opportunity of real independence and self-development. It also allowed me to meet people whose first and only impression of me would be as a ‘hijabi’. A hijabi. That was me? I hardly even recognised myself as such – I was still getting used to my new identity after only a couple of weeks’ practice. The black triangular piece of cloth was messily tied on; I wasn’t familiar then with safety pins or hijab style.
At first donning, my headscarf was questioned in my own family circles – several relatives disapproved and warned that people would think I was an extremist, or worse (for them) that I wouldn’t receive any marriage proposals. Even though I was exactly the same person as I was prior to wearing it, I was not prepared for the effect it would have on others. Even a close Muslim school friend laughed in disbelief when I told her over the phone of my decision: “Male enslavement…” she derided.
I didn’t expect to be so upset and so misunderstood by those closest to me. I never wanted my hijab to become a barrier between myself and others, and I didn’t want to be judged solely on what I chose to place on my head. Yet, I reasoned, this is my life, my hair, my expression of faith. I had conviction, and that was enough for me to persevere, against any odds.
I can see the paradox that wearing a hijab might present – it’s a deeply personal choice which manifests in a public display; an outward declaration of inner commitment to and love of God. I can’t leave my religion at home. I am immediately identifiable as a Muslim.
Hijab can be a loaded term, and it symbolises different things for different people – both those who wear it and those who view it. Hijab has, invariably, been seen as: political, a mark of devotion, a sign of female repression, a projection of Muslim feminism… For me, it was one act of my love for God, and I for one have loved it.
I chose to wear a hijab five years before the ‘War on Terror’ was launched. Pre 9/11 I have been called a nun, exotic, bald, a Sikh, and orthodox, with only one nasty incident of a glass bottle being thrown at me by delinquents whose aim was as askew as their prejudice. Post 9/11, I was named ‘Taliban’ and ‘terrorist’. It made me sick to the stomach that strangers would look at me and think I had personally taken the lives of those in the Twin Towers. I stood in shock and horror at those crimes, along with my fellow Britons, along with everyone around the world; yet in a matter of minutes I suddenly became the criminal, like many fellow Muslims. Thankfully, nothing happened to threaten my safety, only cold glares, fingers stuck up at me, and dark mumblings. A few girls I knew removed their head scarves in fear of physical attacks. A car tried to intentionally knock down one hijab-wearing friend while she walked back from work in Oxford.
But I was still scared. As people tried to come to terms with what was happening, I too searched for any comfort I could find. I remember one article referring to a Persian Sufi poet who recorded a fable of a powerful king. The king asked some wise men to produce a ring that would make him sad when happy, and happy when sad. They presented him the ring etched with the words, “This too shall pass.” Those raw, difficult moments did pass. While new challenges and repercussions rose up to face the Muslim communities, positive change, outreach and engagement also worked alongside them. More and more women started to wear hijab in the UK. People started to find the confidence to express their faith and contribute to their society.
Fifteen years on, as a veteran hijab-wearer who started out with two simple black cotton hijabs, my scarf drawer has evolved into an array of shades and textures from emerald silk to ivory satin. Along with the kaleidoscopic coverings, my self-confidence and conviction have likewise evolved along this journey. Sure, I’ve had bad hijab days and endless moments of people staring where I am left feeling like the outsider in my own country. Yet no one’s life is simple. And this journey…it’s far from over.