This year, I decided to stop wearing my headscarf (or Hijab).
I started wearing it when I was 11 and more strictly when I was 12. My family never told me to. I chose it. I saw women who wore it and thought “that actually makes sense to me”. I always felt good whilst wearing the it. I never felt ugly or ignored. I look back on the time I used to wear it as a happy one.
Shutting away a huge part of your attractiveness during your teen years is not easy. It’s a time when defining yourself is like so totally important. We control our physicality and attractiveness. Non-verbal cues ensue that help us make friends. Mine was a very specific cue that spoke in volumes.
Growing up in a rather “liberal” Muslim country (the UAE, liberal in comparison to others because it loves tourism) you are revered for wearing a headscarf. It’s seen as a pious and respectful choice to make.
The Hijab was liberating. It inspired a respect for female privacy and safety in men. I am aware of the notion of the Hijab and Muslim faith being oppressive to women. I never experienced it. I do know women who have, but they blame patriarchy and not the faith.
Hiding my physicality allowed me to explore myself in a spiritual sense during my teen years. I learned that I am very intelligent. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, I just got incredibly good grades. Pretty much all my close friends think of me as smart, quirky, geeky, confident, funny and so on, which I love.
Detaching myself from the physical expectations of society for women allowed me to find out who I am beyond my looks. And I found a person I really like.
But when I turned 19 (I moved to the UK at 15) I looked in the mirror and thought, does she look attractive? Who should she look attractive to? Women have societal pressures based on their looks. The Hijab for me was the detachment from those pressures but it didn’t help me resolve anything.
There are so many arguments around how a woman can/should look appealing. Our bodies have become a painting for everyone but the painter to see. Do we own ourselves? I found myself through detachment and my Hijab helped me get there. But that detachment left me lost.
Why is beauty such a forum for debate? Why is there all this pressure to hide or show our physical selves? From the ages of 19 to 21 I learned to love my physical self. I looked in the mirror, removed whatever preconceptions of beauty I had, and thought, what do I like?
Until I could respond with ‘everything’ I did not remove my Hijab.
I have learnt to love what I am and to find myself appealing no matter how unwashed my hair is or how bad my spots get.
In my eyes, aesthetic pleasure is a bonus, it’s not important. You can learn to love someone truly and with all your heart no matter how they look so long as you connect every feature with who they are and the joy they bring to you.
There is nothing wrong with presenting our physical selves as a manifestation of who we are. But I realised that I needed to do this for myself, and not for others. It took me 3 years to get there. And it was a spiritual awakening.
Of course that all sounds very pretty but I had some mixed reactions when I stopped wearing my headscarf. Non-Muslims disconnected from the idea of Hijab were mainly supportive - Insisting it was my choice and to let no one tell me any different. Much appreciated, my friends.
My parents trust in my mind and will, I hope, go along with it with fatigued, worried expressions like most parents do. Extended relatives are fearful and want me back on the ‘right path’. Sorry to disappoint and I really do love you all. My best friend remains my best friend.
Some may think I am no longer pious and will now dress more provocatively and have boyfriends (major no-no’s).
Firstly, I have reassessed my connection to my faith. That is a personal journey that no-one has the right to criticise. By all means share your views but self-righteousness makes you look so very ugly.
Secondly, I haven’t the money or the inclination to change my wardrobe. I like what I wear. And lastly, my opinion towards men and relationships has not changed. I’ll wait for the real thing.
Maybe my response would be different if I’d felt held back by my hijab, but I did not.
I suppose it boils down to how I feel now. Do I feel different when I leave the house? Well my ears feel colder. That’s about it. Towards the end, I had begun to feel different when I went out wearing the Hijab. I feel more comfortable now without it.
This will not be true for many Muslim women. Good for you. Women find their own ways to feel comfortable physically. This is a positive thing.
A good friend of mine insists more men will bother me now than they used to. This might be true. I know of many men (Muslim or otherwise) that will reach the sad conclusion that no Hijab means no rules.
Some believe a Hijabi girl is good and an uncovered girl is ‘naughty’. But here’s the thing, the Hijab isn’t a cue for men. It is not a way for them to judge naughty and nice. It’s the same debate as the difference between dressing conservatively and dressing adventurously.
The debate around a woman’s physicality being her most defining trait is what I am now at odds with. I am not naïve; people will judge you on how you look. Men look at women but also at other men; we appraise and judge one another inwardly.
But just because this is natural does not make it right. It does not mean we cannot apply human thought to it.
We must outgrow our superficial selves and allow ourselves to discover our own physicality differently; to feel safe and comfortable and less like birds fanning our feathers to attract a mate.
I didn’t take my scarf off because I value my beauty; I took it off because I don’t.