As Eid approaches, I’m reminded that I’ve now worn the hijab for half my life. I’ll be the first to say that a piece of cloth on a woman’s head doesn’t define her but I’d be lying if I denied that in my case it kind of did. Wearing the hijab was my way of forging an identity for myself as a mixed-race teenager in a multi-faith family – and it did come with its fair share of difficulties.
Growing up with a Libyan dad and an English mum – one Muslim, one not – was like having two versions of myself. As a child, I remember drawing myself as two separate people: the English me in a T-shirt with flowing hair, like my mum; and the Libyan version, with a round, smiling face in a hijab, like the cousins I visited every summer.
A country like Britain racialises you before you’re old enough to understand what that means and as I got older it felt like the two sides of me could no longer coexist in one body. Racist playground jibes and post-9/11 Islamophobia made the decision for me: I wasn’t white. And as I got older I became increasingly uncomfortable in the white spaces that I had once inhabited with ease.
At home, Islam was a set of rules devoid of spirituality. No ham or crop tops and absolutely no boys. As we became teenagers, my friends embarked on the normal trajectory of British teens. Birthday parties turned into secret sips of alcohol in the kitchen or boys climbing through the window. Girls' trips to the cinema (which involved days of me persuading my parents that they wouldn’t end in my inevitable kidnap) were ambushed by boyfriends who stared at my petite, blonde friends and made my ungainly, chubby self feel as if I were there simply to hold the bags.
As I felt increasingly distant from my friends, I ended up hurtling towards an identity crisis at barely 15. Desperate for friends who I could be myself around, I remember watching the few hijabis at my school with awe, jealous of how their identity came so naturally to them, how they had taken their minority status and forged a friendship group out of it.
Unapologetically pairing floor-length skirts with school jumpers, wearing shalwar kameez on non-uniform days. I longed to be part of their club but I felt only half-qualified. I passed as white in brown spaces and as brown in white spaces. Never quite fitting in on either side.
There wasn’t a sign hidden in the stars that made me start wearing the hijab. It was a decision that had been bubbling away inside me for a long time; a desperation to belong. One day, while visiting my dad’s family in Libya as we did every summer, I decided to try wearing it. My cousin dug around in her drawer, then wrapped a soft, purple one around my head with a tender smile.
I finally felt like I had an identity that was mine; I didn't have to be half this or half that. I could be fully Muslim and that was something nobody could challenge, although they tried.
That was the easy part. From the moment I landed at Heathrow with my head wrapped in a shiny blue number, everything changed. If I thought I was othered before, I was wrong. Extra security checks. Teachers mistaking me for other hijabis. Microaggressions from friends. My non-Muslim family ignoring me. Racist comments in public. Even the Muslim girls I admired thought I was pulling a prank, as if I were a white girl masquerading as a hijabi.
I cried more times than I can count in those first few weeks but nothing could destroy the peace inside me. Wearing the hijab finally made me learn about the faith I had grown up with as something spiritual rather than a set of rules. I finally felt like I had an identity that was mine; I didn’t have to be half this or half that. I could be fully Muslim and that was something nobody could challenge, although they tried.
Trying to cobble together a modest wardrobe as a 14-year-old was a challenge. Buying a whole new one wasn’t an option so I became an expert at layering: dresses over jeans with a cardigan to cover the arms, long tops with vests covering the chest. I’d never been so grateful to spend most of my life in school uniform.
I became addicted to grainy hijab tutorials on YouTube. I spent hours watching women twist and turn, tuck and fold their fabric, pausing and replaying as I copied them in the mirror. The hijab became the perfect antidote to my deep teenage insecurities. From my bigger frame to the body hair that my white friends ridiculed, modest dressing covered up the things I felt embarrassed about. It allowed me to redefine my appearance. I would twist together two different coloured scarves or repurpose old headbands into hijab accessories. Soon, the Muslim girls who had been hesitant about my sudden hijabification were emulating my style. It felt empowering and validating.
My journey with modesty has changed through the periods of my life. I don’t believe that outward dress reflects inner piety but I’ve always felt a connection between how I dress and the state of my spirituality. When my religiosity wanes, my definition of modesty gets looser; when I feel closest to God, I find comfort in dressing more identifiably Muslim.
Modest fashion itself is a lot easier to come by, too. Modesty reminds me to keep a healthy distance from fast fashion and is a physical prompt that I dress for God and myself, not for societal expectations.
Despite today’s mass commodification of the hijab, from every TV advert featuring your token hijabi to unethical companies using hijabis as currency while mistreating Muslim workers in the global south (which is a whole other story), I continue to wear mine proudly. Not defying stereotypes but just living life, taking my newborn baby on walks through London’s busy streets.
Being a recognisably Muslim woman in public can be scary. I avoid standing at the edge of the Tube platform and in the aftermath of terror attacks, I brace myself for retaliation. It means extra scrutiny and barriers but I relish being unapologetically Muslim in our age of Islamophobia. Contrary to what my teenage self believed, I belong here and nobody can tell me otherwise.