They Called Me Brave When I Stopped Wearing Hijab (I Wasn’t)
Facing an Islamophobic world as a visibly Muslim woman requires a hell of a lot more courage than stepping out with my hair in a ponytail.
My ears burned red as I walked through the park, my hair uncovered in public for the first time in almost 20 years. I had mentally prepared myself before leaving the house, anticipating the feeling of the wind blowing through my hair, the strands stroking my cheek. But the thing that struck me most that day was the distinct, extraordinary sting of my ears rubbed raw by the crisp spring air.
There were many things I probably should have expected when I decided to stop wearing hijab two years ago (like my cold ears on that brisk morning in Toronto), and yet somehow I was still caught by surprise.
I started wearing hijab when I was 10, and I stopped when I was 28. I toyed with the idea of removing my hijab for months before I finally made up my mind to do it. And when I did, it wasn’t a happy occasion. I’d reached an impasse in my spiritual life, and I had to reckon with the hard truth that I no longer felt connected to the hijab. It wasn’t that I was any less Muslim, I just no longer relied on hijab to help me feel connected to God.
But for 18 years, I’d wake every morning and stand in front of the mirror, wrapping my hijab before leaving the house. Some days the fabric cooperated, and it would only take me two or three minutes. Other days, it refused and hung awkwardly or slipped like water off my head, and I’d hiss with frustration and clench my jaw so hard it felt like my teeth might crack.
When I decided to stop wearing hijab, I didn’t know I’d miss that sacred, sometimes exasperating, daily ritual so much. The act was a form of worship, a silent prayer, a commitment as intimate to me as my own skin. For the first few months after taking it off, I felt naked leaving the house. Even now, two years later, I’ll sometimes forget and panic when I’m out and realize I’m not wearing it, a phantom hijab haunting me.
I didn’t anticipate the praise, the people patting me on the back and commending me for my courage, or how deeply their reactions would unsettle me.
But the loss of my old routine wasn’t the only thing that I had to get used to. My interactions with people also changed, in expected and unexpected ways. I remember the first time someone congratulated me, told me I was “brave” for taking off my hijab. And then the second time, and the third. I had braced myself for questions, for the queries into my spiritual and religious health. In a way, I welcomed them. I was even prepared for the judgement, the clicking tongues of disapproval from the people in my community who assumed I just wanted to sin anonymously. But I didn’t anticipate the praise, the people patting me on the back and commending me for my courage, or how deeply their reactions would unsettle me. Perhaps I should have.
A few months after taking off my hijab, I went to my old job to have coffee and catch-up with my previous boss — a woman who gave me my first gig in the media industry — and another co-worker. When they saw me, curls replacing the neutral-toned hijabs they were so used to seeing, they both gasped and clutched my shoulders.
“Oh my god, you’re so beautiful! Why were you hiding this?!”
I laughed — out of surprise, not amusement — unsure of how to respond to the comment. Was I ugly before? The thought made me laugh even harder.
“This is amazing, I’m so proud of you,” my old boss said, embracing me in a tight hug. I stared incredulously and my face got hot. Proud of me? For what? The two women ran tufts of my hair through their fingers as I stood there, enraged and embarrassed. Their admiration told me everything I needed to know about the woman they thought I was while wearing hijab.
My hijab was an integral part of who I was. Wearing it taught me an important lesson about how to carry myself in the world — specifically, it taught me what it really means to be brave.
As more people in my life learned about my decision, more encounters like the one with my former coworkers took place. To some, I was a brand new woman — braver, bolder, and freer. In reality, I was the exact same person, just without the hijab. I wasn’t cowering in fear before, and I wasn’t making a declaration of freedom now. I’m not one to refuse praise for my accomplishments, for things I’ve earned. This just wasn’t one of them.
For almost two decades, my hijab was an integral part of who I was. Wearing it taught me an important lesson about how to carry myself in the world — specifically, it taught me what it really means to be brave. I had to walk with my head held a little higher and my brain on high alert at all times. I learned the hard way to pick and choose which microaggressions to confront after exhausting myself squaring up to all of them. I also had to face an increasingly Islamophobic world as a visibly Muslim woman, which requires a hell of a lot more courage than stepping out with my hair in a ponytail.
I also had to grapple with my own guilt, the feeling that I had somehow abandoned my community by taking off my hijab. When, in 2019, news that a 28-year-old gunman entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people and wounding 40 others dominated headlines, my guilt swelled up like a sickness. At the time, my grief almost compelled me to start wearing hijab again, a desperate ploy to absolve myself of the irrational shame I felt.
People used to ask if I was forced to wear my hijab. I learned to swallow the question, stop my eyes from rolling to the back of my head, and answer politely with a response I rehearsed and performed more times than I can count: “No, of course not. It was my choice.” The person would smile back, cordially, but sometimes I’d detect a hint of disbelief. It doesn’t really matter what I told them of my own lived experiences, some stereotypes are buried too deep to be excavated so easily. Sometimes they’d flash me that familiar, tight-lipped smile while looking me over, neck tucked in, head tilted ever so slightly to one side in skepticism.
But since I stopped wearing the hijab, it’s a different kind of smile I have to deal with, one laced with admiration. I can’t decide which is worse.