Earlier this year, I went on a religious pilgrimage to Iraq with an international tour group. During this trip, I observed the local traditions concerning hijab. In Arabic, the word hijab simply means a barrier or partition, but it has come to encompass the Islamic requirement of modest attire and behavior for both men and women that preserves and promotes the idea of modesty and dignity. The hijab can mean many different things, and you can see the wide range of interpretations when you visit different Muslim communities around the world. For women, it can mean being covered from head to toe, or just wearing loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf, or simply being mindful of covering up more than most people. To non-Muslims, however, the concept is oftentimes associated with oppression, patriarchy, foreignness, and backwardness. It’s seen as an attempt to keep women subjugated, locked up, and out of the public eye. So it's easy for non-Muslim people to sympathize when women in countries where very strict forms of hijab are prescribed rail against the government for forcing them to submit to the practice. But, for the most part, non-Muslims don’t know what to make of women who choose to observe forms of hijab in countries where they’re free to wear whatever they want. That’s just plain weird.
I first decided to don the headscarf in junior high. Along with the covering, I opted to wear only long-sleeve tops and full-length pants and skirts. In my South Asian family, women generally don’t put on the headscarf except in mosques. It was 100% my choice to embrace that weirdness.
At that age, the social pressure to conform is high, and the social cost of refusing to do so can be brutal. But, at the time, I adopted that attire precisely to distance myself from the social pressure that was mounting — the pressure to grow up too fast by wearing less clothing and more makeup. Standing awkwardly in the aisles of the gym locker room wearing a long cotton slip under my clothes while others around me were wearing push-up designer bras, I felt overwhelmed by all of it. I wanted to mark myself as somehow exempt and protect myself against peer pressure, so I donned the headscarf to give myself an overt, visible excuse against conforming.
I had my scarf pulled in stairwells, I was made fun of and called names, snickered at behind my back, and I was tripped and pushed as I walked the hallways.
Surprisingly, once I made it past the hard part — all the bullying — I shocked everyone by deciding to stop wearing the hijab. Once I knew that I could be myself with the headscarf, I was curious about who I was without it. I craved the anonymity I felt when I didn’t have a spotlight pointed at my head, and wanted the freedom to explore who I wanted to be and how I preferred to be seen. I also wanted to know whether my connection to my faith was actually as strong as people assumed it was.
I’ve thought about the headscarf a lot over the years, because I always remembered how it emboldened me to stand up for myself. I have to admit that when I took the scarf off and started changing the overall way I dressed, it felt as if the way people looked at me changed — and I didn’t really like it. I felt like I had to work harder to get men to take me as seriously and treat me as respectfully. I also admit I became much more vulnerable to social pressure. Without my headscarf as a shield, I started to buy into society’s narrow idea about what being stylish was. For a long time afterward, I felt like fashion was something that didn’t belong to women like me; it just made me look like I was trying too hard to wear what fell quite awkwardly on my shoulders, like a girl playing dress-up.
I started realizing that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life the way I had spent the past seven years, working at a job that made me loads of money but brought me very little happiness. I wanted to make sure that I lived a life where I could actually work to profoundly impact the life of others. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to.
Although the trip felt cathartic, I couldn’t help but worry that boarding the plane back home from my trip would somehow wipe my memory clean of all I had thought about and the promise I made to myself. How could I be certain that moment of self-discovery would become a constant, continuous journey of self-discovery?
In the restroom at the Istanbul airport, waiting for my connecting flight back home, I was in the process of changing back into my Western clothes — a black T-shirt, black pants, and a long-sleeved gray sweater. I had a teal scarf in my hands that I intended to pack away in my carry-on once I got to exactly where I was standing, but I felt that packing away the scarf also felt like packing away a part of myself. In that moment, I realized wearing the head covering made me feel powerful, resolute, and focused. I wanted to take it all with me back to my everyday life. So I did, and rewrapped it around my head.
I felt like I was changing my outside to match my inside. This time, it wasn’t about shielding myself from the realities around me; it was about showcasing exactly who I was. It would be a very powerful form of expression — a visual reminder of my promise to myself and my principles, and a way to let others know that I identify with my faith and I have no problem with who I am. In the weeks since I’ve been back, I’ve felt more empowered to be who I am, complete with flaws and fierceness.
While I decided to re-cover for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with fashion, the hijab actually changed my style, too. My friend saw me the other day and remarked that I had finally come into my own — and it showed. Once I wore the scarf and started dressing more modestly overall, something just clicked into place and I felt more comfortable in my skin. It also made me more eager to use my clothing as part of my expression. I’ve embraced a lot more color into my wardrobe, and that simple change comes from refusing to hide from the attention I know is coming my way to embracing it with confidence. My scarves reflect my changing moods and my tastes. It’s not only a statement about my faith and my self-worth, but also a part of my daily self-expression.
It’s not a great time for American Muslims, and the scarf is literally a target on my head attracting anyone who wants to villainize us.
So why do it? It’s important to stand up for the principles you believe in — against bullies of all kinds. Eyes are on me all the time, whether I’m attending my nephew’s preschool graduation in a church, when I’m commuting to work, or watching a movie at the theater. It’s not easy. It’s downright uncomfortable at times. But, I choose to see those moments as an opportunity to change perceptions many non-Muslims (and some Muslims) have about the scarf, the broader concept of hijab, Islam, and Muslims.
Modesty and hijab are not mutually exclusive. That’s not news. Modest fashion is now a $96+ billion-dollar industry. There’s also such diversity in the way Muslim women feel about, understand, and observe hijab. Some women hate it because forms of it are forced on them. Some Irani women have undertaken a social-media campaign to show themselves without the scarves and the long black chador coverings as a way of protesting being made to wear them. I get that. The headscarf is a source of strength for me, but that stems largely from the luxury of having a choice about if I want to wear it and how I want to wear it.
I’m a professional in my 30s, living on her own and working as an attorney and consultant in New York City. I am also a former hijabi, a de-jabi, and now a re-jabi. These things might seem like contradictions to some, but it’s entirely consistent in my mind as part of a long, nuanced spiritual journey that continues to change and challenge me even today. My story only seems novel because it disturbs the existing narrative about what the headscarf and dressing more modestly signifies.
Hijab has always been about much more than a headscarf. For me, it’s something much larger that happens to extend to my attire; it involves rejecting objectification and oversexualization, embracing modesty, and claiming ownership of my sense of self-worth, power, and potential. And even more important, it's helped me to honor my promise to constantly keep changing my life to better suit myself.
Zehra Naqvi is an attorney, a community organizer, and a writer. To read more of her work, please visit The Observeum. You can also follow her on Twitter @ZehraNaqvi1.