Defending “the Choice” of “Dress”…

“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard … We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” – Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for female education and Nobel Peace Prize recipient

So I wrote a version of this post on Linkedin a few days ago, which didn’t elicit any engagement, but I thought it would be important nonetheless and I wanted to contribute some thoughts for Women’s History Month. So I am sharing this on my blog…

I originally saw a post on International Women’s Day from the “Female Lead”, who I follow on Linkedin. It was about Malala Yousafzai’s essay defending the women’s right to choose what to wear.  And I intended to share my general thoughts about it, on that day, largely because of how much it moved me, and how much I connected to it, perhaps in a different way personally, but also academically and professionally, partly from my Masters research and fieldwork on Violence Against Women in Pakistan and challenges there relevant to the concept of “Pardah.” As Women’s History Month closed and Ramadan has begun, I share a quick, brief and honest reflection here, of which I hope to continue discussing in piecemeal going forward…

In her essay on Podium, “Please stop telling us how to dress,” Malala wrote about how, everywhere around the world, women and girls are either being forced to cover themselves or being banned for covering themselves in public areas and facilities, further limiting their access, and preventing them from harnessing their full potential, whether it be in education or the workforce. Malala shares examples from various parts of the world, with governments imposing all sorts of mandates on women’s appearances, from banning certain nose rings, hairstyles, and styles of clothing, to covering (or not covering) the face, hands, body, hair, and the list goes on.

Malala beautifully protests:

“Whether a woman chooses a burqa or a bikini, she has the right to decide for herself. Come and talk to us about individual freedom and autonomy, about preventing harm and violence, about education and emancipation. Do not come with your wardrobe notes.”


“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” — Frida Kahlo

In my last post here, and some other posts, I shared a picture from the NYLF, 20 years ago, at the Washington, DC Arlington National Cemetery. I was in a headscarf at that time. I have shared my thoughts on the hijab, and experience with it, in a previous post, several years ago here.

I made the choice to wear the hijab a little over 20 years ago, when I was 17. I aspired to wear it from a younger age. Interestingly, I began wearing hijab 30 days before 9/11. Great timing. The experience with this is very much connected to everything a Muslim American would face in the 9/11 era…

And it was my senior year of High School. I just returned from a breathtaking summer study abroad in Spain, blown away by a memorable visit to the Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Granada. I played Varsity Soccer and Tennis in hijab that year. I did face adversity at times, for wearing the hijab, esp while playing sports. But I also received support from peers, teachers, & coaches. I served in various leadership roles, including President of the Amnesty International Chapter, and Vice President of the Polaris Honors Society. My high school newspaper had an article written on me and my choice to wear hijab. I was grateful for that and to also be nominated for the school’s Heisman award. I received the “Most Improved Player” trophy that year for Varsity Tennis, getting 2nd in conference for #1 Singles. Still got that mean backhand. 😉 I share this here because I believe the hijab empowered me at a critical moment of my life. 

When I removed the hijab in college, precisely 3 years later, I received significant backlash from some Muslim communities, unfortunately. While I think the choice to wear or remove the headscarf is better now in the United States, among some communities, it remains a sensitive issue among others.

I stand with our sister Malala, who has been a major inspiration for me on education and Pakistan, so much so that I had to somehow quote her in my dissertation!

I stand with our sister, especially on this notion of “Choice.”

Because to this day, I believe wearing the hijab was the best decision for me. Removing it was also the best decision for me. Both equally empowering. I know for some, especially many in the Muslim community, this may not be easy to understand.

In the end, it was entirely my decision.

And I will never take having that “choice” for granted, knowing that is not the case is some social structures.

When I place the cloth over my head, I still feel its magic… its power.

Part of what made it “magical” was “the choice.”

I still cover my head from time to time.

And I also feel the magic of the wind blowing in my hair.

I stand with my sister Malala, when I say that I support all women, “covered” or “uncovered.” Parduh, Burkha, Chadri, Hijab, Jilbab, Abaya, Nikab, Burqini or Bikini.

And before we place women in “boxes” based on how we appear, what we choose to become, who we choose to marry…(the list goes on)…

Let us please learn the truths & hear these stories.  Let us listen & understand.

Let us take these moments to teach us how “to Listen.”

And I just want to add here, something I wrote in a previous post on social media for Women’s History Month, connected to this theme…

It still burns many men (and women too) to see women achieve, excel, take on non-traditional roles, follow unconventional paths, achieve the highest degrees, become presidents and leaders and CEOs, become financially independent, CHOOSE what they do with their body, CHOOSE their own career paths, CHOOSE who to marry, CHOOSE what to wear and what not to wear.


It burns them so much. Especially for women of color.

But she believes and she will achieve…, you cannot stop her from rising, when her eyes are on the well-deserved prize… when she can touch the sky with her heart…

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I cannot restrain myself from leaning on Dr. Maya Angelou’s words here:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

I join others around the world in pushing through those labels & breaking barriers, supporting one another in harnessing our greatest potential.

In these times especially, this is the right “Choice.”

Happy Belated Women’s History Month, Happy Spring, and Happy Ramadan!

#EmbracingIntersections #WarriorQueens

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” – Rumi

Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,
Your Sister, Dr. Elsa Talat Khwaja
Warrior KQueen
“She wasn’t looking for night, she was looking for a Sword” – Atticus
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