To Hijab or not to Hijab?: A “Marginal” Perspective from One Muslim American Woman

…It is certainly a question every Muslimah encounters, at some point in her life….

...Obviously, I cannot give an answer, because that answer lies within us uniquely. But I can take this moment to share a scratch of my story. And what I ask of you while you read this, is simply an open mind, and please note that my intentions for writing this are pure, as I recognize this has always been a major point of contention in our communities, and to many an invisible challenge because of that.

And after 16 years from the day I put on the hijab and 13 years after removing it permanently, I share just a scratch of the experience surrounding this part of me that scarred me in a visceral, yet ultimately positive way.

I call the three years I wore hijab, three very powerful years of my life. I felt like a Queen wearing a crown on her head, as I would say at times, something that became common in the vernacular of the mainstream Muslim community.

I even wrote a poem about the head cover in my senior year of high school when I first started wearing it. I shared this among a large Muslim audience a year later at a Muslim Student Association event in college. I posted this poem in my blog in August, last year. You can find “The Gift of Purity,” here. As I read this piece again while writing this article, I returned to that very sensation of pride and the emotion and connection I had to the hijab at that time. It’s really quite profound how much love I had for the cover.

It took a lot of time to adjust when I first put it on, as expected.

It was so long ago, but I still remember almost everything about when I first started wearing it. My father called me “hoodie” for a while. I loved it! That was truly unforgettable.

“What’s up in the “Hood”?” would eventually be the cheesy title of a panel I organized in college alongside other sisters for an event in conjunction with another human rights organization in the area, on International Women’s Day.

{Me at age 17}

I even remember the dates I wore it. August 11, 2001 to August, 11, 2004.

That may be on the tombstone for my hijab. LoL.

I would often advocate for the hijab, sometimes in ways that would come off as imposition, unfortunately. I would eventually hate myself for that, because I didn’t know what I was saying, and what I was saying or doing among my peers was not at all what was truly in my heart, now and even at that time.

Coincidentally, as you can see, I started wearing hijab about 30 days before 9/11.

I wore the hijab while playing varsity soccer and varsity tennis in high school, in a small town in WI, where I grew up, which was largely a homogeneous Caucasian-American population. I was a forward and a striker in soccer. I still remember how I maneuvered the scarf on my head while I played. I remember wearing bandannas, my neck would show, but all my hair would be covered. I still have those bandannas, the colors of my high school, green and yellow.  A friend on my tennis team gave them to me as a gift.

I also recall when my scarf, because of the way I wrapped it, became loose during a soccer game. I had to be benched to put it back on, and wasn’t asked to go back into the game. I remember I was laughed at by certain people in the stadium and on my soccer team, when it happened. And I remember the backlash and some harmful comments I received. I also remember the times I was bullied and pushed against my locker at my school, and I simply had no words for that, to anyone really, because bullying was not a part of our vocabulary at that time, at least for me, or at our school, and it is often difficult to speak when you are the one being bullied at times, especially when you are not completely certain on the why. But most of all, and most painful, I remember too well, the silence of my friends and classmates at critical times.

But I have to give credit to all the support I received during that time as well. Post 9/11 I was asked by some of my teachers to speak at an all-day long seminar alongside another Muslim student and childhood friend, to students at the high school, about Islam, my hijab, and beating the backlash. It was a really important discussion at that time, as it remains now. …I was also featured in the school newspaper for choosing to wear the hijab. I was the only person in my entire high school wearing the head cover. My picture was there, and it was a nice article from what I remember. I will try to find it sometime and post it here.

Beyond that, friends and classmates would support me. And I was a young activist, as the high school’s President of Amnesty International, and involved with various other extra-curricular activities. They would tell me I was brave for wearing it. A person who used to bully me in middle school and didn’t say one word to me all four years of high school, came up to me and told me, “I read the article in the paper. You are so brave and courageous.”

I did not see it as bravery at all at that time and with retrospect, not so much now either. Because the reason why I chose to wear the hijab was not connected to bravery among societal pressures. I think we have to be careful when we say something like this is brave, because it can come off as suggesting that those who choose not to wear the head cover, are not brave. And that is simply not true. Everyone has unique challenges and I have had just as many challenges with my identity while not wearing the head cover, as I have had while wearing it. So I did not see it as bravery. This was my act of devotion to God, purely. I had no anticipation of what was to come later. I had no idea that in just 30 days, 9/11 was going to shake the world, and that my head cover (my simple and personal act of devotion to God) would eventually turn into a responsibility I and many other Muslim women (covered or uncovered) would bear on our shoulders to prove that Muslims are good people, and for me, at 17 years old.

I didn’t realize the effect this type of “responsibility” would have on me and what it continues to have on me to this day.

I share this part of me, just in a nutshell. Something I will expand perhaps in later pieces, as well as in my forthcoming creative work.

So, let’s take a step back. How did I make the decision to wear the hijab? With sincerity, I always wanted to wear the hijab, since even before my early teens. And my connection to hijab came from my immense and natural desire to do everything possible in full devotion to God. It felt very natural and internal. Nothing too much in my environment influenced the actual decision to wear it. Our religious teachings did not incorporate the daily practice of hijab. It was only in prayer and when we would enter a mosque or when we heard the recitation of the Quran. I did know of a few aunties in the community who practiced it, but my understanding came about it mostly through reading, some Islamic videos of women wearing it, and just wanting to do everything possible for the faith, assuming hijab was a huge part. I did not live in a Muslim community where it was practiced very often. It was a very small Muslim community at that time. There were absolutely no teenagers or young adults wearing hijab. Also, it was not something that was practiced in my immediate or extended family from what I knew at that time. Additionally, my love for Islam grew stronger, with the growing recognition of how important “service” and human rights was in Islam, which I briefly address further in this blog piece.

I still have my license from Wisconsin, with me wearing the head cover around that time.

I carry it in my wallet, as that part will always remain with me. I sometimes find myself bringing it out to show people when our conversation gets a little interesting in that direction, to simply share a part of my past.

Here, I am standing at the Moorish palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, in Summer 2001, one month before I started wearing the hijab. Spain was an amazing experience for me both in terms of learning the language and experiencing Spanish culture. I studied Spanish with my classmates at the University of Salamanca, and we would travel to numerous cities around Spain. The Alhambra was my favorite experience. As you may know, the Alhambra, as a Moorish palace, had Quranic writing on the walls, and places of worship for Muslims. We were taught as young girls, when entering a mosque, to cover our head out of respect for the “House of God” even if we were not praying. So as I wrapped the shall around my head, in the traditional Pakistani/South Asian way, placing it around me and over my head and tucking one end underneath my chin, I noticed many of my classmates watching me in silence and with curiosity. I will never forget what that silence from everyone meant for me. It meant respect for a holy place for Muslims as well as the respect for me as they watched me wrap the shall around me. I still have that particular shall, and I still use that shall to pray. That day was both simultaneously and spontaneously a test for what I was planning to do, to see how I would feel with a hijab on among my friends and classmates in Spain. And it was really this moment, after experiencing that day, and feeling that superb connection to a higher force so strongly in the beautiful Moorish palace of Alhambra, that I told myself that I can do this, I am wearing hijab, starting my senior year of high school.

During high school, as I noted, I had positive and negative experiences with the hijab. One positive experience happened while being selected for the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense, Intelligence and Diplomacy in Feb 2002, a week long trip to Washington, DC. It was my first experience in DC and a dream come true. I knew after that trip that I would want to live, work, study in DC, and for the past 7 years I had been living my dream.  I remember in the week-long White House simulation activity, I was voted to be Vice President, surprisingly. So perhaps I was the first Hijabi Muslim Vice President of the United States! I have great memories from that experience. In this photo above you find me as one of the four selected for the traditional wreath laying ceremony to honor the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery. Four essays out of 76 that entered the contest were selected. I remember my name being called as one of the winners, I never win anything, and this was pretty incredible. My essay talked about what citizenship means to me as a Muslim American, explaining this in the context of what we experienced in 9/11, just a few months before this event. I have been trying to locate that essay, as it would be interesting to review what I wrote and understand how my conception of American citizenship was at that time and how it has developed now. Regardless, it was a very moving moment, and given the backlash Muslims were facing, I was honored to take part and represent.

{Photo missing}

Here I am speaking on International Human Rights Day in my sophomore year in college, 2003. I helped coordinate this joint event among the human rights community in the area. On that day, I shared a poem I wrote in high school, while doing work for Amnesty International, to close the event. You can find the poem, “Strengthen me” here. In my first year of college, wanting to bring together my passion for Islam and my passion for human rights, I founded a student organization led by Muslims, with the goal to promulgate the “Islamic Declaration of Human Rights” as equivalent to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The organization was intended to be a response to the backlash that Muslims faced during 9/11. It was not meant to be an organization that focused on only Muslim human rights, or human rights violations within the “Muslim World;” it was an organization that would actively work like an Amnesty International in a sense, and demonstrate that Muslims care about human rights, and Islam is a religion that elevates human rights for all of humanity. I will not go into too much detail here about the different politics that came about in the Muslim community, but in a nutshell, the organization eventually dissolved.

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{Picture above shows the cover page of the MSHRC handbook, with the photo of a tree we planted at an Islamic Center in the community that was to commemorate the organization alongside the growth of a cultural center at our university. It was soon cut down in less than a year.}

So how was all this connected to the head cover. It was for me at that time. Islam was a holistic experience for me, as I was taught and as some Muslims practice. One of my favorite quotes at that time, from Hamza Yusuf, something I plastered on my wall of my apartment in college, speaks to what Islam was for me and how everything I did was shaped by my devotion to Islam:

“Remember who you are. Be people who stand up for strength. We live Islam. Talk Islam. Walk Islam. Breathe Islam, Sleep Islam, Die Islam.”

And I attempted to apply that to every aspect of my life and purpose for many years. It still remains a powerful quote to me.

And with all that was going on, I was setting myself on a path to become a Muslim American woman leader, a voice of Islam, and starting at a young age. One of my goals was to become a scholar of or produce scholarship around the topic of “Islam and Human Rights.”

But there were too many “voices of opposition” against me, too many people wanted to see me fail (or gave me the impression) and I allowed that to deeply impact me. I did not have any mentors or perhaps the “right” mentors. I had too few followers for the movement I was trying to contribute to, didn’t have the kind of tools we have available today, and I wasn’t strong enough to face the “opposition” alone, nor did I have the following and support to really keep moving in this direction. I would eventually find out later, when moving to the East coast, that I was simply in the wrong place and wrong time to be and develop a voice. I wholeheartedly believe, in some things, it is all a matter of geography.

I was also very anxious and depressed and it started to be transparent in my leadership. My chronic anxiety and depression was emerging even stronger. And I didn’t fully understand it at that time. And because I couldn’t understand what was happening to me, I couldn’t get others to understand me either. And of course, at that time, we as the Ummah (and general public), dare not talk about mental illness, we as the Ummah (and general public), dare not help anyone showing signs of mental illness, dare not learn what those signs are to be compassionate and understanding, we as the Ummah (and the general public) overall, dare not believe that someone with mental illness can emerge as positively influential and as someone who can make significant positive contributions to society.

I am determined to prove this “stigma” wrong. Not only from a personal level, but also by highlighting the many past and current leaders who have struggled or are struggling with mental illnesses, which we often forget or dismiss.

But despite that, amid my own confusion, I wasn’t really sure this was the person I wanted to be. I didn’t feel I was becoming a citizen of the world, rather I felt at that time, I was isolating myself to one community of that world.

This absolutely doesn’t mean that Hijabi Muslim Women activists do that, and that there is anything wrong with isolation in one community. That was only what I personally felt was happening to me, what I was doing to myself. And I didn’t like what I was doing to myself. I didn’t like the direction I was heading. It was not what I wanted.

………

The point of this article is to show that the head cover was a big part of my history, and even though I don’t wear it on a permanent basis, it remains something special and important to me. I was passionate and remain passionate about many things. Islam was one of them. And this included the head cover, for some time.

So what changed? So many things changed. And that happens. I can understand if the ultimate assessment or conclusion from all this is that I was a pansy, that I couldn’t stick to my ground. But the truth is, I didn’t fully know what ground that was as a teenager. And, frankly, it’s college.

Another hard truth was I was heartbroken and nearly in paralysis…as I mentioned I had no following in the community …zero support…zero friends…and admittedly did not have the charisma or the sufficient leadership skills, despite my passion and efforts, to make the influence necessary and touch the masses for the movement I was hoping to create and contribute to, or so I made myself believe this…But that can be discussed another time.

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I lost friends when I started wearing the head cover in high school. And, I lost friends when I decided to take the head cover off in college.

All I know is that it was much harder to take off the hijab than it was when I first put it on.

I didn’t only lose friends when that happened, I was marginalized, scrutinized and ostracized in a Muslim community, a community that was supposed to be my “refuge,” as a student from a different state.

Some sisters would send me emails and come up to me in person with subtly harsh comments:

“You always looked so beautiful with the head cover!”…

“Do you realize you are going to hell when you took it off?” …

“Every day you are not wearing it, is a day you will suffer in hell!” …

“Your hair will turn into snakes in the afterlife!” This was my favorite.

But I think what was most difficult for me to accept, was when my intelligence was questioned. And from Brothers.

Brothers would come up to me, “educate me,” and “advise me” to read more about women in Islam and the role of women in Islam.  And this took place without their knowledge that I actually spent those three years while wearing hijab and even three years or so before putting on the hijab, reading about women and Islam and hijab, etc, in whatever book I could find laying around, (and the limited resources and research skills I had from the internet), and also speaking to my Mom about it since before starting freshman year of high school.

Those brothers and sisters, and I do wish them well, assumed I took the head cover off due to ignorance. That was far from it.

It was as if, as soon as I removed the cover from my head, I stripped away all the intelligence and knowledge I built about women in Islam and Islam in general, instantly. The level of knowledge I had and have about Islam in general had absolutely nothing to do with my choice to remove my head cover.  A Muslim community, especially in college, was supposed to serve as sort of a “refuge,” especially for out-of-state students. Instead of being there for a Muslimah, especially when she’s struggling, you ostracize her. Communities criticize and scrutinize young people for “going astray,” but think about what a welcoming attitude, towards someone who thinks differently than you, can do for that person and for your community. There is no blame here for anything, and again it was college where most people don’t have their priorities straight, where most people are still figuring themselves out, and it was more than a decade ago, and I take full responsibility for my choices and actions.

But in retrospect, it is important to think about the collective reality of our communities, and the reality is that we cannot expect people of other faiths to treat us well, if we do not treat our own with respect. I am not going into much detail. But the first three years of my time in college, from trying to be a voice in the Muslim community and up until after removing my cover, was the most difficult experience I had in a Muslim community, at that time and perhaps to this day. And I didn’t understand it and didn’t know what to make of it at that time. Unfortunately, I slowly allowed this harmful experience to destroy my trust on the Ummah, I once had. It would eventually take me a very very long time to trust a “community” of Muslims again, and to be able to separate the religion from the people.

So I explored other religions, I stayed away, I really thought I was a goner from the faith. I called myself a “universalist” for many years, and still feel connected to that principal. But all these years, Islam was always there in my heart. Something inside me was fighting it, but my love for my original faith would never dissipate. And naturally I had come back to it various times on a roller coaster of a ride on faith…and now in search for moderation.

I was running away as fast as possible, but it was as if the Quran was chasing after me. When my forehead would touch the carpet at a mosque during sagdah (prostration during prayer), my eyes would swell up with tears, as I would pray “God, please come into my heart.” “Oh Allah, I love you, I miss you, and I need you, please come into my heart.” And it took a lot of training, personal reflection, experiences, conversations with God, to be where I am right now with my faith, still with progressive values, and following in moderation. It took a lot for me to unfortunately have to remove the notion of “jamaah” which did not suit who I was, as I never would feel fully welcome in Muslim communities, to be at the point where I am with my faith. I really believe balance is key. And I am still working on it.

It was a mistake of my own, to somehow unintentionally equate a handful of people, a small community of Muslims that ostracized me, to my perception of the religion. But it was a much needed hard lesson learned with time, and I am grateful for that lesson. The people are not the religion. This is obviously not in the same league as labeling all Muslims as extremists or terrorists, something that came about in the vernacular of bigots in America after 9/11. But this experience, with much reflection, allowed me to get some understanding from the other perspective (regardless of how absurd that perspective is) about how difficult it can be to separate people from the religion, especially when something traumatic happens to you when engaging with a specific community of people. In a sense, I was potentially “othering” the Ummah based on my experience. And it took some time to understand what I was doing. It wasn’t until I had a conversation about Muslim community dynamics, with one of my brothers who borrowed one of my favorite books, “Orientalism” by Edward Said. And in that conversation, after explaining to him what I felt “orientalism” meant, he asked me, isn’t that what you are perceiving about Muslim communities? Although, I don’t think my perceptions were as far-fetched, in some ways he was right. His point hit me hard and made me reflect on that for a long time. Even if I don’t still feel completely connected with a specific Muslim community, recognizing this was helpful for me to not be afraid to try over and over again to engage with Muslim communities, even as I would have some similar experiences, yet in a smaller scale, time and time again.

Regardless, my love for the Ummah as a whole remains, and even when the love is not reciprocal, I still feel it, because my spirituality and the love for God has become so strong, that the love for the Ummah (and humanity in general) has become unconditional, no matter if it is not returned.

All my experiences, most of which are not articulated in this lengthy blog post, in my perspective, are not identified as “mistakes,” and I do not regret any of it, as it enriched my world perspective and made me a much better person. And I will eternally be grateful to everyone who contributed to the adversity I faced, recognizing my own falsities as well. This is how many of us learn and grow.

I should note my intention is not to give “Muslim communities” a bad name. This was just my experience. An experience of just one young woman. But I have a strong feeling I am not the only one who has this type of experience among our communities everywhere in America and elsewhere around the world. Which is partly why I am sharing this. And this type of experience perhaps extends beyond just the Muslim community.

Other people had a beautiful experience in this community and I will never take that away from them. But just like for them, my history and experience should not be dismissed either, because everyone’s experience and challenges matter. I also realize it is a time when Muslims are being attacked in our own country. And my intention is not to attack my own community, and write off my brothers and sisters, who I will always have immense love for, no matter how I am perceived with my values. But I have always been about self-awareness and introspection, and it is how I evaluate things. And I have always been critical of our own community, because we really don’t have enough self-awareness as a collective whole and need to first work on this as individuals and as leaders.

Most importantly, I believe if Muslims are unable to have these types of discussions on uncomfortable topics in their communities, be it the hijab or mental health, or gay rights, some of the progressive issues, and also understand themselves and work on their own internal strife, and ultimately embrace our own diversity, we will never get the world around us to understand us….to embrace our intersections... We cannot have such an expectation from the world, when we are not doing this enough in our own communities. Continue to educate, but don’t forget the need to be self-reflexive, to improve the dynamics within your own community.

And if “Jamaah”, the notion of “community,” is such a critical notion within Islam, than Muslim communities should actively engage and welcome diversity and dialogue, not discourage it. This is a double standard. I will note, things have changed drastically the past 13-16 years, and uniting against Islamophobia may have actually brought the community together in so many ways over the years, and some communities have grown and become better in welcoming diversity. But a lot more needs to be done. And I think hearing a story from the margins of the Muslim American experience can be helpful.

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I don’t consider myself weak or any less “brave” for removing my head cover. In fact, I believe I exhibited some strength when I wore the head cover and also when I took it off. Facing scrutiny in both communities, (from people of other faiths, and from Muslims), both very challenging times, however, as I mentioned, more challenging among Muslims, as it was scrutiny from my own community.

Eventually some other sisters would take off their covers as well. One sister thanked me later for making it “easier” for her, for removing her head cover, given all the challenges I faced in that community.

One thing that led me towards the gradual permanent removal of the head cover from my daily observance, at the risk of being perceived as a “hypocrite,” was recognition of what this immense devotion was doing to me, and my goals to serve humanity, and its connection to my state of depression. Taking it off was only supposed to be a temporary thing to understand and try to rediscover myself. People who knew that about me would often ask, “So when will you be putting it back on?”

The thing is, I would. And I did this as part of a yearly experiment, since I took off my head cover. It first began as an experiment to see if I can keep it on long term once again, but eventually it became a temporary thing, and over time it became an actual social experiment. Whether this experiment is valid, as a scholarly ethnographic venture, I don’t know. I would hope this would eventually lead to a sociological/anthropological account of my experiences when observing the hijab and when removing it. I would make observations about myself psychologically and emotionally, as well as noting reactions and observations from the environment around me, whether it would be at a mosque or at school, work, a bar, an event, a museum, the airport, a walk around the neighborhood, a concert, a think tank event, etc. …

One interesting observation, going back to the “hoodie” concept, is when I walked into a classroom (during one of the many years of being in graduate school), and making eye contact with one girl as I entered. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and once she saw me enter the room and noticed I had a head cover on my head, she immediately removed the “hoodie” from her head, as if to have no association with me or that concept of a cover on the head. It was quite the enlightening moment for me. A reminder that bigotry can be subtle and can be exhibited in various forms, even in our body language.

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{Here, I am fulfilling my duty as an American citizen, and at the same time conducting my yearly “social experiment” of wearing hijab, something I was doing alongside an ethnographic assignment for one of my graduate courses at the anthropology department. I was wearing the head cover for about a month, and during the primaries in March, for the 2016 election. And it was certainly a proud moment voting for the one and only Bernie Sanders!}

Unfortunately, and this is really unfortunate, I lost much of my notes over the years, and sometimes I would not write things down. And it may not be an academic paper due to the inconsistency in notes and observations, but rather for my other creative pursuits.

Most importantly, from this experiment, of 13 years, I have been able to come to terms with my decisions, and understand my own impression of the head cover, what it means to me, and what it can mean to others.

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In recent years, I was introduced to the amazing literature on “Intersectionality,” something that many feminists of all backgrounds have ignored and continue to ignore perhaps unintentionally. Intersectionality provides an interesting perspective, in speaking to feminism with respect to the various intersections of a man or woman’s identity. Gender and the gendered experience is analyzed in terms of each aspect of one’s identity. For example, looking at my identity as a whole: I am a Pakistani-Indian-American-Muslim-Woman- ____. I leave a blank here for another identity intersection that is mentioned in the literature and I would consider personally adding here: disability. However, at the same time, I don’t think it should define someone, but there are elements of a physical or mental disability that coincides with identification. The crux of this concept is embedded in most of my blog posts about mental illness now and in future posts, but I have another blog article in the making that will discuss how mental disabilities can be used to our advantage generally as well. So it is certainly not definitive, but it serves as an important part of a person’s daily life and existence.

From these intersections, each part impacts the other, and therefore the whole. You are the sum of all your parts. And in a sense, it fuels your worldview, and it contributes to understanding disadvantages in society, oppression, disenfranchisement, and more.

I am grateful and proud of each intersection, but it is a challenging dynamic many people face. I do believe each element of my identity has influenced my choices in my life, alongside the strong spiritual connection I alluded to earlier, and including the choice to wear and not wear the head cover.

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As an intersectional feminist, my conclusion, and message, in all of this, for my sisters, after these sweet 16 years from when I first put on the hijab…

(And I do recognize this may not play well to certain audiences):

If you decide to wear the hijab, GREAT.

If you decide to keep it on, GREAT.

If you decide to take it off, GREAT.

I still feel like a queen when I place a scarf on top of my head. Every single time for prayer, for entering a mosque, for my sociological/anthropological experiment, whatever reason it may be. I still feel there is a crown on my head. I feel there is beauty whether I am covered or uncovered.

Because at the same time, I feel there is a crown on my head even without that material reality of a cloth enveloping my head. The head cover was never something that made me Muslim. It was a material reality that manifested the immaterial within me. But please note, that is just ME. That is just what works for ME.

And after 16 years, since that day when I decided to wrap the cloth around my head and head out that door, I can say now that I absolutely believe you can feel both. I will always have with me, the “beauty,” and “courage” of both worlds, among my various intersections. I am so grateful to have this important worldview and to have nurtured it consistently.

I think as an Ummah, it is important that the community does not feed the “wrong” reality to the world, by unintentionally implying that the identity of a Muslim woman is a woman that is veiled. This is simply inaccurate. And mainstream media does not help either. But it is the image we see more often in mainstream media now whenever Muslim women are referenced.  But that does not speak to the diversity of the faith, and the diversity of Muslim women in general. It is not fair to all Muslim Women.

I think it’s important to change that narrative of diversity in Islam and Muslim women and it is gradually changing.  And more so perhaps, from “within.” Just like the diversity of the religion Islam, we must remember the diverse faces of the women who follow this faith…and it’s not as black and white as some “cover” and some “don’t cover.” I understand that some may disagree, but these physical attributes are not the important things that makes any woman…”Muslim” or “non-Muslim”.

One of the most fascinating things I would notice in my social experiment over the years is the confusion among the reactions of those who knew me, especially in the academic environment, when I would put the scarf on and then after a while, remove it. Sure it can be incredibly confusing! But there is an insight to “confusion” that can lead to pretty fascinating and interesting conclusions, and we should use that to our advantage. Artists can thrive in that confusion to create masterful pieces that can potentially enlighten others. I know from this experiment, I created an identity for myself, and I created the ability and strength to be at peace with the concept of CHOICE.  To take the scarf I have around my neck at any moment, and place it over my head for whatever reason I want, but not necessarily to commit. Because the commitment is not there because of a scarf, the commitment or whatever relationship I have with God is within me, in my heart, in my soul, in my body, and my mind. And again, I do recognize, this is just me, my lens. And for some it may not be a concept easy to grasp, because we get comfortable with certain dichotomies.

My hope with sharing this post is not only to share just a scratch of my story but also, to learn that I am not alone in this type of struggle, this type of “crisis-in-identity,” which is actually more common than we may know, and that there is absolutely nothing abnormal or shameful about it. I hope also that it imparts an important message to sisters and people among all faiths.

The point here is that YOU, my beautiful sister, are the one to decide on WHO YOU ARE and who you want to be.

No one else. Not your high school friend group, Not your college friend group. Not your lovers. Not your parents, Not your Mosque home-girls. No one, but YOU. And whatever reasons that compel you to wear the hijab on a daily basis, (whether it be connecting to a higher force, or connected to issues with identity and belonging)…it is okay.

There are no right reasons, There are no wrong reasons.

My message is even this: although I do not think a cloth should define one’s faith, it is okay if it defines you, and it is okay if it doesn’t define you. You decide what defines you.

As indicative in the title of this post, “to hijab or not to hijab,” adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “to be or not to be,” (where the character actually contemplates the end of existence), we are constantly faced with interesting choices of what kind of person we want to be. Contemplation to take off my head cover, was something connected to my state of mind. And perhaps for many years there was confusion around it, which was new to me, as I always wanted to wear it. But, ultimately, it was a good decision for me. However, this dichotomy of “hijab or no hijab” is another false dichotomy, and a false narrative to pass onto the next generation of young Muslim girls. It doesn’t have to be hijab or no hijab. It doesn’t have to follow this dichotomy. A person is always changing, always evolving, hopefully for the better, within. And it is important to remember, that the cloth is a material reality which can easily slide off our heads if the wind blows hard enough (something that has happened to me one too many times), but there are other aspects of one’s existence and identity that will not change.

As I noted earlier in this piece, the choice of wearing the head cover has always been a point of contention in Muslim communities. I have read different interpretations on the proper standards in Islam. I follow one very important understanding as a Muslimah, adapted from Surah 2:256 Al Baqarah, a well-known verse in the Quran: “There is no compulsion in Religion.”

It is clear to me now more than ever, that I made one of the best decisions of my life to put on the hijab, and at an unexpected time, at a crossroad for Muslims facing backlash from 9/11. I will never forget that feeling. And I made the best decision for me, which I didn’t know was a good decision at that time, to take off the hijab.

Both decisions have enriched me as a person, as a lover of God, and a lover of humanity,

And has given me great perspective on life in general, a great worldview.

God is the only one who knows what is truly in my heart.

But please just remember, YOU do YOU. Always do what is best for you.

And this may not go without saying for many, so I will say it:

Don’t care about what people around you will think of you for your decisions, especially on the hijab.

DON’T WORRY YOURSELF ILL OVER “WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY.

Unfortunately, this “what will people think” attitude is too embedded in the mind-set of South Asian communities, Muslim communities, in general, and too often associated with a woman’s honor and her family honor. It’s a sad reality. But stay strong for what works for you. And most importantly, what will not negatively impact your mental, emotional, and physical health.

I am here to support you on whatever decisions you make, as long as it is something that will bring you joy and peace in heart and mind.

To put it simplistically, that JOY and PEACE was all I was seeking when I put it on, and all I was seeking when I took it off.

Although I don’t wear that beautiful material crown on my head anymore on a permanent basis, I am still a Queen. Indeed, a self-proclaimed Warrior KQueen, as you can see if you have read other pieces on my blog.

Because no matter all the adversity I have faced in my life, I am still standing. And you are too. And no matter what, you will still be a queen, a Warrior Queen, whatever you decide to do.

With peace and blessings, and warm salaams, your Warrior KQueen, Elsa

4 thoughts on “To Hijab or not to Hijab?: A “Marginal” Perspective from One Muslim American Woman

  1. Avatar Yasmina says:

    Very nice piece of work Elsa. In fact, I’m one of the people that you shocked when you took off your hijab; however I never connected it to your level of religious beliefs. I’ve always thought you’re a great admirable person and still do.

    • Yasmina, thank you so much for taking time to read this piece. I understand it can be shocking, especially when someone shows a certain amount of passion for something. I am glad to know it never phased you in terms of its connection to my faith. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words.

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