What are Muslim American women concerned about today? When I polled my Muslim girl friends, they unanimously voiced their interest in better understanding why an increasing number of their peers are choosing to take off the hijab (here defined as head scarf). As a hijabi for twelve years, I relate to the rewards and challenges of wearing hijab but have no specific answers as to what drives this decision. So I sought to seek a few, through four women I interviewed, who were gracious enough to discuss why they made this decision and how it affected their lives. We continue our interviews here in Part II.
When Heba first started wearing hijab in college, she loved it. “When I went outside, everyone knew I was Muslim. I was really excited about that. It also kept me in line. I might have been tempted to do certain things [if I didn’t wear it].”
After several years, she gradually grew less excited about putting on hijab before she stepped out the door. Heba realized she no longer wanted “to do something I’m unhappy with.” She wanted to be “excited about her religion, otherwise you’ll look down on what you’re doing.” Though she felt beautiful wearing hijab, Heba sometimes felt “androgynous. Femininity comes from your hair and I didn’t feel like a woman” wearing hijab.
Ironically, the sharpest criticism came not when Heba removed her hijab, but while she wore it. As a hijabi, Heba felt subjected to a stricter dress code. Always interested in fashion, she experimented with different scarf styles but was taken aback by the disapproval she received. “I didn’t like the reaction from the Muslim community. People would tell me ‘You’re not a real hijabi. Why do you even pretend?’ I didn’t feel like I had any support.”
Heba was also subjected to double standards. Her community labeled her as a “bad girl” because she wore three-quarter sleeves and left her neck exposed. “If I hadn’t covered my hair, I would have been a good girl who just didn’t wear hijab.” Muslim men especially did not know how to react to her, because she didn’t fit neatly into labels of what they thought a hijabi should be.
Heba continues to wear hijab at Muslim conferences, though she gets confused looks. “I wish it were more fluid. Why can’t we sometimes wear hijab and sometimes not? People want their boxes so they can check them off to define you.”
For women seeking advice, Heba wants “nothing organized but it’d be nice to have women to talk to. Everyone who [takes off the hijab] just shows up not wearing a scarf. Everyone struggles with it in their own way and they don’t talk about it.” She also thinks “You should have that period where you take it [hijab] off [for a little while before doing it permanently]. That way you can decide if this is something you actually want to do.”
Heba is content with her decision to remove the hijab but she believes that she will return to the practice at some point in her life. “… when I’m much older I want to do it. It’s really important to me and it spiritually has a high place in my life.”
This concludes my conversations with these four women. I’d like to thank these women who were so candid with me. When I spoke with them, I was struck by how intelligent, thoughtful, and committed they were to sharing their experiences. Furthermore, I recognized that their emphasis on modesty and growing their faith had not necessarily changed with the removal of hijab. I also realized that some of them still struggle with their decision.
In speaking with these four women, Safia hit upon something very important. In the end, turning to Allah for guidance is your lifeboat in this tumultuous world. He is not here to judge but rather to push you to be the most spiritual person, with the utmost of good intentions and integrity that you can possibly be. Some will interpret this as wearing hijab throughout their life, even if they have occasional thoughts of removing it. Others may choose to remove it but will carry themselves with grace. For a woman who is contemplating this choice, know that you will one day meet Allah, separated from your community and family, having lived your life of choices. Allah will extend his love to you, hoping that you in return, extend it back, in the way He intended.
In his time, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would pray “O Allah, beautify the Muslim ummah with the adornment of faith, and make us (among those) who are rightly guided.” May your adornment of faith be one you are proud to run to Allah with.
I ask that Allah forgive me for any mistakes I made while researching and writing this, and pray that you read this with a clear judgment.
Mahin Ibrahim works for a technology company. She is interested in gender issues as well as the acculturation of Muslims in America. In her spare time, she likes to make films, which is a passion she would like to pursue full-time. She lives in Santa Clara, CA.
(Photo Credit: Francisco Guerrero)