Why I chose to take off my hijab: Four women speak

Noorain Khan committed to wearing the hijab when she was 8. She took it off when she was 20.

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 speak with a few, through four women I interviewed, who were gracious enough to discuss why they made this decision and how it affected their lives.

These four women wore hijab for nine years on average. Out of the four, one woman believes wearing hijab is obligatory, another woman does not, and two remain unsure; seeing validity in both sides. All four women chose to wear hijab on their own in their early teens or in college. Most chose to remove their hijab in stages, first not wearing it in front of strangers during a quick trip to the grocery store, then at work, and finally at all times. This process often took years.

The women I interviewed are not intended to represent all Muslim women who take off their hijab. Rather, they stand individually as personal narratives, providing more depth than width into this topic. All names have been changed. The aim of this article is not to denounce or endorse these women’s decisions but to better understand their experiences.



The aftermath of September 11, 2001 was one factor that influenced Safia’s decision to stop wearing hijab. “It really affected me. I felt scared as a Muslim woman. I was disappointed in what people allegedly did in the name of Islam. [They are taking] something so beautiful and are destroying it.” She adds “It was very painful to wear something on your head that in some way gave you some sort of relationship with these criminals, with these terrorists.”

As reports of hate crimes escalated, affecting Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs by the thousands, Safia’s defenses crumbled. “I had to explain Islam all the time [to strangers. In the end], I wanted to walk on the street and just be Safia…I remember going to all these conferences where they would say ‘Muslim women represent Islam’ and I felt like I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”

Even before September 11th, Safia began to have doubts about wearing hijab. After wearing it for over a decade and being very conservative with her dress code, even wearing leather socks at times, she craved change. “A woman in her teens and 20’s, that’s her prime, to be beautiful and to be young. You never get that back. I really wanted to take advantage of that. I really wanted to be a beautiful woman and see what that felt like.”

I asked her if she feels more beautiful now that she doesn’t wear the hijab. “Not necessarily.” Her answer didn’t surprise me. Many women have come to realize that it is not hijab that is a barrier to physical beauty, but rather having the confidence to feel beautiful no matter what you look like.

For Safia, taking off hijab was a process that took years, especially because she was so active in the Muslim community. As she experimented with not wearing it, she felt she was “living a double life” when she wore hijab in front of Muslims but not in front of non-Muslims. During that time, a question from a friend still haunts her: “Are you sure you want to do this [remove the hijab]?” she asked. “You don’t want to displease Allah.”

One of the most important lessons Safia learned after she removed the hijab was to stop making assumptions. “When I wore hijab, I saw myself as almost a little bit arrogant. I was judgmental. I would put myself on a different level than Muslim women who didn’t wear hijab. I almost felt like I was better than them.”

She adds “One day in college, I saw this one woman wearing a very short skirt, and I felt like I had the duty to tell her ‘you should have more respect for yourself.’ In retrospect, that is so arrogant. How do I know her relationship with God? [Now I understand], I have no right to judge anyone.”

For now, Safia is comfortable living life without her hijab but says “I could still see myself putting hijab back on [in the future].”

She advises those in her predicament to turn to Allah. “Really sit with Him and make dua to Him because that is the strongest relationship you have. Allah is so kind; kinder to you than even your own mother. He will never judge you. He will give you the guidance that you need.”



Zaynab started to wear hijab in her teens as an external source of strength and a way to cement her faith. While she found comfort in wearing hijab, she chose to remove it because she no longer felt a need for it. “[The hijab] lost its significance to me and had become a habit. At some point I realized I had become comfortable in my own skin and my own thoughts. The hijab helped me get there, but wasn’t reinforcing anything within me any longer.”

The decision to stop wearing hijab felt natural for Zaynab. Dealing with her community’s reaction, however, was far more challenging. “I live in a rather large and suffocating community, so the idea of the gossip . . . scared me.” Rather than have people talk about her behind her back, Zaynab would have preferred that people directly approach her to politely ask why she removed the hijab.

Advice Zaynab gives to others is to learn from the stories of Muslim women facing a similar situation. “We always hear about how good it is to wear it, but I consider it a living entity in some way – the hijab grows and develops with the person. Reading or hearing stories and advice from other women, or just talking openly to someone without judgment, that’s always been the greatest help for me.”



Munazah removed her hijab due to extraordinary circumstances. A normal trip to the doctor turned into anything but after the doctor found pre-cancerous cells on her head, which were worsened with constant irritation on that area from the hijab. She had surgery immediately. After her surgery, Munazah was forbidden to wear hijab, hats or anything that stayed constantly on her head, or the cancer could come back. When she first received the diagnosis, Munazah felt paralyzed. “Hijab gives you cancer. It sounds so ridiculous; [I felt] no one outside of the medical community would understand.” But she went to four doctors: two Muslims and two non-Muslims. All gave the same diagnosis, and Munazah was forced to stop wearing hijab ever since.

Munazah’s first thought when she heard the news was not for her own safety but the Muslim community’s reaction. After she removed the hijab, people who didn’t know about her surgery or didn’t believe her called her “weak, faithless and a bad Muslim.” As a result of the backlash, she distanced herself, asking “Why should I be a part of a community that only brings me pain?” The condemnation became so severe that her mother asked her to wear hijab again. Bewildered, Munazah replied “You’re going to choose this over my health?”

As more people understand her unique health situation, she’s begun to receive requests for advice. “I’ve had people come up to me who want to take off their scarf and I didn’t want to push them in one direction or another but they had already made up their mind and were scared. They just want to know if you can survive it.”

When asked if she would ever resume wearing hijab, assuming her health permitted it, Munazah replies with a firm “I would.” Munazah recalls how hijab formed her identity at its most crucial time. “Most of my character development and maturity occurred with my hijab on.” She loved how she felt she could “change one mind without even trying” as a hijabi who was also a political activist and very involved in community issues. She felt her very existence dispelled the stereotype of a meek Muslim woman.

When she removed it, she was initially worried “is my faith going to be affected by this?” Now that she no longer wears hijab, Munazah finds herself struggling: “What is my daily purpose? All I do is study or work. It results in some very depressing days.”

Read the rest of the interviews in Part II of this series.


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: John Poole/NPR on unveiling)


  • mara says:

    I would love to someday see an article on hijab (here defined as head scarf) that actually defined and discussed it as *entire state of being*.  Without that, the head scarf is just a piece of fabric and whether or not one chooses to wear it is irrelevant.

  • tlen says:

    As far as I know the hijab, the burqa and any other complete body covering is not mandated by the Quran. Instead it is dictated by Muslim men(govt) and why do men get to dictate how women should dress? Mot girls are brainwashed by the culture they are born into and basically go along to get along. ONly when Muslim women start standing up for themselves and their rights will they have true freedom. Muslim women need an equivalent of the American Civil Rights movement in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia were women can’t drive or even leave the house without a male familial escort.

  • OmarG says:

    I think the hijab has become an identity fetish. I fail to see what’s so intrinsically important about a piece of cloth on women’s heads. That said, women can wear it or not and it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

    However, American society’s influence will be felt in the form of a decreased emphasis on fetishes that make us stand out like sore thumbs from the rest of the mainstream population. Hijab, like goth dress, will and probably already is, relegated to marginalized sub-cultures who defend their identity fetishes with unmatched, and equally illogical, zeal.

  • muqarnas says:

    mara – sorry i misunderstood your comment then.  i agree with you.  related to your point, i also find it frustrating that b/c of the hijab/not hijab binary we’ve constructed, we fail to realize that just b/c a woman takes off the literal headscarf, doesn’t mean that she is entirely without hijab, and just b/c a woman wears the literal headscarf, doesn’t mean that she is the pinnacle of modesty.  we are far more complex than this, and we need to be wary of when we ourselves fall into black-and-white thinking. 

    these women interviewed may have taken off the headscarf, but the modesty in dress and behavior that they continue to carry with them beyond that point is also a form of hijab (it would’ve been especially interesting if one of them actually made this statement herself).  we already seem to recognize this idea with respect to men’s modesty.  a common defense of hijab that Muslims use is to say that men also have a form of hijab, but it’s explained metaphorically as their requirement to lower their gaze and act modestly.  yet with women we seem to focus solely on the physical dress.

  • mara says:

    “…yet with women we seem to focus solely on the physical dress…”

    Yes, this is my point exactly.  🙂

  • muqarnas says:

    “I would love to someday see an article on hijab (here defined as head scarf) that actually defined and discussed it as *entire state of being*.  Without that, the head scarf is just a piece of fabric and whether or not one chooses to wear it is irrelevant.”

    @mara – while i can agree with the desire to see an article like that, as it would add to the diversity of viewpoints on this subject, I disagree with what you seem to be implying in the following point – that not seeing it as “an entire state of being” must therefore mean that someone sees it as nothing more than a piece of cloth.  That is a very extreme statement to make, and I believe there’s a continuum of understanding the hijab.  It’s not all-or-nothing.  Hijab can be an important part of someone’s identity and even development, as many of these women interviewed have stated, but just because it’s not EVERYTHING to them, just because they don’t load it with so much meaning that it becomes their entire identity, doesn’t mean they don’t value it greatly.  I think you are way oversimplifying the struggle these women go through, which makes your comment reek of judgment, and it is not a fair or well thought-out response to these women’s stories.

  • tlen says:

    In Western countries the hijab is used as nothing more than a political statement. It’s more about solidarity that actual piety.
    A few years ago in the United States a Muslim woman sued for the right to wear a burqu while taking a drivers license photo? That’s just ridiculous. Her intent was to negate the entire purpose of an identification card.
    The Islamic religion was being used as a way to ‘get over’ and abuse the constitutional republic system of the U.S. Nowhere in the Quran is the burqa mandated as a form of required religious dress.
    If women choose not to wear these cloths, more power to them. I’m a big believer in religion, along with sexuality being a private matter.

  • mahinu says:

    Dear tlen, thank you for your comments on this article I wrote.  From what I understand, there are two verses in the Quran that prescribe wearing hijab and a hadith related by Abu Dawood, reported by Ayesha (R)  about it as well. I know there is some debate on the interpretation of these verses and I think there???s always going to be debate on anything that???s very personal to you, the way religion should be.

  • mahinu says:

    Dear Mara and OmarG, thank you for the comments on the article i wrote. I agree with you that hijab by definition is never just about something that covers your hair, rather it is your outer and inner being – the way you dress/act/think/talk. However, one cannot ignore that hijab stands as a symbol. And symbols are very powerful. Like a cross necklace, yarmulke, or turban – items in a religious context carry a very different meaning to the media, to other communities, to law makers, to other communities, the list goes on. I think that saying hijab is just a piece of cloth is like saying a yarmulke is just a small velvet cap. The human eye in 5 seconds, looks at something and instantly classifies it based on what they were taught or what they are familiar with. So it goes with religious dress. Because of the historical and current context of hijab, I don’t think it will ever be just a piece of cloth to a Muslim or non-Muslim.

  • mara says:

    It was not my intention to diminish the stories of these women in anyway or to pass judgment as Muqarnas said as we all know that lies with Allah.  🙂  I also agree that “saying hijab is just a piece of cloth is like saying a yarmulke is just a small velvet cap”.  That statement by itself reeks of ignorance, but i said it to make a point that it goes deeper than that. It just seems frustrating at times that so often when we read about women’s experiences in Islam it’s simply hijab/not hijab on a very surface level.  Like, is that all there is to our identity as Muslim women?

  • SofiaM. says:

    I feel like this article a bit simplistic ( it’s very good still with all respect to the author). I was one of those girls who wore hijab almost for 6 years and I chose to stop. But it wasn’t because I was scared, or wanted to be more fashionable or wasn’t comfortable with it. It was due to the fact that hijab has became MORE than JUST your personal expression of spirituality. Hijab today is a very definitive borderline political symbol. You are expected to “live up” to hijab. Meaning that you are expected to become an idealized individual, who is divorced of all “sinful” “unislamic” things one might do. Now what I consider “sinful” is very different from what some people may consider “sinful”, but in the end of the day Hijab stood on the way between real ME as an individual with my peculiarities, character and even (yes!)temper and what other people (Muslim community and NON Muslims equally) EXPECT you to be. In the end of the day, your dress doesn’t mean anything. We are not going to be judged by our creator for what we dressed like. In fact when we are judged we are going to be ALONE and Naked.

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