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)