My headscarf, my choice!

Lubna Waheed, UK
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Hijab | Image: Library

Recently, it was World Hijab Day, a day to celebrate the wearing of the headscarf by Muslim women. It made me think about how I’ve had to justify wearing my headscarf over the years. It shocks me to think of the many times I have been confronted with prejudices and assumptions about why I wear the headscarf.

I started covering my hair at a young age, even in high school, and only felt comfortable taking it off when I was around female students and teachers. It baffles me that even in today’s society, wearing a headscarf is seen as a sign of oppression or weakness. I feel that it should be enough for people to understand that this is my choice, even if religion is put aside for a moment. I have been approached with the assumption that it was under pressure from my parents that I wore the headscarf and that I had no choice in the matter. In one of the schools I attended, it was considered so offensive that the headteacher literally pulled the scarf off my head and said that it was against school policy for me to cover my head. This experience only made me more determined to wear my headscarf and I remember feeling so upset and insulted that someone would stop me from practising something I felt most comfortable with. This shocking experience led me to change schools in the middle of my most important learning years to a school where I could happily and freely wear my headscarf.

When I explain the reasons why I cover my head, I think they are quite simple. Firstly, just as every other person on this earth, whatever their religion or beliefs, chooses the outfit they want to wear, I choose to wear a piece of clothing that covers my head. Clothes or outfits are a way of expressing one’s identity. We wear what makes us feel most comfortable and confident. We may tailor our outfits for professional reasons or to follow certain uniforms, but it is very common for even students to make small adjustments in the way they wear their uniforms to make them feel a little more like themselves. I saw a lot of this when I was at school, with people turning up the collar of their blazers or keeping their arms rolled up. Some would choose a jumper over a blazer and some girls would choose trousers over skirts.

So I think it is clear that wearing a scarf is a personal choice.

Secondly, the most important and primary decision for a Muslim girl or woman to cover her head is simply because it is a commandment from God. Therefore, it is a complete expression of our devotion and love for our Creator that we wish to practise something that we believe would make Him most pleased with us. Why is this so difficult to accept? A relationship with God is so deeply personal that no matter how it is expressed, it should not be frowned upon by others. It really baffles me that there is so much apprehension about just accepting that reason. Every religion has its own values and guidelines, most of which are very similar to all religions and some of which are a little more specific to their faith. There is so much pressure in today’s society to accept many different customs, freedom of expression and beliefs, but when it comes to Muslim women, there is still so much prejudice.

After these reasons, there is the logic of this commandment, which, to me, is again very simple. It is that the headscarf sets boundaries for self-respect. I remember when I was graduating from university and it was announced that those women or girls who didn’t want to shake the hands of the gentleman handing out the degrees didn’t have to. This was a result of many Muslim girls raising the issue of shaking hands with a man and I was happy to hear that this was respected by the seniors. However, when this announcement was made, there was a lot of gasping and comments from the students around me, like “What’s wrong with shaking his hand?”, “Why would people not want to do that?” and “That’s weird.” I feel that, again, the logic is very simple. If we cannot accept and respect the smallest of boundaries when it comes to a woman not wanting to shake a man’s hand, how can we expect further boundaries to be set when it comes to consent and women saying no to further and sometimes inappropriate advances from men, and vice versa? Over the years, there has been so much education and awareness about the value of consent, especially when it comes to women. So much so that some men are now very reluctant to cross women’s boundaries, and that has made women feel more empowered and confident in their daily lives. We also see many cases where such boundaries are not respected and the devastating consequences of such situations. This also explains why when a Muslim woman covers her head, she has set that boundary, which is physically represented to the men around her. This is not to say that all evil has been eliminated and just because you cover your head, you may never have to face such challenges, but in most cases, it can act as a deterrent. In the same way that you take the initiative to lock the front door of your home, the hijab feels like a form of protection and a statement that you have these boundaries. I have experienced first-hand that boys (Muslim and non-Muslim) at school and university would be more respectful of me and would be reluctant to engage in any kind of inappropriate behaviour with me. This made me fall more in love with wearing my hijab every day and the value of it became more and more powerful to me.

In this context, the idea of oppression is full of hypocrisy. It feels patronising when the false notion that wearing a headscarf means oppression is forcefully promoted, a narrative often amplified by media and political entities around the world. This leads to Muslim men being unfairly blamed for their wives’ or daughters’ choices and branded as extremists. Such views stem from a lack of understanding, failing to recognise that the decision to wear a headscarf is a Muslim woman’s personal choice.

Let me be clear: I did not feel oppressed by wearing the headscarf, but by the ridicule I faced when others thought it was wrong. I felt oppressed when the headteacher tugged at my headscarf and pulled it down. I feel oppressed when my right to speak freely and practise my beliefs is disregarded and violated, especially when I assert my personal choice. So there lies the hypocrisy in trying to push the idea that wearing a head covering is oppression. So the real hypocrisy is in claiming that head coverings are oppression, when the real oppression is when the choice to wear a hijab is not respected.

These are just a few of the reasons why I personally cover my head, and it is fine and actually quite liberating to talk about and answer people’s questions about why I cover my head. However, it is in the lack of understanding and respect for my choices and decisions about what I choose for my own body and expression that I feel unheard and judged. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling confident in my headscarf. As an Ahmadi Muslim and a waqifa-e-nau, I feel I speak for most of us Ahmadi Muslim girls and women, saying that we are proud and empowered in our headscarves and that our concept of hijab or purdah does not limit us in any way. Alhamdulillah.

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