The truth about wearing hijab: it’s not always about faith

The hijab is probably one of the most hotly discussed items of clothing around, second only to the Little Black Dress (which I’d better not start talking about in case the haram police comes for me). Seen as traditional attire for women in Islam, the hijab for many is a symbol of piety, modesty and morality. Conservative Muslims observe this tradition as a direct commandment from God revealed in 7th century Arabia. But fast forwarding 1400 years from that revelation, we have to ask ourselves: what does dressing ‘modestly’ even mean? How does one define what is and what isn’t modest dress? In the more developed parts of today’s society at least, the link between immorality and the way in which one dresses has thankfully been destroyed. A realisation has occurred that when a woman doesn’t cover her body, it doesn’t mean that she’s ‘asking for it.’ So what role does hijab really play today? What is its purpose, and why do Muslim women still wear it? Here, I attempt to give a short insight into the answers to some of these questions, with a list of the different ‘types’ of hijabis there are and the reasons why they wear it:

1. The “I wear it for God” Hijabi

Many Muslim women will tell you that they wear hijab because they believe that God commands it, and that it pleases Him to have her wear it. God-Pleaser Hijabi appears in two forms, saying she wears hijab either because she ‘chooses’ to, or because she feels she “just has to” because she’s Muslim.

1a. I ‘choose’ to wear it.

You’re probably wondering why I put the word ‘choose’ in inverted comas. Well, when a Muslim woman has learned from a young age that hijab is a requirement, how much of it can we really put down to choice, and how much must we accept that her approach is the product of social conditioning? Here’s what this type of hijabi believes: to be a good and pious Muslimah, she must wear hijab. She has grown up with this teaching and sincerely believes it is the way a Muslim woman should dress. Without it, she believes she is not complete in her faith, and that she will attract unwanted attention. By not wearing hijab, she will be at fault, guilty of sin even. She doesn’t want to be looked at in that way, does she? She is likely to be a practising Muslim, on the path of Deen. Hijab is just another element of her faith, parallel to Salah, fasting, Zakah etc.. For her, hijab can even embody empowerment, forcing people to take her for who she is, not how she looks. She does not wish to display herself, and nobody need know if she’s having a bad hair day. She is staunchly pro-hijab and is more than proud to wear it. She will fight tooth and nail for the right to wear the headscarf, defending it always, calling it a ‘human right.’ She knows she is doing it for her Lord, and that He will look favourably upon her for it. She says she wears it because it is her choice. All fine and dandy, but to repeat my earlier statement, when one has grown up being conditioned in this way, how much can we truly claim that it’s a free choice? Or is it a choice that was made for her at birth? I suppose for balance, we have to ask whether we can call anything a free choice. Surely our surroundings shape our thoughts in some way, and we are really a product of social conditioning whichever side of the argument we’re on.

1bCoz I’m Muslim, innit’

The hijabi who feels she has to wear it is similar to the first, but she’s not doing it for God. She wears hijab because every one around her is wearing it: her mother, her friends, her aunts, her cousins, and the people in her neighbourhood. She’s grown up with it; she knows she should be wearing it, because “that’s what good Muslimahs do”, and more importantly, it’s what is expected. She must conform – after all, her Lord will be well pleased with her. She is more of a cultural hijabi, who can’t really give any real reasons as to why she wears hijab other than, “We have to wear it coz we’re Muslim, innit?” The rest of her look might not quite be in tune with the judgement she reserves for those who don’t wear hijab. She’s quick to criticise non-hijabis because having uncovered hair “isn’t modest”, yet she’ll cake on an inch of makeup, wear clothes that leave little to the imagination and conduct herself with foul speech. But that doesn’t matter, because she wears a piece of cloth on her head. Given the choice, Coz I’m Muslim Innit Hijabi probably wouldn’t wear the headscarf if the rest of her influencers didn’t.

  1. The Forced Hijabi

Although plenty of Muslims (especially in the West) will maintain that hijab is a choice, many will turn a blind eye to the blatantly obvious instances where it is forced, whether this is in the form of physical or emotional force from family, via state law, or through a combination of all of these. Sometimes the consequences of not complying can include public shaming, emotional blackmail, domestic violence and serious attacks that leave permanent damage.

Wearing hijab is mandatory in Saudi Arabia and Iran: there is no choice. This is a horrific crime against human rights. I truly believe in the freedom of not needing to cover at the behest of someone’s say-so, and that there is no compulsion in religion. For a government to enforce hijab upon its women is a direct attack on their individuality, intelligence and character. There have been many protests against this enforcement, one of which I supported in October last year. Enforcement of the hijab through state law in Iran came with the revolution in 1979. Were women practicing Islam wrongly before that time? And why should those women who are not even Muslim be forced to wear hijab? Let’s be clear, there would be outrage across the Islamic world if Muslim women were forced to take on the dress code of another religion or culture in Western countries.

Safiya hijab by lawIn Saudi Arabia, the Muttawa or ‘religious police’ frequents public places, enforcing hijab and other restrictions upon women. This footage demonstrates how they harass and bully women who dare to even wear nail polish out in public. The all-male religious police will say that they simply want to protect women from prying eyes and sexual advances, when in reality it’s their own prying eyes and advances that women need protection from. But no: the burden of male desire is put on women. We must cover ourselves so that we are not raped or assaulted. Many Muslim defenders of hijab in the West still deny that any kind of enforcement exists, or they simply bury their heads in the sand. At home and in the wider community, hijab is not necessarily enforced with a stick (although sometimes it is), but there is emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping and even worse, slut-shaming:

Safiya forced what have i done etc“It’s what God wants. It’s Islam, you’re Muslim, why do you want to sin? A Muslim woman should be covered, for her own protection.”

“You want to walk around naked? Look at you, showing yourself off to the world, inviting strange men to look at you! Do you like parading around for kuffar men? You want to be like the kuffar with no shame? Carry on like that and your children will end up like kuffar… Oh what have I done to deserve a daughter like you?!”

Life can often become very difficult for these women, as someone who shows any signs of resistance to hijab might suddenly be looked upon as not having strong iman (faith), and they are questioned about whether they are even really Muslim. Many married Muslim women only start to wear hijab after marriage, as often the husband will dictate his wish for her to cover up. He will tell her that she belongs to him now and she shouldn’t ‘flaunt’ herself for other men to see, because that would make her a loose woman and therefore lowly in the eyes of God. Guilt and shame are two of the most successful tools used by many families to enforce hijab upon its women.

Safiya vogue hijabi3. In Vogue Hijabi

Plenty of Muslim girls wear hijab just for fashion. The scarf has little religious meaning for them, but they feel it makes them look attractive and exotic. Wearing hijab concentrates focus firmly on the face, creating an artist’s canvas. You’ve seen this type of hijabi: she has immaculate shaped brows, thick kohl-lined eyes and full matte lips. Her flawlessly blended foundation with finely accentuated cheekbones accompanies spray-on jeans and stiletto heels, setting her above all others as she struts past smelling like a perfume shop. Vogue Hijabi’s scarf is huge and bold, delicately draped, folded like a work of art and even adorned with trinkets, giving her an air of royalty. She is the cow that less glamorous girls aspire to be. She makes heads turn. Maybe it would be more befitting for her to wear a sign that says; ‘Look at me.’ And you could easily spend hours fulfilling her desire to be looked at on her Instagram page. But ask her if she prayed Fajr this morning and she’ll avoid the question, knowing full well she’d rather spend the extra 15 minutes perfecting her winged eye liner instead.

  1. 4. The Newly-Transformed Hijabi

Many believe that the best way to earn immediate respect is to start wearing hijab. This phenomenon is usually spotted around the holy month of Ramadhan, but is not exclusive to this time of year. If for whatever reason, a Muslim woman suddenly needs or wants to be seen as a pious, devout, moral and modest person, she can start wearing hijab and is instantly transformed. She becomes the very epitome of the perfect Muslimah. But wherever there is such drastic change, you can bet that gossip is never far away. There’s a reason why she suddenly felt the need to start being seen as pious…

A new Muslimah, often referred to as a ‘revert,’ is also part of this category. In order to be taken seriously, or to prove her commitment to her newfound faith, she leaps for the hijab and is instantly transformed into a Real Muslim™.

Safiya Alfaris

Safiya Alfaris

5. The Symbolic Hijabi

Like Vogue Hijabi, Symbolic Hijabi cares little about the headscarf’s supposed connection to modesty. For her it is just a symbol that clearly says: ‘I’m Muslim.’ It’s a show of Muslim pride, nothing more than a nod to her heritage. It can be worn with anything and in any way, similar to the way in which some Christians wear a cross, taken on and off as and when she sees fit.

I see myself as part of this category. I wear hijab because I like the label, which says: ‘I’m Muslim.’ But it does not define me, and it doesn’t own me. I own it. I wear it how I like, and it starts some interesting conversations. I sometimes wear it loosely, sometimes more traditionally, with skinny jeans, strappy tops and even with shorts sometimes on a Scarborough beach. The point is, we as Muslim women need to reclaim it. Hijab does not define how pious you are and it certainly does not define you as a person. Take control of your mind and body. Own it.

DISCLAIMER: All images on this post were found from Google searches. If you are the owner of any of them and wish them to be removed, please contact me via the email address above

Safiya Alfaris

Safiya Alfaris

Follow me on Twitter @SafiyaAlfaris | Email me: safiya.alfaris@hotmail.com

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3 Responses

  1. Tim O'Brien says:

    Thanks. Nice article. I have been castigated for suggesting niqab was a cultural choice, not a religious obligation (after all, does it mean that hijabis are haram?). Excuse me if I am imprecise about terminology, I am just an ignorant white male Kuffar.

    And great website. I look forward to following you guys in the future. I wish more moderate Muslim voices were heard by the general public and especially female ones.

  1. 16/04/2016

    […] You have seen how hijab can be forced in everyday life, so going for a swim comes with extra baggage, which many Muslim women are expected to literally wear. Putting the whole ‘modesty’ argument aside, the much simpler matter of practicality requires some attention. Why can a woman not go for a swim, or lounge around on the beach without covering herself from head-to-toe? For goodness’ sake, are some men really so weak that upon seeing a woman on a public beach wearing a little less, they would not be able to control themselves and would end up harassing or molesting the woman? I find it pathetic and repulsive that women are made to feel this way; that they cannot even enjoy a few hours at the beach without being judged for not covering up. Covering up their own bodies, for fear of what men might do. […]

  2. 29/04/2016

    […] living in the North of England, believes wearing modest clothing, in particular the burka, is not a choice for most Muslim women. It may seem like that at first, but after a lifetime of expectations to […]

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