I started to wear the hijab and the jilbaab (long dress to the feet) at the age of 11. At first I protested against it by wearing it loosely, pulling my sleeves up so most of my arms would show and by wearing spiked punk bracelets. I would wrap it around my neck at parks, feeling the wind through my hair. I tried hard to take it off but my status as an Islamic school girl made it impossible to remove. I had to fulfil a certain standard, and all of my friends were wearing it. Although I love my mother dearly I have to be honest that she played a large role in all of this. There is a common practice within Muslim communities of mothers as well as fathers enforcing hijab on their daughters which has to be acknowledged and stopped. At the age of twenty I plucked up the courage to take it off completely no matter who saw me. Before this I went through several stages of removing it where I felt a mixture of self-hatred and guilt. The hijab is not like a hat or a tie, it is not only a piece of clothing. It comes with sexual connotations and rules to that one must adhere to whilst wearing it.
When enforced it becomes a prison which breaks down confidence and self-esteem. The only women in my family who wore hijab was my mother, me and my younger sister who also attended an Islamic school. Every Eid I would feel deep resentment watching all the other women in my family dress up, put on make-up and go to the mosque. I was stuck in the hijab and jilbaab feeling ugly and under dressed. I felt deeply ashamed that I wanted to look nice. The suppression of my sexuality was secured by the hijab and the principles I was expected to follow because I wore it. By the age of fourteen I believed that I was going to wear hijab forever, and I convinced myself that there is nothing I can do about.
As a teenager I had to wear it within the grounds of the Islamic boarding school I grew up in. I have memories of being shouted at by teachers for not wearing it whenever a window or a CCTV camera was in sight in case someone from the ‘men’s side’ saw me. I couldn’t have been more than 11 but yet I was shamed for not wearing it properly. We could not take hijab off in the grounds unless we were in the top playground which was out of view. In the lower and much bigger playground we couldn’t take hijab off even when playing sports. Now the school has CCTV cameras in the residential corridors, and I despair for the young girls who have to wear it within the space which is the closest thing they have to a home.
I found myself in Pakistan at 16 surrounded by overzealous women weeping in Quranic class at the Al-Hudaa institution. I was the youngest girl in my class but the only one who knew Arabic so I would swagger around consumed by my own superiority. I was told that I did not have to wear niqab but that when the verse on it came I would wear it myself. I remember scoffing at the time as I did consider the face veil to be compulsory. At this point I still was not very fond of my hijab so I could not imagine myself wearing a veil over my face. However like the other women in the class I started to become zealous too. I would weep in class at how glorious the Quran was, how sinful I am and how merciful God is. On the day that we were going to study the verse on the veil there was a quiet excitement among my class mates. I was intrigued, and when I heard the interpretation of the verse which suggests that we should also cover our faces I put it on as soon as possible. I pulled my scarf around my face on the way to the minibus that took me to my hostel. I started wearing black gloves, and making sure that I did not laugh or speak loudly in public. At night I would pray an extra prayer, weeping in despair at what will happen to sinful people in the hereafter.
I find it hard to relate to my former self now. For many years I tried to ignore who I was, and did not tell university friends that I used to dress as I did. It is difficult to accept that after years of internally fighting the hijab I put a veil over my face and disappeared from society completely. I became convinced that men are beasts who cannot control themselves, and that it is my responsibility to ensure that they did not fall into sin. I wish I could go back and speak to my 16 year old self. I don’t know if I would slap or embrace her. This phase did not last, and when I returned to Britain I took the veil off but carried on with the hijab and jilbaab.
The first time I did not wear the long black dress in public was around seventeen. I was going to see some friends, and I had been slowly losing my religion. I wore a black and white dress to my knees, leggings, a black cardigan and my headscarf. I ran out of the door before anyone noticed. When I came home there was a huge fight, and I was left feeling like a slut. I still have this dress, and I feel a strange attachment to it. I was not open about my emerging atheism even to myself then, but I had started to feel an overwhelming sense of suffocation. I used to lie on my prayer mat not speaking to God but to myself. I would cry about my desire to remove the hijab and felt too ashamed to pray about it. Yet, I had also started to immerse myself in feminist literature which was the first time that I had ever learnt about sexual autonomy. Although I was consumed with guilt, I was also lit with a surge of defiance. At eighteen I decided I wanted to take off the headscarf, just to try it out.
So one day in summer I left my house in the afternoon, walked down the curved road until I was out of sight of my house. I then pulled out the pin which held my hijab together, pressed it between my lips and slowly loosened my hijab until my hair fell around my face. I faced a car and for the first time as a woman I saw my hair in the reflection of a car window. That day I knew what it meant to be free, and to have control of my body. I would not trade that memory for anything in the world.
One of the most important parts of my journey of removing the hijab is that I was diagnosed with cancer at 19. A few months after I had left Islam I was hit by a car on the way to college, and the scans done on the aftermath of it showed that I had a tumour the size of a grapefruit lodged in my chest. When the day for biopsy results came when I would learn what kind of cancer, I had I turned to my mother and said that there is no point in me wearing it anymore as I am going to be bald soon. I had already stopped wearing it when I went out on my own, but whilst around my parents up until this point I wore it. I felt too ashamed to take it off in front of them, but now faced with chemotherapy I couldn’t care less what they thought.
The college I attended was an Islamic one in North West London. After the chemo I returned to college to finish my studies. Girls were expected to wear hijab in the college, and so I did it. Once one of the teachers took me aside and told me that the way I was wearing my hijab loosely was unacceptable. I had also started wearing a bit of make up because I was so thin and parts of my skin was blackened because of the medicine I was taking. She told me that the religious men in the school would start asking her questions. If I didn’t respect them, they may not be so accommodating to me anymore. Aged nineteen I went to the toilets of the college and cried for half an hour. After this I went and told the head of the year that if I was not welcome in the college I would go home. He had noticed the dramatic change in me over the years that I was there and told me he would have a word with her. He said to me that he knew I had lost my faith and the fact that I still wore hijab shows that I respect them. After that she never spoke to me again.
I speak to women all the time about their experiences with hijab. Girls as young as 16 feel like they have worn it for an age because it was put on them as children. I see young girls aged 7 or 8 wearing it and I feel a deep sadness for them. Parents should know better: do not put it on your daughters. If they ever want to wear it, then that will be their choice. It is not for you to push it on to them because it is you they will have to fight in the end if they want to remove it. My only advice to girls and women who are wearing it is ask yourself if you want to wear it. If you do then there is nothing else for us to really to talk about in regards to it. For those of you who feel suffocated, and pressured to wear it I hope that my story will help you start the fight.
You may have to fight your own parents, your husbands and your friends but it is a fight worth having. There is nothing that we are born owning except our bodies. Don’t let any man, woman or teacher tell you that if you do not wear it you are sinful. It took me over nine years to take it off because I felt that I had no choice in the matter and in some ways I did not. I understand that many Muslim women wear it out of choice, but their positive experiences do not negate the negative experiences of women shamed and pressurized into it. I hope that more women are able to come out with their stories so that those among us who are suffering with shame and guilt can see that there is a way out. At times I felt completely powerless, and burdened by the hijab. It became the shackle which held me back for so many years, and I resented it deeply. Now the thin scarf which was once a source of shame is nothing more than lifeless material.