On ‘Dejabbing’

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There’s now a term for taking off the hijab, as Amal Awad recently learnt. But she’s not sure whether it’s a sign of progress or a decline in how we talk about it.

(Image: Dreamstime)
(Image: Dreamstime)

It seems every other day our fine English lexicon gets a new inductee. While I’ve only just learnt to accept ‘bootylicious’, the latest word to catch my attention is the slightly odd ‘dejabbing’. I assumed it referred to something involving a power tool, but as it turns out, it’s the new lingo for the act of taking off hijab – in a full-time way, not just for the evening.

That there’s a term for removing hijab suggests it’s an increasingly frequent occurrence – there’s a language surrounding it, although I must say it’s an aggressive-sounding word. Amongst friends and acquaintances, I know several girls who, like myself, wore hijab but eventually took it off (for a variety of reasons). All of them will tell you that it’s a difficult journey – and that’s putting it mildly.

The interesting thing is that people are starting to engage in discussion; it’s not always healthy, but neither is it always criticism. A couple of months ago a friend referred me to a vlogger named DeeThought, a hijabi who came out in defence of fellow vloggers who got slammed for taking off the headscarf. According to DeeThought, these vloggers were losing subscribers who, so offended by the lack of hijab, felt it appropriate to criticise these women publicly in the comments section.

Her vlog was well-intentioned, I suppose, but I found myself cringing a little – not at her, but at the way she had to defend, and at the politics of dejabbing online. Anonymous abuse on the Internet is nothing new, but there’s something particularly insidious about laying judgment on people who are making a choice – a personal one that solely impacts them. There’s no debate here from an Islamic perspective about whether a woman should wear a headscarf, but ultimately it’s a decision for the woman wearing it.

Even though the reactions don’t surprise me, I’m still left wondering why people feel so threatened by a decision by which they’re so wholly unaffected. Hijab is a significant element of a woman’s religious practice (in the overall context of modesty), but it’s not the definitive marker of faith.

It’s a subject that’s personal to me because I experienced it myself when I documented taking off the hijab for an Australian website last year. I was harassed by a few people and widely abused on forums. While I didn’t read the comments in full, I saw enough to realise that those criticising me either hadn’t read the piece, or were choosing to ignore the very positive sentiments I expressed about hijab. They also felt that I’d assumed a representative position for the Muslim community. I hadn’t.

More general damnation was thrown at me for daring to discuss something so specific to Muslims on a ‘non-Muslim website’.

To be clear, my intention wasn’t to shame anyone or insult my religion. Rather, I felt compelled to share a very personal stage of my life, essentially because so few women publicly talk about the challenges of wearing hijab. And it’s certainly rare to find candid but thoughtful discussion about it in mainstream media. I’d rather Muslim women take carriage and ownership of these discussions, rather than hand it all over to other parties, including ‘save-the-Muslim-woman’ feminists who think we’re all oppressed.

When I received numerous personal messages from Muslim women who had gone through similar experiences, I knew I’d done the right thing.

It was with relief, too, that I recently read an excellent think piece on the subject by my friend and writer, academic Mehal Krayem. It was here that I learnt the dejabbing term, and it was the first considered discussion I’d read on women taking off the hijab.

Mehal affirms my thoughts on the aspect of visible faith:

‘The most difficult thing about hijab is that it’s an external marker of faith, that brings with it much expectation. The expectation is not limited to what we assume God intended when He ordained such for women but the expectations of Muslim communit(ies) and non-Muslim communities (to use a very ambiguous dichotomy).’

As Mehal further notes, there’s a lot of judgment passed on girls who choose to no longer wear hijab.

‘There’s often the misconceived notion that somehow these girls are totally rejecting faith, that there is no hope for them and that if they were “true” Muslims (whatever that is) they’d never even contemplate such a decision.’

And this is the thing. The hijab, in its truest sense, is much more than a headscarf. It’s about life, and it’s an act that belongs to the woman wearing it.

The defensiveness surrounding dejabbing is understandable in certain contexts. In a country like Australia, for example, the hijab has been the centre of controversy, particularly around election time. It might well feel more personal when someone of your own faith abandons hijab.

But they’re not necessarily abandoning their faith, on which you should never be judging someone.

Becoming a hijabi is an affirmative act, a rite of passage for many, and celebrated by others as enthusiastically as an engagement. But taking it off invites censure and backstabbing, and you may actually lose friends who can’t see beyond their own feelings about it.

From my experience, and those of friends, it’s far from an easy journey; I don’t know anyone who has made the step to dejab without consideration. In fact, it’s not something I ever expected I would do. So before you lay judgment and hit ‘unsubscribe’ on a vlogger’s page, perhaps just consider that you never know how you yourself might be tested one day.

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