The hijab is one of the most well-known symbols of Islam, but is this a fair association to make? Fatimah Jackson-Best reflects on her personal hijab journey and the bigger picture behind the cloth.
I began to regularly wear a hijab when I was a preteen attending an Islamic school. At this impressionable age, I looked to my friends and peers to know what the norm was, and at this time it was to cover our heads. For me there really wasn’t a conscious choice in the matter; the hijab was an expectation that I would fulfil as a Muslim girl, so I wore it without question or much personal reflection.
When I turned 18, I began to experiment with my hijab style. Rather than pinning or draping it in the front as I had done for years, I started to wrap it up at the back of my head into a bun. I will never forget the reactions of my parents and community to the change. Some thought I was going through a rebellious phase, while others assumed I was slipping away from Islam.
But really, I was exploring my identity as a hijabi. As a young girl who had started to wear a scarf as a part of my school uniform, it naturally spilled over into my everyday life, but I was never asked if I wanted to wear the hijab. When I became a young adult I finally had an option, and while I didn’t want to remove it altogether, I decided to adjust it to my own liking.
During my experimental stage and up to now I have come to understand the hijab in many ways, but I do not believe that it is necessarily an indicator of a woman’s level of belief. We all know women who wear hijabs and those who do not, and both will have varying levels of faith and different relationships with God. In my opinion the hijab isn’t a barometer of faith, nor should it be.
Every woman’s journey to the hijab is personal and unique, but many of our paths will have some similarities. For some women like me, the hijab may not be a conscious decision, which is why so many of us struggle with it or experiment with its style. For others, wearing the hijab is a choice made through a woman’s own thought process and a reflection of her relationship with Allah (swt). And of course there are others who may choose not to wear the hijab at all and risk facing judgement from men and women despite the very personal nature of their actions.
To me, none of these women are spiritually or religiously above the other. But one of the hardest things about being a hijabi (or not being a hijabi) is the hierarchy we are put in according to how or if we cover our hair. Being a hijabi comes with a certain set of expectations about how a Muslim woman should behave and dress. To step outside of these confines invites an unfair amount of scrutiny and public opinion.
Women who do not cover their hair or who do not cover in a traditional way are also scrutinised and subjected to assumptions about their religious convictions. At the heart of these perspectives on the hijab is a troubling focus on women’s bodies, and fundamentally our spiritualities. This may limit our ability to make choices about the hijab that are reflective of what we truly want. Instead we are made to fulfil certain social expectations that satisfy what others want for us.
It also must be said that Muslim men’s bodies are not put under the same amount of scrutiny as Muslim women. A man’s beard or kufi (or lack thereof) does not receive the same amount of attention and debate as a woman’s hijab. This is very telling of our priorities as a Muslim community and the ways that women have been made to bear the burden of being symbols of religious ideology. We all hear the talk about how a woman in hijab is like a pearl in a shell, but where are the metaphors for men that similarly stress the importance of their modesty?
These are questions I ask as I continue to experiment with my hijab. I’ve recently made a personal decision to go back to draping my hijab in the front. I am still processing why I made this change, but once again it is my choice to decide how I wear my hijab.