At the age of 16, I very cautiously and nervously asked my mum whether it would be OK if I started wearing hijab. It had taken me weeks to build up the courage to ask because hijab was never discussed in my family. My parents had always taught us that what mattered most was one’s character and not how people appeared on the outside.
By trying to develop a character developed by the teachings of Islam, our outer appearance – how we dressed or spoke or behaved – would all then naturally be of an Islamic tradition. And thus Islamic character was the focus of our upbringing. Because of this, deciding to wear hijab at 16 would make me the youngest person in my family to take on this aspect of Islam.
My mum had started wearing a scarf in her 40s (after 10 years of terrorism in Algeria, not wearing hijab became an act of resistance and a sign that the Algerian population would not give in to extremism) and my aunts also followed suit in the later stages of their lives.
But despite this, I was extremely keen and excited to start wearing hijab. I loved what it stood for, how it pushed people to judge me on my character as opposed to my appearance and how it always reminded me to be patient, calm and kind. But what I loved most was the fact that everyone would know I was Muslim, because I’m very proud of my religion.
But what I loved most was the fact that everyone would know I was Muslim, because I’m very proud of my religion
But in today’s world – where people feel able to be hateful, racist and malicious – having every stranger that walked by me know that I was Muslim became a bit of a hazard. This hazard became a bit more real a few weeks ago, when a man decided to attack me because of my scarf.
Obviously, this has had profound effects on me. Not only was I riddled with fear but I felt violated, vulnerable and exposed. I understand why people may feel hatred towards Islam and I don’t blame them for not being able to see past all the inaccurate news that we’re bombarded with about Islam and its “radical views”.
It takes a strong and independent mind to realise that Islam been distorted. Backward ideologies have been superimposed on a religion that is inherently peaceful and kind. These ideologies have ravaged the essence and core of Islam.
And unfortunately, an extreme minority of Muslims believe in this unrecognisable form of Islam and they commit odious acts in its name. These people not only affect the individuals they harm directly, but they put Muslims living in the West, especially Muslim women, in danger because we then become an obvious target for hate crimes.
Obviously influenced by the scaremongering in today’s media, the man who attacked me really affected how I felt about hijab. Suddenly I wasn’t able to leave the house without being petrified and I refused to set foot outside my door without the company of someone from my family. While I continued to wear hijab, going out in it became more and more difficult.
A few weeks ago a man decided to attack me because of my scarf
I became very paranoid and was worried someone would hit me, throw hot coffee on me, or as irrational as this may seem, push me in front of a moving car or bus. I started getting chest pains when I went out and started to feel nauseous. The longer I tried to keep wearing it, the less I was able to sleep at night. My mind reeled with thoughts of how bad the attack could have been and how much worse another attack could potentially be.
I did try to keep wearing it, but it became very clear to myself and my family that I would be unable to continue wearing it and live without being crippled by fear all day. I spent a lot of time reading more about the hijab and various opinions about taking it off when it causes harm. The best opinions I found on the matter agreed that the rational and Islamic thing to do was to take it off.
And so, we came to the decision that I should take it off.
This is a huge deal to a lot of Muslims. Taking off hijab is probably seen as the equivalent of selling my soul to Satan. Some people would probably argue that they know better than the scholars I looked to for guidance. This is obviously ridiculous, especially under circumstances like mine. But a lot of Muslims are heavily influenced by Arab and Asian culture and forget there is a difference between culture and religion.
Some Muslims have a rudimentary understanding of their own religion. Islam isn’t a points system where good deeds are rewarded with heaven and bad deeds get you sent to hell. Instead, it’s a deeply philosophical way of life. And like most religions, context is always needed. Life is not so black and white.
The hijab is a lot more than just covering your hair. Hijab is about character. It’s about being loyal, generous, patient, kind, hardworking, sincere, honest, tenacious, humble, loving and always willing to speak up against injustice. Covering your hair is the easy part. It’s the internal struggle that’s difficult, and therefore more important. One can embody all these characteristics and not cover their hair, and they would be a much better Muslim than a woman who covers her hair and dresses modestly but doesn’t care to try attain Islamic character. Some of the best Muslims I know don’t wear hijab.
I do hope with all my heart that one day I will have the courage to wear hijab again
Islam aims to purify people’s hearts and minds and help them attain a balance between individual strength and kindness. It aims to make its followers strong in the way they speak up against injustice and cruelty, yet kind and loving at the same time.
And so, with a heavy heart, I have to proceed into the next chapter of my life without every stranger I walk past knowing that I am Muslim. However, it doesn’t mean I will dress any less modestly. I will continue to strive to show only my heart and mind to the people I encounter. It does not mean I will stop striving for Islamic character. It does not mean I will ever stop praying five times a day.
It does not mean I will speak any less modestly or act any less modestly. It does not mean I will stop striving to live a life that is of benefit to others. I will be no more or less pious than I was whilst wearing hijab. It simply means that at this moment in time, I am too scared to be immediately identified as Muslim. Perhaps this makes me weak, and I wish more than anything that I had the strength required to continue wearing hijab.
My grandad used to say “God created angels to live in the heavens, not on earth”. Humans are imperfect because we’re supposed to be. But what’s important is that we grow and learn from our imperfections and hopefully get better. And I do hope with all my heart that one day I will have the courage to wear hijab again.