Women

#HandsOffMyHijab: 8 powerful protest photos by and for young Muslim women

In light of France’s proposed law to ban wearing the hijab in public for under-18s, two London-based sisters have created #HandsOffMyHijab, a photo project in solidarity with French Muslims facing persecution.

Imagine girls in France under the age of 18 were told there would be a law that’d make it illegal for them to wear trousers when in public? There would be a worldwide outcry from feminists and women’s rights activists, condemning even the idea of telling young women what they can and can’t wear.

Well, something of similar nature has actually happened and there is painful silence. A law banning wearing the hijab for under-18s is being debated in France and it’s hardly had any coverage here. 

My sister Zee and I are both Muslim women in our mid-20s and based in London. Since hearing about the proposed ban we have been waiting for more people to show their solidarity with our French sisters, but it simply hasn’t materialised so we decided to do something about it. 

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I am a photographer and my sister is a fashion journalist, so we felt if no one else was going to let Muslim women share their views on the ban, then maybe we had the tools to. 

It started with an Instagram post calling for Muslim women in London to be photographed and share their views on the potential ban. A lot of DMs and shoot planning later, we have our photo story by and for Muslim women.

The aim of the project is to reach at least one Muslim woman in France, and for her to feel there is a group of women in London who care. I hope creating this project only solidifies the strength Muslim women have. The photo project has also allowed these amazing women to show their intelligence, their free will in wearing hijab (or not wearing it), and ultimately showing we don’t need saving. 

I have left each meet-up feeling like we’re doing something so worthwhile. If anything, together we have made a space where Muslim women felt heard and important.

See the pictures below…

side profile of woman wearing Hijab and face mask. Her palm is up and it reads: Hands Off My Hijab
Hanan Abdel Khalek

Hanan Abdel Khalek, 29, Irish Egyptian

“I have worn hijab for 18 years, I have experienced a post 9/11 and 7/7 bombings world as a young Muslim woman living in London and attending an Islamic school. Being a teenager has its own difficulties, but to be so visibly a symbol of ‘terror’, something to be feared and hated when sitting on the Tube or minding my own business going about my daily activities, was such a hit to my self-esteem.

Growing up in a world surrounded by adults who despised us and what we represent, without knowing us, was a very confusing process for a young woman to go through. It forced me to either sink or swim. I had to learn how to defend myself in public from assault. You learn how to become mentally agile so that their verbal abuse isn’t so acidic and doesn’t sit on your skin quite as much. You learn how to become quick-witted.

You must learn your religion well enough to defend it against all types of academics, journalists, politicians, bosses, and wordsmiths – people who you don’t know but who go out of their way to misunderstand and misrepresent you. You must learn how to radically love yourself as a form of resistance. You must learn how to set your own boundaries in the public space. Nothing belongs to you. As Muslim women we are either commodified or fetishised by brands that want to reach a demographic, and call it representation and visibility.”

“We’ve been the shuttlecock in a game of politics and policy over the last 10 years. News comes out about new attacks, we are the first in danger of an Islamophobic projection. I have learned how humiliation must follow me around airports, European trips, restaurants, and shops.

I have been asked to remove my hijab and violated on so many occasions, an all too familiar burning sensation that makes me want to bury my head and keep my chin up all at once. The deafening silence of entering a restaurant in Paris where all of its inhabitants turn and stare in horror, followed by being asked to leave for no reason. A city I love but one that has taught me it does not love me. I am a woman now. I had to learn all that as a child, and then a teenager. So I have learned how to walk alone in confidence, no validation needed. With my faith in my heart and my hijab on my head.”

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Two women wearing hijab, standing in a park.
Rabia and Sara

Rabia, 29, and Sara, 28, Pakistani from London

“For us, France has always been one of the main fashion capitals. In recent years, hijabi models like @Halima, @salmajj and @missbatmaan have walked the Paris Fashion Week runways proudly wearing their hijabs, and as a result, diversity in fashion was applauded. Some of the most exciting couture brands of recent times, like Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, were founded in Muslim-majority countries. Fashion has helped to build bridges and bring people together, and the message that the fashion world has constantly promoted is to express yourself through your fashion choices. Proposing to ban the hijab goes against everything the fashion world – which Paris is a huge part of – has been working hard to promote for decades.

Wearing the hijab is a choice Muslim women make; although it is a choice based on religion, it becomes a fashion choice by default due to its visibility. Just like someone can choose to wear a beret, a hat or a beanie, all of which cover the head, Muslim women choose to wear their hijab. And just as you wouldn’t restrict someone with regard to what they can and can’t put on their heads, it is unethical to single out hijabi women and take away their choice to wear what they feel most comfortable in.

You do not have to be a hijabi or even a Muslim to recognise how wrong the idea of a hijab ban is. If we are going to endorse feminism, yet remain silent when it comes to a ban that polices the choices of Muslim females, what kind of feminism are we practising? We need to make one thing crystal clear: feminism and opposing the hijab ban go hand in hand.”

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Side profile of woman wearing headscarf and sunglasses with her palm up.
Noor-u-Nisa Khan

Noor-u-Nisa Khan, 25, British Asian from London

“I chose to wear the hijab at a fairly late age compared to many Muslim women, yet still it means a great deal to me. I didn’t grow up with a lot of the women in my family wearing it so it wasn’t a case of wanting to look like the rest of my family or them encouraging me to wear it. It was a case of finding the perfect opportunity where I wanted to take a step towards becoming my ideal me. It was a choice that I maybe didn’t think through that much, and it was only once I wore it that I truly understood the reality of what it means to wear the hijab. 

It means getting weird looks. It means standing against the wall on a train platform. It means people not sitting next you on the Tube – this is actually a perk. It means trying to not bring attention to yourself. It means being on guard. It means trying to blend in. It means people asking if you’re part of ISIS and then laughing. It means not going to certain places because you won’t feel welcome. It means second-guessing the looks you get. It means thinking you won’t get the job. These are problems a lot of women face anyway, but add a headscarf and it doubles the problem.”

“I feel so strongly about the potential hijab ban in France, because despite all these added fears we have as visibly Muslim women, we still choose to keep our scarves on. The love we have for them will always outweigh the fear. So I can only imagine the pain my sisters are feeling to be told they might not be able to wear something that they love so greatly, something that despite putting a target on their backs, they wear willingly as it brings closeness to their faith, their culture, their family and their identity.

Wearing a hijab does bring some horrible things, but it also brings a great deal of goodness. It brings a sisterhood together. We give each other smiles in public to let each other know we’re there and not alone. We sit next to each other on the train so we don’t feel scared. We keep an eye on each other in case anyone is causing a problem. Muslim women have a strong sisterhood – with or without the hijab – that can never be taken away from us. So, the French state can try as hard as they want to water down Islam in France, but the bond held by Muslim sisters will always be stronger than any law that may or may not be passed.”

Woman wearing neutral toned-outfit and cream hijab.
Noor El Huda Bashir

Noor El Huda Bashir, 21, Libyan from London

“The west understands itself to be the custodians of modern democracy, however, once again, it has failed to uphold and protect two of its essential principles: freedom of choice and religious practice. The hijab ban is not a protection of the liberties and rights of Muslim women, it is the implementation and codification of anti-Islamic policy and a strategic election ploy. 

President Macron has ignored issues like the disastrous handling of coronavirus in France, and the yellow vest protests. However, by using Trump-esque tactics and provocative policy, Macron bows to the rising far-right in the hopes of gaining votes without a care for the consequences Muslim women will undoubtedly face such as rising bigotry and attacks. Hijab is our right, our choice and our liberty, not a PR stunt.”

Hijabi woman sitting on the pavement.
Shakirah Yasmin

Shakirah Yasmin,18, Bangladeshi from London

“I think the term hijab is very misunderstood in today as a lot of people seem to think the hijab solely means the piece of cloth used to cover our hair. But, there are many attributes that fall under the term.

Modesty in the way you dress and present yourself, the way you speak, the mannerisms you hold, the etiquette you follow, the mentality you have, and the way you treat others are all included under the definition of ‘hijab’. However, it needs to be said that a Muslim women’s faith does not revolve around a piece of cloth and I’m sure we’re all sick of people assuming our level of religiousness based on how we are dressed.”

“Another person’s idea of freedom may be different to mine; I personally feel free covering myself and wearing my headscarf, whereas someone else may not, and that’s okay. What is not acceptable is telling another person what freedom means based on their own standards and perception.

For me, my hijab is my liberation, it’s my freedom and it’s what gives me my confidence. I don’t need a man to tell me what to wear in order to feel empowered and free. I don’t need saving and my modesty isn’t a mystery to solve.”

Smiling woman holding palm up with writing that reads: Hands Off My Hijab
Lynda

Lynda, 27, Amazigh, North African from France

“Growing up in France, it was not easy to choose when to wear the hijab. I first wore it at 12 years old, but you constantly have to take it off when going to secondary school. You want to do things like go to school and work but it feels like hijabis are being isolated, and as a young person, being isolated is the last thing you want. Religion was always such a big part of my life, being North African and living in an area with a Muslim majority we were constantly going to the Mosque, having events, and at the end it always felt like something was missing when I later had to take off my scarf.

So, I promised myself that at university, when I’m 18, I will start wearing it again! But with age comes responsibility, and wearing a hijab and going to work was another issue. Many of us in France want to wear the hijab but now there is fear; fear of not having a life but most importantly fear of being attacked for who we are.

I had the chance to move to the UK but not many have this chance. I do think there is hope despite the politicians targeting us. We as a group are a strong and supportive community in France and there is hope that we can create our own chances. Creating enterprise where female hijabis are accepted, creating private schools, but also creating safe spaces – this can only be achieved by us. Because they are trying to silence, and get rid of us. It’s easier to look at Muslim women or women in general rather than facing the real issues that France is facing. To all the hijabis in the world you are loved and supported.”

Woman standing in park walkway, wearing head covering and holding hand up.
Assia Hamdi

Assia Hamdi, 23, British French Algerian from London

France has always had an unhealthy obsession with unveiling the woman. Nnot only is it a sexist issue of policing what women wear but it’s the extension of a colonially rooted hatred of Islam and attacking the weakest link: Muslim women.

Just looking at art, photography and the narrative surrounding women during France’s colonisation of Algeria, you can see the extent the French went to re-invent the Muslim women. During the Independence War, the French orchestrated mass unveilings of Muslim women on a stage. Photographers forced women to uncover, and left Algerian women no other choice but to glare at the camera lens.

 It feels like we’ve come full circle, and we are facing the same issues. Muslim women in France are victims of the ideas and philosophies which have manifested into national feelings and laws.

The anger we feel should be used to remember the Muslim women who came before us and persisted. We are here because of them and we will persist too. Hanging on to the hijab is our resistance.”

Woman with long dark hair, wearing white top, smiling at camera
Mehek Bukhari

Mehek Bukhari, 23, British Pakistani from north west London

“At the core of this conversation is autonomy, and by that I mean the unequivocal right to exercise one’s agency without disruption. More importantly, autonomy without the imposition of individuals, governments and systems held in the shackles of imperialism, that push forward their ill-informed ideas of what are and what are not acceptable choices. It is a choice without the caveat that it aligns with their idea of liberation.

The ongoing smear campaign against the hijab has tainted what many women see as an emblem of devotion and empowerment, [and turned it] into a signpost of abuse and oppression. The philosophy of the hijab is often beyond one single meaning. For some it is spirituality and strength, for others it is a form of minimalism. It is infinite. Hence, it is extremely perplexing to see those who have no proximity to the hijab deliberately misrepresent it. Such misrepresentations operate to undermine the intelligence of Muslim women, and more importantly, it infringes their right to choice.

What is particularly frightening about the French hijab ban, is that it is an attempt to codify such ideas. Where legislation which is designed to protect its citizens, is now actively isolating Muslim women. This is so much more than fighting against a proposed bill. This is about reclaiming a narrative that has been stolen and it’s about the system changing for Muslim women, not Muslim women changing for the system.”

Images: All courtesy of Noor and Zee

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