Muslim journalist Nosheen Iqbal, who doesn’t wear a headscarf, examines the need for World Hijab Day and the complexities of becoming a temporary hijabi
Photography: Sarah Brimley
Nazma Khan was 11 when she moved from rural Bangladesh to New York, in the early Nineties. She spoke little English and wore a hijab; she was bullied from the off. “I was mocked and spat at by other students,” she says, in an elastic Bronx accent. “An English teacher, who should have nurtured me, joined in making jokes on the way I dressed and shredded my self-esteem.” Khan spent chunks of her teenage years scared and embarrassed. “It was difficult to get used to the constant stares, the subtle comments. But over time you become stronger and learn to ignore the hate.”
It’s a steely resilience that countless ‘visibly Muslim’ women – that is, those wearing hijabs, abayas, burqas, niqabs – have to learn to build on a daily basis. Nadiya Hussain, Bake Off’s most popular ever winner and arguably Britain’s most famous Muslim woman, made headlines last year for talking about the Islamophobic abuse she’s faced. “It sounds really silly because I feel like that’s just become part of my life now,” she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. “I expect it. Absolutely I expect it. I expect to be shoved or pushed or verbally abused because it happens and it’s been happening for years.” Hussain was stoically matter of fact.
In Khan’s case, as in the way of all the best high-school movies, the plucky underdog won out: she eventually graduated at the top of her class and remained deeply committed to her faith. The following September when she was in college, on a crisp Tuesday morning in Manhattan, two planes bulleted through the Twin Towers and the ground shifted again. In the days following the attacks, she took off her headscarf for the first time. “I was scared to leave the house,” she tells me over the phone. “I remember that day very clearly. I wore a long skirt and a blue turtleneck sweater. But I felt dead inside. Something was missing. Part of me was gone. My identity was crucified. I was no longer me. So, the next day I decided, ‘I don’t care what happens, but I am not giving up my hijab ever again’.”
Khan, now 34, went on to set up World Hijab Day which marks its fifth year on 1 February, one that she hopes will promote peace and tolerance in some 150 countries. She describes it as “interfaith dialogue in action”, a day where non-Muslim women and non-scarf-wearing Muslim women around the world are invited to wear a headscarf in solidarity to see what it’s like to “step in our shoes for one day”. I’m dubious about how effective it is but when Stylist ask me, as a journalist, to conduct an experiment in solidarity, I agree to try it out for a weekend. At most, I think, it might shift someone’s perceived wisdoms in the conversation had about – rather than with – Muslim women. At the least, rabbit-holing down Instagram’s subculture of hip hijabis is now legitimately ‘work’.
I don’t wear a hijab because I’ve never been expected to. Barring prayer, funerals and the odd visit to a mosque, the last time I wore one consistently, every day, was on a three-week pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina with my parents in the summer of 2000. I came back, having re-read Malcolm X’s autobiography and the Qur’an for the dozenth or so time, with a deflated sense of anticlimax. I’d been too distracted by how the House of Saud were running things to develop any deep, meaningful relationship with spirituality.
In theory, the premise of World Hijab Day seems a fair sell in a heightened climate. There’s a wide-eyed Miss World-ian hope that a day spent wearing a headscarf will offer a snapshot of life as a Muslim woman and that, in turn, will prompt us to be kinder, more empathetic towards each other. My knee-jerk cynicism struggles to get past the flaws – for one, that anyone taking part will, likely, already be pretty OK with being around Muslims and not part of the problem.
Khan, though, argues that “education and learning is the most critical path to peace and tolerance. And what better way to learn than to experience?” In her view, friends, colleagues and neighbours “seeing the world from our eyes” would be positive and respectful. And hope is important.
The FBI has reported that hate crimes against Muslims in the US surged by 67% in 2015. In Britain, during the week after the Paris attacks, hate crimes suffered by Muslims were up by a staggering 300%. Last June, Tell Mama, a national project designed to log and report anti-Muslim incidents and hate crimes, found that 61% of the victims subject to Islamophobia were women. Recently, the Metropolitan police confirmed it was investigating the case of a Muslim woman shoved to the ground and dragged along the pavement by her headscarf, days before Christmas. That simply covering their hair is enough to provoke anger, suspicion, fear and loathing speaks volumes about the lot of Muslim women, simply trying to go about their lives. It’s certainly upsetting to read, though, I don’t remotely expect to be attacked wearing the hijab. And I’m not too bothered about facing hostility. I’m just wary of feeling invisible.
Faryal Ashraf, 29, a finance officer from Ilford, began wearing the headscarf while studying at Queen Mary University of London. “Everyone has a different journey into this, I knew I wanted to do it and took a leap. I didn’t start off wearing it like this.” Today, her hair is wrapped in a high floral turban, fabric tucked behind her ears revealing big swinging hoops.
We start chatting after I ask the sales assistant in a Muslim fashion store in Whitechapel about the most popular ways to wear a hijab these days and what looks and prints are in. There’s a rush of information on technique, on accessories, caps to keep headscarves in place. I opt for a plain black hijab, knowing I don’t have the skill or the patience to achieve chic killer style (yet).
A bad hijab day
I’m anxious when I get home; faith isn’t a gimmick and it feels lame and fraudulent to be test-driving my own religion. I’m proudly Muslim, it is blueprinted across my identity. Politically speaking, I probably identify more strongly as a Muslim than I ever have. But I work as the women’s editor at The Guardian; it would be difficult to analyse and debate the flow of news and commentary in recent years without feeling a subconscious need to be a corrective to cliches and biases about Islam. The Islamophobia in the press, our public discourse and institutions is constant and real. We live in weird times. I’ve already decided I’m not trying this out at work.
At my dining table, I open the package from the shop expecting a square scarf; from memory, the squares are easier to triangulate and tie into shape. What I’ve ended up buying (£12) is actually more like a black dupatta – the longer, narrower scarf worn with salwar kameez (traditional Pakistani dress of tunic and trousers) – of which I have dozens. I faff it into place. It’s not exactly how it’s supposed to go but my pointless pride won’t let me ‘cheat’ with YouTube tutorials. I figure that if I can’t instinctively nail the most basic hijab, I’ve already failed as a slack Muslim. It’s tricky enough being judged in the “not a proper Muslim” box because I don’t normally ‘look’ like one – there’s no way I’m letting it be true.
My mum and dad come from a generation in Pakistan that once considered hijabs backward and provincial. For them, big bouffy hair with a slip of dupatta over the back of the head is modest enough and it’s only the hold that Arab supremacy has over contemporary Islam that has made the aesthetics of the religion, aside from anything else, more conservative.
My parents’ view on wearing the hijab means that putting one on is serious business: it’s boss level, signifying you’ve achieved such a deep, solid commitment to Islam and God, that it should override vices, contradictions, bad habits and behaviour. Any deviation from that – say, hijabis that lie or bitch or smoke and have boyfriends – seems wildly hypocritical to them. My immediate family isn’t much into the modern take on hijabs, be they the austere or the decorative kind. They’re more focused on neeyat – defined as “good intentions and a pure heart”, which if you don’t have, my mum always insists, can’t be covered over with a literal head covering. Usefully, saving myself from their judgment, everyone in my family is abroad at this point.
The main point of the hijab, in the definitive Quranic sense, is to “cover the chest, lengthen your garments” – decreed for both men and women. What that translates to on a practical basis has been open to rowdy interpretation for centuries. Some scholars advise that dressing modestly so as not to draw attention to yourself means loose, non-figure hugging clothes, plus a headscarf. No credible scholar, I think, has mandated that full face-covering veils are compulsory (they are, in fact, forbidden at Hajj, the annual major Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca) and only a fractional minority of Muslim women in the UK wear them.
The hijab itself, however, has undergone a wholesale rebrand since my parents moved to the UK on the eve of the Seventies. For one, it’s gained fashion kudos and exploded in popularity among British Muslim women, keen to stake out their identity. It’s as much about defining their place in the world, unapologetically Muslim, as it is about that personal commitment to God. To my mind, living in London for the last 13 years, it’s clear that young hijabis represent the purest expression of an original subculture that the city still has. They are punk. No question.
And so it’s embarrassing how awkward and self-conscious I feel wearing one out and about. It takes a lot of confidence and lack of vanity to wear the hijab. Putting one on makes me feel dowdy and unattractive. I don’t realise how much I use my hair to hide behind until it’s completely vanished. I want to not care what other people think but, of course, I massively do.
Feminists get themselves in knots over it being a sad, regressive, demeaning weapon of patriarchy. The modesty it preserves is, after all, to avert “the male gaze”. But this is a reading that is myopic and patronising – it allows British Muslim women no agency and denies what a bold, gutsy, secure sense of self you need to wear one. And how it makes you feel. In my case, I’m calmer and more focused. I’m intensely aware I’m out in the world as a visible Muslim woman and so I’m mindful. And because I feel different – as if I’m trying out the alternate, Sliding Doors, prim and pious version of me – it’s a lot easier to walk into Dalston mosque and join the women there for mid-afternoon prayer.
“It’s about my personal journey,” says a fellow journalist who wants to stay anonymous. “We are all complex, nuanced, individuals but the judgment around Muslim women is so binary where, because I wear hijab, I’m in the good, ‘proper’ Muslim box and you don’t, so you’re in the other ‘more assimilated’ one.” She laughs, in case I’m offended, which I’m not. “Wearing one means you do face barriers,” she says. “You have to work extra hard. I understand that. Even at the beginning of this year, we saw women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage smashing it at school but they’re not able to achieve remotely the same highs in the workplace.”
I’ve resigned myself to having a bad hijab day – the cloth keeps slipping and coming loose. It’s more Angelina Jolie on a UN mission than [hijabi blogger] Dina Tokio. I try to do a normal weekend, though, so go to a yoga class. The instructor nods and I think she’s being reassuring but I’m projecting a lot because I’m nervous and take the scarf off before we start.
Later, I go for Turkish eggs in the same neighbourhood cafe I’ve been going to every other weekend for seven years. The waitress only recognises me when we’re paying the bill; my friend Alice points out it’s because the scarf has slipped off again. “It looks like you’re using it to shelter from the rain... except inside.” My face looks massive, I moan. She supportively suggests it would be elegant if I did it properly.
At an East End gallery, I barely get myself inside because it now isn’t a space I feel comfortable in. I’m attracting a fair amount of the ‘trying not to stare’ stare. It’s more curious than aggressive, but it’s not fun to feel like an exhibit. I’ve never quite appreciated the determination it takes for visibly Muslim women to go to places they’re not expected to be seen in. Generally speaking, it’s normal to see hijabi women all over London and so my self-consciousness, I think, is mostly on me. But it’s still uncomfortable to feel this exposed – here I am, Muslim lady! – and feel invisible at the same time.
On the way home, my Gujarati newsagent asks me what’s up and I end up pointing to my head and mumble “mosque”. It’s now Saturday night and I have no desire to go out: it would be too draining, too much of an effort to even bother.
In truth, as an exercise, World Hijab Day seems cheesy and embarrassing: join hands, don headscarves and congratulate yourself for being a beacon of positive, intersectional sisterhood. It’s just so... American? But, given that the planet at large seems to have got itself stuck on the dial between “bleak” and “relentlessly bleak”, perhaps cheese is fine right now. Perhaps cheese is needed.
Nosheen Iqbal is features editor at The Guardian