“A restrictive reminder of the woman I needed to be”: Why I stopped wearing the hijab

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, singer and writer, Hajar J Woodland, 30, discusses the need for women to have freedom of choice when it comes to wearing a headscarf.

Feminist Hajar J Woodland says: 

I was five when I first decided, without parental pressure, to wear the hijab to school – because when you’re a half-Iranian Muslim at an all-white primary school, what will really help you fit in is a foreign name and people asking “why have you got a tea towel on your head?”

It started as the equivalent of a child trying on heels, but the hijab became a central part of my identity when I started my period and officially became a woman – a whole six years later.

I was the only girl in a headscarf at my Peterborough school, until my sister started to wear one and then two other anglo-iranian friends moved to the area.

Despite the strong Islamic association, Muslims don’t have a monopoly on scarves, and in parts of the Islamic world the scarf wasn’t enforced as a way of guarding modesty, but of signifying social class. 

The teachings that might support it tend to refer to male and female codes of modesty rather than specific items of clothing. The Qur’an, in stating that women should ‘draw their veils over their bosoms’, doesn’t explicitly instruct them to wear hijab, and the word itself doesn’t even mean headscarf. 

Hijab literally means curtain or screen, referring to the separation of the sexes which certain situations might demand. As a child, discussions over scriptural evidence didn’t matter to me. What I saw from my mother and her friends was that good Muslim women wore hijab.

The headscarf became an external expression of what I inwardly felt – that how I behaved and dressed was not only open to scrutiny, but that it could influence or even justify a man’s behaviour towards me.

The ritual of wearing it almost every day for 13 years was a daily affirmation that I existed in relation to men. I had less freedom because they had more power. I had more responsibility because they had less self-control. As a woman, there was no circumstance where I could be blameless. What I told myself was power was, in fact, a heightened sense of guilt and responsibility.

The ritual of wearing it almost every day for 13 years was a daily affirmation that I existed in relation to men. 

My official line when asked why I covered was ‘the headscarf is my choice’, but unlike many hijabis on #nohijabday who bravely removed their scarves, I believed showing my hair was a sin. 

My alternative to the hijab was Hell, but when it came to justifying myself, I had a catalogue of reasons to offer. I told people it was my identity; I told them it was to protect me from the male gaze; I said that it meant women would be respected, that men wouldn’t be distracted; I argued that my body was precious and that I had a responsibility as a woman to protect it by dressing modestly.

None of the reasons I gave – although I believed them on some level – reflected my own experience of men, the world or my body. And not once did I ever say ‘because it’s right for me.’

The paradox was that my body didn’t feel like it belonged to me, or anyone else. I was saving myself for someone who didn’t yet exist – an imaginary future husband with a claim on me. This didn’t just pervert my attitude towards my own body and sexuality, but it built up a damaging ideal of men and relationships.

A man would fix me. A man would make me OK, valid, real. It was a man’s responsibility, above my own, to protect and love and care for me. I existed in relation to men and the price of a man’s freedom was a woman’s liberty.

I could no longer meet the expectations I’d placed on myself as a Muslim woman. 

The hijab might have been a restrictive reminder of the woman I needed to be, but there was nothing empowering about taking the decision to remove it when I was 18. The overriding feeling wasn’t one of freedom, but of failure. I’d kissed boys, sang on stage, stopped fasting, and missed my daily prayers for months. I could no longer meet the expectations I’d placed on myself as a Muslim woman. 

The skin I inhabited didn’t match the clothes I wore or the rules I needed to follow; all I could do to stop failing was to stop trying. I know many Muslim women whose experiences were markedly different; women whose scarves are strong statements of bodily autonomy and a sign that their bodies and lives are no one else’s business. But this was not my experience, nor is it only Muslim women who feel limited by outward symbols of beauty or virtue. The headscarf is no more or less a symbol of empowerment than heels and make-up.

As a feminist I stand by a woman’s right to dress as she pleases; the right to cover is just as important as the right to uncover. A hijabi shouldn’t have to justify her choice of dress any more than Susan Sarandon should have to justify her cleavage. The decision isn’t the important issue, it’s the options we have. My options were limited by the fact that I felt I had no value if I couldn’t prove that I was a good Muslim woman.

Removing the scarf didn’t fix the internal damage or automatically change how I viewed myself. It’s taken me years to describe myself as a non-Muslim, and even now I’m not comfortable with a label that doesn’t represent anything of the nuances of faith or my experience of religion.

A hijabi shouldn’t have to justify her choice of dress any more thanSusan Sarandon should have to justify her cleavage.

When I was nine, a teacher asked me to talk to her class about why I wore hijab. I wish she’d asked how I felt about my body. I wish she’d asked why I thought men could hit women. I wish she’d asked why I thought I was worth less than a man. I wish I’d known that hijab didn’t define me.

I wish I’d known that the headscarf wasn’t the problem – it was just a daily reminder that I was.