Women from around the world share their thoughts and feelings about wearing – or not wearing – the hijab.
For more, watch the documentary The Veil.
‘Hijab makes me feel free’
Ifat Gazia is from Kashmir and recently graduated from the University of London.
After the Paris attacks of November 2015, I faced an assault-like situation on Oxford Street in London when a group of boys and girls pushed me to the ground and started abusing me. I didn’t understand what they were saying because I was startled and they didn’t speak English.
I was new to the city and the only obvious way of identifying that I was Muslim was by my hijab. There was a strong wave of Islamophobia in European countries in those days, and I was one of many who faced the brunt, but it cannot change a place entirely and there is no doubt that the UK is a very tolerant country; London even has a Muslim mayor now.
One year down the line, and I have never felt uncomfortable wearing my hijab in any part of the UK. In fact, I have never felt this happy and confident in a hijab anywhere else except for Kashmir, my homeland.
I wear hijab not because it represents my morality, intellect, backwardness or modernity, but because it makes me feel complete. I choose to wear a hijab and it represents my pride in being a Muslim and somehow makes me fulfil my duties to my religion, but it doesn’t give me the liberty to judge those who don’t wear it.
Wearing a hijab in no way makes me a better Muslim than those who don’t wear it. It is a part of my personality and my existence, and it is definitely challenging in these times, when looks matter as much as qualifications when searching for a job.
But I have chosen this piece of cloth, not as an obligation or as a sign of oppression, but as my own choice of freedom, for the hijab makes me feel free.
As told to Showkat Shafi.
‘It took a while before I realised I can be both Muslim and queer’
Azeenarh Mohammed is from Abuja in Nigeria.
I started wearing hijab when I was around three years old. It was both cultural and religious, so I never questioned it and wore it on and off until I was in my 20s.
I attended Hajj with my siblings around that time – about 10 years ago. During Hajj, I became fascinated with the niqab – that is the full veil that covers everything except your eyes. I started wearing the niqab in Saudi Arabia and continued after I returned to Nigeria.
I really liked the sense of freedom I felt from wearing the niqab – freedom from people’s gaze, comments and judgment. And wearing it also came with respect. In northern Nigeria, when people see a woman in niqab, they assume you’re a very pious person.
But after a while, people’s reactions made wearing the niqab more of a political statement than I intended for it to be, and my parents wondered if I was becoming ‘radicalised’ or a fundamentalist.
I just became exhausted, and after about seven months, I stopped wearing the niqab and went back to just the hijab. But then I phased out the hijab entirely and went to just wearing scarves. Then, I stopped wearing scarves.
Now, I’m well into my 30s and I pretty much have my head uncovered.
My evolution from niqab to uncovered happened in around 2008 when I was dealing with my sexuality and was exploring my feelings about Islam. I felt I couldn’t be both Muslim and queer at the same time, so I prioritised being queer and rebelled against everything else.
First, I chopped off my hair and went for a stereotypical lesbian haircut. I stopped going to religious spaces and even stopped participating in cultural activities that had religious leanings, stuff like weddings. I didn’t go to any place that required me to wear a scarf, a veil or any covering.
I had a hard time with my family during this period. They didn’t take it well. Neither did my friends or my community. It was a great shock to everyone.
It took a while before I realised I can be both Muslim and queer.
These days, I miss wearing the hijab for various reasons – familiarity, fitting in and a veil from aggressive eyes and attention. In Nigeria, there’s a certain harassment that comes to people who do not wear stereotypical female clothes. Because I sometimes wear masculine clothes, people will say really mean things.
They ask me if I have a man’s private parts. They ask why am I trying to be a man. So to avoid this, every now and then I throw on a hijab and just get on with my day. And as weird as it sounds, in the right moment, the hijab can be a source of protection for me.
As told to Chika Oduah.
‘My hijab gives me an identity as a Muslim woman’
Aziza Paula Di Bello, a Uruguayan psychologist, converted to Islam five years ago.
I was 23 years old when I first saw a woman wearing hijab. My heart felt paralysed. I immediately understood the essence of it. This woman was a queen, who was able to defy it all. She was free from the influences of fashion, not caring to follow the masses. That image stayed with me for years.
Ten years later, I embraced Islam.
I started wearing the hijab, and from the first moment started to feel the benefits of it. Wearing the hijab is not just about covering the hair … It also includes an attitude of modesty.
Only after experiencing it did I realise that my hijab gives me an identity as a Muslim woman, devout and respectable. It protects me – not only from the eyes of men, but from anyone who can value me and evaluate me based on anything other than my ability, my intellect, my heart.
It elevates me in status by choosing to submit to my creator and not to his creation. And I’m not submissive, on the contrary. My hijab is for me a rebellion against the consumerism of the flesh; it frees me from submission to others to satisfy their needs.
It is an act of mercy between men and women because it forces the other not to distract themselves in superficialities, and things that can affect a marriage, a family, and therefore society. Therefore, its benefits reach the social sphere. My hijab makes me feel that my interlocutor is focused on who I really am.
As told to Giulia Iacolutti.
‘I show my blackness proudly to the world’
Jacinda Townsend is an African-American author.
I converted to Islam as a 20-year-old law student searching for peace, and I went about finding it not only in the religion itself but in Islamic custom: the five prayers a day that solidified my faith, the wudu [ablution] that so cleansed me of anxiety, the hijab, which became a public proclamation of my modesty.
Initially, when I zipped up my abaya and wrapped my hair in a scarf, I felt disconnected from my sexuality, freed of the male gaze that had so plagued me as a young woman.
There came a day, however, that a fellow Muslim – a complete stranger – approached me in the supermarket and asked for my telephone number.
Everyone can tell what’s really under that hijab, joked a friend, and it occurred to me for the first time that I’d actually traded one form of male gaze for another, one form of presumed subjugation for a different, yet altogether similar one.
But what finally drove me to uncover? My hair. My gorgeous, nappy, African-American hair, which I’d just stopped straightening before I converted.
So much of African-American culture was being drowned out of me by the voices of older women at the mosque, from those who said it was haram to celebrate Kwanzaa (although Kwanzaa isn’t a religious holiday) to those who told me I needed to pray in a language I didn’t even understand.
Every time I wrapped the hijab around my burgeoning curls, I felt that I was covering the gorgeous black self I had just discovered, and letting the ethnocentrism I had run up against so many times in the mosque win the upper hand.
Eventually, I stopped wearing the hijab. I put my hair in dreadlocks and have never taken them out, and I show my blackness proudly to the world. Ultimately, uncovering led me to a deeper love of blackness than I’d previously known.
‘My hair is an essential part of me’
Riham Alkousaa is a Syrian-Palestinian journalist covering Syria and refugees in Europe.
It’s been more than two years since I made the decision to take off my hijab. I was on the plane to Berlin, leaving Syria for the first time. I was sitting next to an old Asian couple. They were falling asleep. I took it off as we arrived at Frankfurt International Airport. They didn’t even notice.
Why did I wait until I was in Europe? I didn’t have the courage to upset my father and take it off in Syria. When I told him that I wanted to, he said do that when you can distance yourself from the gossip of others, when you leave the country.
My father is not as religious as my mother, but people’s opinions matter a lot to him.
What I recall the most from this experience was the massive fear I felt about taking such a big step. I thought that this would be one of the most challenging decisions of my life – but it wasn’t.
I wanted to take it off because I wanted to look more natural. I didn’t like the idea that the “me” who wakes up and looks in the mirror while brushing my teeth, is totally different from the “me” who leaves for college covering my head and trying to substitute my hair with extra make-up on my face. I wanted to be as close as possible to the Riham I know.
The first few days were a bit tricky. I was so worried about the way I looked. I didn’t really know how to take care of my hair after 10 years of covering it. It suddenly looked huge and untamed. It took me some months until I had finally figured it out.
Now, my hair is an essential part of me. It reflects my character, how messy and strong I can be. I don’t regret it at all. Will I wear hijab again one day? Maybe, but I don’t see that now.
‘Islam isn’t the headscarf’
Anna Stamou, a Greek PR consultant, converted to Islam 15 years ago.
To tell you the truth, before I wore the headscarf, I felt a certain sadness for women wearing it. I thought: “Oh, poor women, they’re obliged to wear it.”
Today, many people ask me why I wear it since I live in Greece where I’m not obliged to. I get tired of the questions, but it’s my duty to answer. People haven’t understood that everyone should have the right to express themselves the way they want.
Comments on what women wear disturb me in general. A woman is wearing a pair of shorts and people draw conclusions. But we’re not meat.
There are many non-Muslim feminists who say that if they were in our position, they’d do everything in their power to get rid of the headscarf. They say that because they don’t know what it symbolises. Why don’t they talk about women’s education instead or the fight against authoritarian regimes? Why is everything about the way we dress?
I personally support those women who choose not to wear a headscarf. I tell Iranian women that don’t want to wear it to take it off. Islam isn’t the headscarf. Can you imagine a big religion like Islam depending on a piece of cloth?
When I was studying Islam, I decided to adopt it in its wholeness, so I decided to wear a veil. Of course, I was lucky enough to be self-employed and to be a dynamic person. But there are many Greek Muslims who don’t wear the headscarf because they know they won’t find a job. At the end of the day, though, it’s not the headscarf that defines how religious we are.
This is a discussion the so-called Western world talks about. The Muslim world’s problems are much more important. People are dying, and we’re talking about headscarves.
As told to Nikolia Apostolou.
‘As a western woman, for me, the hijab is a war I’ve won’
Maria Martinez* is a Mexican who converted to Islam two years ago.
I learned about Islam because I was interested in learning about different religions. I began to read the Quran and chose the theme of the role of women in Islam for my undergraduate thesis.
My curiosity was so great that I decided to fast during Ramadan and to start praying. It was at that moment that I decided to make my shahada [profession of faith]. I wore the hijab only when I’d go to the mosque. I would remove it because I felt embarrassed of showing it to my family, believing they would not understand.
The biggest challenge was my mother; she refused to see her only daughter covering her hair. My husband, who is Saudi, never pushed me to wear it. On the contrary, he believes the hijab’s function is to protect women, so if wearing it would cause me problems, that was contrary to its purpose.
But, one day, I decided to wear it. I knew that I would face the rejection of society and my family – and that maybe I would even lose professional opportunities. But I didn’t care because, just as we westerners have the right to dress or undress as we please, wearing the hijab for me is the claim of the right we have as Muslims. At first, I was afraid that people would offend me, but overall, the response was positive.
People respect me, and the hijab gives me the opportunity to show them that I am a happy woman, to show that one can be Muslim and professional – a student, a mother, and comply with the codes and the way of life in Islam. It is a great responsibility – all eyes are on you, and you should not give a bad image of Islam.
As a western woman, to me the hijab is a war I’ve won, and what I had seen as a disadvantage has become my fortress. I am currently doing my social service in the Ministry of Economy, finishing my major in communication sciences at the university and starting a business.
As told to Giulia Iacolutti.
*Name has been changed