Updated: Mar 12, 2021
By Lamisa H.
The manner in which the hijab has been regurgitated, repurposed and represented is just another way that the private worlds of young women have come up for discussion in the public sphere. To put on my scarf is a personal decision but as I have grown with it, it has become politicised. The inherent visibility of the hijab dilutes its spiritual significance when having to observe it in the everyday mundane. Over time, the space between the private, political and public spheres, for me, has been shortened and I need to find the balance.
Over the last few months, I have become acutely aware of how much I attain my news, entertainment and self-value all from one social media platform. This is what Eva Illouz terms emotional capitalism, as our private spheres have become increasingly defined by economic and political models of bargaining, exchange and equity. We see this everywhere in the feminine realm: to self-help books, skincare regimens, talk shows and dating sites. I see this in the world of influencers that we all aspire to, follow and mimic. What happens when you throw the hijab into this equation? And how does its hyper-visibility exist within consumer spaces?
Do I wear it for me, or for others?
The hijab is now part of my being. When I wear it, I can’t deny the set of expectations that come with it - the image I’m selling to my friends, family, colleagues, my students and the people on the train. I forget that I have something on my head, and almost get exhausted when people comment on it. It's like having to acknowledge your nose constantly. Despite wanting to deny its political meaning, it’s something I need to come to terms with. Throughout the years, I have become completely desensitised to my hijab, but ultimately, it is a socio-political identifier I choose to make every time I step out the door.
I don’t think I would ever take it off, and I haven’t ever seriously thought about doing so. I don’t struggle with the aesthetic of the scarf, I’ve made it my own, and I couldn’t imagine myself in the public sphere without it. In the socio-political climate that we're in, we build our hijab into the identity we choose to present to the world. It is a struggle to maintain the balance between how you would like to present it and keeping the hijab's authenticity intact- a fine line. I respect the women who decide to take it off. It’s actually a great strength, to be able to have the courage to go against the particularly constructed ideal everyone had of you.
The Best Decision I Made for Myself
I loved the way the hijabi women around me carried themselves: with conviction and I had always envisioned that for myself. But my reasons for choosing the hijab were never aesthetic. It was a personal and eager choice at the age of 15, and it was an innocent time in my life when I was surrounded by people who took the time to grow in their faith with me. My mentors took my friends and I on a spiritual getaway by the beach, where we prayed, woke up for the sunrise every morning, read books on faith and discussed spiritual topics as a group. The communal faith inspired me so much that I decided it was the right decision for me. So I put it on with my two best friends on Eid day.
My maths tutor at the time asked me why I put the scarf on and I didn’t know how to explain it to him. How could I tell a white man that spiritual enlightenment compelled me to? That same night, I found a Yasmin Mogahed quote that resonated with me: it’s exactly how I felt. I ended up posting to my Instagram (now deleted) and with my mum egging me on, I decided to send that to my white man tutor in a short message. He never replied to it (lol). This was the quote:
What the Hijab Gave Me
See, I used to be seriously self-conscious about the male gaze, ever since I was young. As I was approaching my senior years of high school, and going through puberty and feeling uncomfortable under the male gaze, this self-consciousness started to become unhealthy. I used to have to walk past this intimidating group of high school boys after school every day. I mentally prepared myself and even rehearsed what kind of expression I needed to have while I walked past them. Suddenly, everything about me was on display. I didn’t put the scarf on as an intentional resistance to this, yet the first time I walked past the group with my hijab, those feelings stopped existing.
The hijab stopped me from seeing myself from the male gaze. I walked past them with confidence, without a care because I didn’t care what they might have thought anymore. I knew I became inconspicuous to them, instead of a spectacle to be judged. This is obviously not the way I feel now. We all know now that the hijab has become attractive in of itself, symbolising an elegant sort of beauty that a lot of women I know present. It also takes a lot of effort, as you get older, to not view yourself through the male gaze.
Recently, I realised that the hijab helped me shape my views of beauty much more than I had given it credit for. The hijab unknowingly allowed me to practice body neutrality all these years. I wholeheartedly appreciate that as an adolescent, I didn’t have the pressure of feeling like I needed to show my body. I had the freedom to overcome those insecurities in my own time, without the pressure of people’s gaze. The hijab protected me from focusing on my body image for too long. I’m grateful that as an adolescent, I spent my time thinking about alternate traits; tapping into my hobbies, investing time to improve my mental health, and spending time developing strong female friendships.
So, is the hijab my personal brand? Yes, but this is a reminder for me that it cannot be reduced to that. Even though the hijab has been politicised in the public sphere, I need to remember the reason I put it on was never to assert my identity but to strengthen my faith.
Illustration by @pinkcrescentstudios
Editor: Tahmina R.