A depoliticized and realistic portrait of hijabs

Preconceived notions of hijabs are often inaccurate and cloud the experiences of those who chose to wear it

The wearing of hijabs is personal, and its meaning defined by the person who wears it. Graphic Joey Bruce

Let’s face it; when discourses regarding hijabs are brought up in news headlines, they are mostly led by those who do not wear the garment or have no knowledge regarding its purpose.

Hijab is often reduced to a custom or a religious symbol, given the lack of desire for insight on what it consists of and why people choose to wear it. 

The controversial nature of the hijab, paired with its politicization in the western world has led people to take a position either for or against it without attempting to understand its true purpose. However, understanding the reason why people choose to wear it and its meaning is crucial. 

In Islam, the notion of modesty is tied to how one should present themself and is mentioned in the Quran. The hijab also symbolizes modesty in terms of choice of clothing. However, the details of what modest encompasses are ambiguous, as there is no mention of specifications within garments in scripture. There have been various arguments regarding whether modesty is based on observation and tradition or laws. 

In terms of clothing choice in Islam, all Muslims are asked to present themselves in a modest manner according to the Quran. “The Arabic definition of hijab literally means a barrier or partition. Hijab is also the barrier and partition of a person’s thoughts, character and demeanor,” said Sperander Yawa Ayimah, a Montreal-based fashion designer. It is important to understand that people who wear hijabs undergo different journeys, but their struggles create a shared experience.  

“I started wearing hijab in January 2007, I was midway through sixth grade and my mom, brother, and I just returned from pilgrimage,” said the Chicago-based physician Deena Kishawi.  Her experience in Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, was the starting point that led to her to wearing the hijab. Kishawi said it kept her connected to Islam on a spiritual level. 

“I was 11 at the time, and quite frankly didn't understand hijab the way I do now.” she added. “My understanding of hijab at the time was very basic, but I had a deep love and passion for the way it looked on me. All the women in my life wore hijab and looked beautiful in it.”

People often experience growth during their hijab journey, which enables them to have a more profound outlook on hijab and its importance. Aside from feeling connected to the concept, it often takes time to fully comprehend its importance. 

“After sitting down and doing more research on my religion, I had a life-changing realization that this has nothing to do with other people and is solely between you and God.” — Imani Bashir

While there is no right age to start wearing the hijab, being exposed to the idea of wearing it is often a common practice among more traditional Muslims, given its cultural context in relation to religion. Kawter Chougui, visual artist and editor from Montreal, underwent a similar scenario when it came to first wearing hijab at a young age, not fully understanding its significance.

“When I first started wearing it, I was uncomfortable,” she said. “I was a teenager and I did not properly understand its meaning.” Chougui’s introduction to the hijab was more cultural since the people around her were wearing at a young age. 

The state of the world post-9/11 became stressful for Chougui due to the rampant Islamophobia in Quebec. The negativity even clouded her judgment and view of hijabs, making her journey uneasy. Witnessing the hate generated towards those who are visibly Muslim led her to wear it as a statement instead of a personal connection. 

“For the longest time, I was wearing it as a statement, almost like I was a defiant, rebellious woman, which in a way can be true because it’s not always easy to wear the hijab,” she said. “Then I realized that I was wearing it slightly for the wrong reasons because I was trying to prove something to others.” 

Imani Bashir is a broadcast journalist and entrepreneur who started her hijab journey in her twenties. She underwent an identity crisis during her adolescence which pushed her away from the hijab until she truly understood its meaning. 

“Once I began my career in broadcasting I remember taking a hard look at myself and [asking] ‘Who do you want to be?’ and also ‘How do you want people to see you now?’ I felt like I had a better understanding of myself and my personal relationship with Allah, so I’ve been wearing a hijab ever since,” Bashir said. 

On top of the struggles that come with wearing the hijab, many people undergo inner-conflicts regarding their intention with hijab. Chougui mentioned having different views on hijab over the years. 

“After sitting down and doing more research on my religion, I had a life-changing realization that this has nothing to do with other people and is solely between you and God,” said Bashir. She also saw a turning point during her hijab journey once she realized its importance when it comes to representing Islam. 

“I think it’s beneficial to hear from Muslim women, those who wear hijab now or did in the past, and those who do not wear hijab at all and never have.” — Kawter Chougui

The hijab sparks various conversations, especially in the western world as people often view it as a limitation to women’s rights. However, Muslim women for the most part do not view themselves to be a part of that oppressed narrative that appears to be pushed upon them. 

"I felt and still feel people spend way too much time [focused] on hijab and women when men were first commanded and mandated to have it,” said Bashir. What anti-hijab feminists fail to realize is the problematic nature that arises from labeling those who freely choose to wear hijab as oppressed. This both invalidates people’s lifestyles and adds to the stress of dealing with hostility just for wearing the garment. 

Chougui found hijab uncomfortable at first, given the false narratives tied to it in popular media that made Muslim women appear as victims of oppression. “When you’re young it’s kind of overwhelming to be bombarded with these sort of messages about yourself [...],” Chougui said. “I think it’s beneficial to hear from Muslim women, those who wear hijab now or did in the past, and those who do not wear hijab at all and never have.”

Ironically, Muslim women are mostly left out of the feminist discourse on the hijab being an oppressive symbol. Ayimah indicates that wearing hijab in a patriarchal structure of society is rather empowering. “It represents a woman’s freedom of choice to dress as she sees fit and she may choose to put it on and take it off and that is her business,” she added.

Even though western society is slowly moving towards becoming more inclusive, inaccurate narratives about the hijab continue to manifest. A lot of the negativity surrounding hijabs comes from uninformed opinions that vilify those who wear them. 

“Hijab represents so many things to so many different people, but at the end of the day hijab is also just a piece of fabric,” Ayimah added. “If a piece of fabric on a woman’s head scares so many people, then we as a society truly have a bigger problem and need to reevaluate our priorities.” 

This article originally appeared in The Body Issue, published February 1, 2022.