Wearing a hijab can be terrifying but, after 14 years, I’m grateful for mine

It has been hugely liberating (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This week marks 14 years since I started wearing the hijab, meaning I’ve now spent exactly half my life as a hijabi. 

As I reach this milestone that some Muslim women lovingly refer to as our hijabiversary, it’s had me reflecting on the journey of the last decade and a half: the good, the bad, the rejection and the harassment, but also the hidden joys. 

I would be the first to say that a piece of cloth on a woman’s head doesn’t define her; in fact, I probably wrote that as a Facebook status at some point in my teenage years.

But the fact is that this piece of material has, in fact, come to define me in the eyes of others and the eyes of myself too. 

As we went through our teenage years, and my friends did normal British teenager things like meet boys from MSN and sneak stolen sips of alcohol from their parents’ cupboards, I became increasingly aware that I was different from my white friends and that our futures looked very different, too.

I felt like I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t white enough but that I also wasn’t brown – or Muslim – enough to be friends with the hijabi girls at my school. I longed for friends who were like me, who had similar home lives to me, and who I didn’t have to change myself around.

For me, wearing the hijab came out of an identity crisis that left me searching for who I was. It was like I had failed at being white, so now it was time to embrace my otherness – and becoming visibly Muslim was my way of doing that.

Being a visibly Muslim woman can sometimes feel stifling, as though I’m only allowed to live in the preconceived boxes created by other people – that I’m only allowed to exist in the way the media, society, politicians and even Muslim men believe Muslim women should be – that we are oppressed and uneducated, that we have no agency and that our covered bodies constitute a failure of feminism. 

It can also feel terrifying. It means not standing at the edge of the Tube platform because that video of a hijabi being pushed into the path of an oncoming train is etched into the insides of my eyelids. 

It means walking the long way round to avoid the white men standing outside the pub, pumped up on alcohol and male hubris. Often, it leaves me weighing up my chances of experiencing violent misogyny or brutal islamophobia (or sometimes both) wherever I go. 

Becoming visibly Muslim gifted me with a desire to rewind and fill in the gaps of my childhood

But in other ways, it has been hugely liberating. By wearing the hijab, by facing alienation and rejection at the hands of my white friends and discomfort in the white spaces that I could once inhabit with ease, it forced me to carve out a space for myself that I could fill with people like me; friends and family who I could be my true unapologetic self around. 

It meant finding friends who didn’t ridicule me for needing to pray at certain times because in fact we all prayed together. It meant no longer having to make excuses to cover up my brownness as though it was something to be ashamed of. 

Becoming visibly Muslim gifted me with a desire to rewind and fill in the gaps of my childhood – to learn about the faith that had simply been a backdrop to my family life. 

Growing up with only one Muslim parent and without any religious education whatsoever, I often felt marooned between two islands – like I didn’t fit, or fully understand, either side. But facing questions about why I had suddenly started dressing differently forced me to learn more about my religion for myself, and for the first time I felt spiritually connected to a deeper reason for living. 

Rather than being governed by simple rules like not eating ham sandwiches that my child’s mind didn’t understand, I suddenly felt like there was a greater purpose – a hidden blessing in the hardships I felt as my friends and even some of my family rejected me for my choice.

When I put on the hijab 14 years ago, I had no idea that I was constructing a huge target and attaching it permanently to my own back. How was I to know that strangers in the street who had never so much as looked twice at the unassuming teenager I was before would now cast their eyes up and down my body as though inspecting a foreign threat? 

I didn’t know that I’d be called ‘Taliban’ on the bus by older white boys or heckled as ‘haram’ by Muslim boys for enjoying a Filet-O-Fish with my friends. I didn’t think I’d be told to ‘go back home’ while crossing the same roads I’d crossed for as long as I could walk. 

I hadn’t foreseen that my favourite teacher would call me the wrong name for the entirety of my first lesson as a hijabi because even she didn’t see beyond the black fabric on my head. Or that every trip to the airport would now be three times as long, as I factored in being ‘randomly’ selected for extra security checks every single time. 

But I also didn’t realise that it would forge a bond between me and the other women who are racialised in the same way. The nods and the smiles and the salaams between me and my sisters, forced to go about our lives under the confines of how this country views external Muslimness, with a media that vilifies us as archaic and sinister, and politicians who portray us as a threat or something to be ridiculed. 

I’m grateful for the times when, as the only Muslim adult they’d ever met, my students in a predominantly white school felt they could ask me questions about why I dress this way (although a large chunk of them did admit to thinking I was bald under there, or that I stick my pins straight into my skull like a pin cushion). 

It meant that my being visibly Muslim, I could open the door to them having that conversation with me, and in my own small way I could counter some of the derogatory narrative they, like all people, had been subjected to. 

Or for the times when I have made friends with the only other hijabi in the room at work events or interviews, and our friendship has blossomed from the shared experience of being the only minority in the room. If I didn’t wear the hijab, these opportunities would never have happened. 

I was almost reluctant to write this. Using my voice as a Muslim woman to talk about the hijab can feel a little predictable, as though I am cementing the idea that our words are only valid when discussing our religious attire, like our perspectives are only worthy of attention if we are mining our subjugation for the public gaze. 

But my hijab has been both the making and breaking of who I am and who I was. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m proud we’ve made it to 14 years.

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