I’m not approaching this narrative about wearing Hijab (head scarf) from a western, non-Muslim woman’s perspective. I’m an Arab who was born and raised in a Muslim culture (Kuwait) by two very strict Muslim parents. I was brought up as a Muslim, even though I have lost my faith and am no longer practicing. I am also approaching this from the perspective of a woman who was pressured into wearing the Hijab, and decided to take it off because I felt like a hypocrite. I sin a lot, and I have no business pretending that I am a pious or a modest woman.
When the French authorities wanted to ban the ‘Burkini’ in August 2016, the issue of Muslim women’s modesty took over the media and most conversations. I kept hearing Muslim women say that ‘It’s their choice’. That they chose to cover up, and they continue to choose to cover up, and no one should tell them otherwise. I was proud of how women fought for their right to wear whatever they wanted, for their right to dress modestly if they chose to do so. It was empowering to see how Muslim and non-Muslim French women (who support the Burkini) stood in solidarity, some French non-Muslim women argued that some of them also prefer - on occasion - to wear something less revealing than a bikini or a one piece when they went to the beach. Therefore, whether covering up was for personal or religious reasons, women should have full autonomy on what to wear when they went swimming. When the issue was put before the French Supreme Court, the Burkini ban was rejected, as it was considered a breach of the French constitution, which protects personal freedom.
What I doubt, though, is the question of choice. When I was a little girl growing up in Kuwait and attending a Kuwaiti public school. I saw older women in my family (mother, grandmothers, aunts, older female cousins) wear the Hijab. I went to school, and I was told by my Islam teacher that a Muslim girl must wear the Hijab, or else she will be brutally punished by God. Not only will the woman not wearing the Hijab burn in hell for all eternity, but her male guardians (father, brother, and husband) will burn in hell with her, for not guiding her to wear Hijab when she is a young girl, and not forcing her to wear it when she’s a grown woman and should know better. So, is it really a choice if you either wear it or go to hell? Not to mention your male guardians will suffer the consequences too, that’s a lot of guilt to carry for a girl at the tender age of nine.
As soon as I reached puberty, the pressure became more intense, all my classmates now wore it. When a girl in my class who did not wear the Hijab, came the next day wearing it, she was congratulated by all the teachers, given special treatment, showered with words of admiration and encouragement, and we, the non-Hijab wearers, were told to follow her example. With intense joy and sparkle in her eyes our teacher would point to our newly covered colleague and say: ‘Look girls, look how modest and beautiful your colleague Aisha looks in her Hijab, her face is radiant and glowing with the light of Islam’. I would stare at Aisha searching for the radiant glow and light of Islam in her face, but my classmate’s face was exactly as it was yesterday, the only difference is that her hair is now covered. I never dared say this aloud to my teacher or my classmates - of course - knowing that my opinion would be an unpopular one.
At school, I was told on a daily basis that wearing Hijab is one of the pillars of Islam. Therefore, you are not a good Muslim unless you cover your hair. The same things were said to me at home. Female cousins my age, my older sister and my younger sister all wore it now, and I was getting a lot of heat at every family gathering, and at every meal. ‘Why don’t you be a good girl like your sisters and your cousins and cover your hair?’ they would ask me accusingly, and ‘What if you die without having fulfilled God’s wishes of modesty? You will surely burn in hell’ they continued, and ‘No good man will ever want to marry an uncovered girl’, and ’Good men prefer modest women, you’re not fit for marriage unless you wear Hijab’ they added. When I argued that I always dress modestly in long sleeve shirts and long skirts and trousers, and I don’t show any part of my body, their response was a disdainful ‘don’t try to be clever, the commandment is clear in the Quran, it’s not enough to dress modestly, you must cover your hair’. They continued to judge me, bully me, shame me, and worse of all, link my worth as a female to whether or not a man saw me as wife material.
Eventually, I did wear it. I wore it because I was told that I had to. I wore it because I was taught that it was the right thing to do. I wore it because I wanted to please my family. I wore it because I wanted the shaming, the bullying and the judgment to stop. I wore it because I was told it was my duty as a Muslim woman to wear it, and because I did not want to burn in hell for all eternity. I wore it because I did want a good man to want to marry me one day, having a family of my own was something I aspired to. I wore it because I was young, too young to challenge all the social conditioning, cultural norms, and ideologies that were hammered in me since I was six years old.
So, No. It wasn’t a choice. It’s not a choice if everyone you love, trust and look up to, tells you that you have to do it. It’s not a choice if your only choice is to either wear it or simmer in eternal damnation.
If it was a choice women would not face violence, judgment, and shame if they choose to take it off. In many Muslim countries in the Middle East including Kuwait, many women face - in worst case scenarios - violence if they choose to remove their head scarves, and a lot of scorn in milder case scenarios. It is not a choice if you can’t not do it, and can’t stop doing it.
Paradoxically, the idea of conviction would be entertained every now and then. Muslims gossip and look down on women who wear it, but are not dressed modestly enough according to their cultural criterion, e.g. women who wear the Hijab and a top, or a pair of jeans too tight for society’s liking. ‘I don’t know why she covers her hair but doesn’t dress modestly, she’s obviously not convinced!’ they’d exclaim judgingly. Or when confronting a woman who took it off ‘why did you wear it if you weren’t convinced’ they’d condescend. What these cynics know and ignore is that there was no conviction, she was forced to wear it, and if there wasn’t any physical force, there was surely mental, and emotional pressure.
I find the contradictions and double standards surrounding Hijab both confusing and demeaning. A Muslim girl is taught very early on that Hijab is modesty and modesty will protect her from sexual objectification. And yet the girl wearing Hijab is continuously objectified as she is compared to a valuable and expensive pearl hidden safely in her shell, the shell being the Hijab. Another infuriating simile is the lollipop, a picture gone wildly viral on all kinds of media shows two lollipops, one wrapped and the other one without the wrapper, the latter is on the ground, dirty, covered in mud, and swarmed with ants, with the caption ‘which one of these would you rather be my Muslim sister?’ or ‘which one of these would you choose my Muslim brother?’. The newest version of the lollipop metaphor is the orange! A picture of a peeled orange and an unpeeled orange, this is the difference between a woman who doesn’t wear the Hijab and one who does. With the caption that a man will obviously choose the unpeeled orange, as the peeled one must be dirty and rotten, also, insects and dirt will not have access to the unpeeled orange. The narrative dedicated to convince young Muslim girls not to become sexual objects is in fact extremely objectifying, humiliating, and harmful to their self-esteem and self-worth. Teaching young girls that that their sole purpose in life is to fit in that narrow ideal of purity, meekness, and modesty preferred by Muslim males, only fuels patriarchal misogynistic ideologies, encourages sexual predation towards females who do not adhere to these ideals, and diminishes a girl’s ability to believe in herself as an individual with any meaningful thoughts, ideas and aspirations.