5 Sep 2016

But is it really a choice?

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 now lost my faith and am no longer practicing. I am also approaching it from a perspective of a woman who wore the Hijab and took it off because I felt like a hypocrite! I sin a lot, and I have no business pretending that I am a pious or modest woman.

When the ‘Burkini’ issue in France took over the media and most conversations, I kept hearing Muslim women say that ‘It’s our 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 choose to do so. I think it’s very empowering how Muslim and non-Muslim women (who support the Burkini) responded to the French approach to women wanting to cover up.

What I doubt, 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, grandmother, aunts, older female cousins) wear the Hijab. I went to school and was told by my Islamic teacher that a Muslim girl MUST wear the Hijab, or else will be brutally punished by God. As soon as I reached puberty, the pressure became more intense, all my class mates 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: ‘Look girls, look how modest and beautiful your colleague Muneera looks in her Hijab, her face is radiant and glowing with the light of Islam’.

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, at every meal: ‘Why don’t you be a good girl like your sisters and your cousins and cover your hair?’ and ‘What if you die without having fulfilled God’s wishes of modesty? You will surely burn in hell’ and ‘No good man will want to marry an uncovered girl’ and ’Good men prefer modest women, you’re not fit for marriage unless you wear Hijab’. The shaming went on and on..

Eventually, I did wear it. Because I was told it was right thing to do. Because I wanted to please my family, because I was told it was my duty as a Muslim woman. Because I did not want to eternally burn in hell. Because I did want a good man to look at me as wife material and want to marry. Because of all the social conditioning, and the ideas I was breast-fed ever 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 you’re threatened with eternal damnation unless you wear it.