Taking off the hijab

The choice to wear (or not wear) a hijab.

The choice to wear (or not wear) a hijab. Photo: Powerhouse Museum

Recently, I visited the Powerhouse Museum's Faith Fashion Fusion (FFF) Exhibition. It's a celebration of Muslim women's dress – from headscarf to hairdo – and how women are expressing themselves through fashion, without compromising their modesty. Showcasing the achievements of successful women, as well as the work of emerging fashion designers, it seemed more a celebration of Muslim women themselves.  

It makes for a refreshing change, and is significant because we're not yet at the point where Muslim women's dress isn't a novelty or a source of passionate 'discussion', particularly among people unaffected by the headscarf (hijab). Mixed reactions to the exhibition indicate that women’s dress remains a hot topic – and makes FFF even more necessary.

Hijab is considered compulsory by the vast majority of Islamic scholars, but like any religious practice, observing it is still a choice women must make for themselves. It's a woman's issue and an act that belongs to us. Yet great controversy continues to surround it, from a scholarship point of view, and in the judgments laid upon women wearing it – some are criticised for being fashion-conscious, while others are considered too modest.

For the record, not everyone who wears a hijab or any derivative thereof is being forced to do so, nor is she meekly preserving her beauty for her husband (particularly difficult if you're single). It's a religious obligation, but how, why and when a woman chooses to wear it varies. FFF is proof that women are injecting their own personalities into how they dress, regardless of modesty requirements.

Still, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned the reasoning behind wearing hijab, it's not an easy thing to do, especially in a country where you’re in the minority. And ask any girl who does wear hijab, and they will tell you that they’ve had moments – either fleeting or more prolonged – where they consider taking it off, and not merely because of social pressure. Or they may love the hijab, but miss wearing short-sleeved tops and feeling the breeze rush through their hair. Faithful you may be, but you’re still very human in your desires.

Some of us eventually do take it off, and it’s a subject close to my heart. I wore the headscarf for nearly a decade, and made the decision a few years ago to remove it. Like others in my position, it didn't stem from one defining moment and my reasons were personal. I wasn't launching a crusade against hijabs, though many queried the change with suspicion. I didn't want to explain myself though – it wasn't up to anyone else to make it acceptable. I chose to put it on, and it was my decision to take it off.

It didn't stop some people from taking it personally though, and I was on the receiving end of some negative and puzzling reactions. I lost a few friends in the fallout. One was offended that I didn't want to be lectured; I was, she told me, depriving her of her faith in doing so. Her emails grew increasingly irate. When I noted that I wasn't asking her to take her headscarf off, the response was so chilly I needed a beanie.

On the flip side, I had the support of friends and family, who recognised it as my choice. Whatever their sentiments, they didn’t change their behaviour towards me. It was a challenging time, and their warmth surrounded me.

Likewise, a friend in a similar situation told me she received an email from a strict Muslim man she knew. He surprised her with his empathy, acknowledging how difficult it must be to have your faith always on display.

My situation is far from unique, though based on what I've been told in the process of researching this piece, for some women the response was far worse. One girl, a Muslim convert fresh from a painful divorce, was considered persona non grata and no longer deemed suitable marriage material in her social circle. While for many Muslim women, wearing hijab brings with it a sense of liberation, one girl I spoke to admitted that she felt boxed in and desexualised. (She hasn't ruled out wearing it again.)

My own motivations for wearing a hijab were religious, but in hindsight, it also gave me a sense of identity. Friends and I have talked about how, conversely, you eventually yearn to blend in and be inconspicuous – hijab can define you, with some finding it hard to see beyond it.

What some people didn't realise when I took it off was just how seriously I take the hijab, and that was partly why I made the change. I'd transitioned from super conservative ‘hijabi’ to gypsy chick with hoop earrings, and I wasn’t very comfortable with the change.

I’ve heard so many times that the veil is just a cloth, an argument meant to demystify it to the weary or bigoted. I can't say I agree. It's so much more than that – it is, in ideal terms, a representation of faith, and a constant reminder of it. Hijab requires pluck and dedication, and a thick skin to deal with judgment.

I found it difficult in work situations and sometimes socially – I saw judgments being formed about me on the basis of my appearance. I understood why, but it didn’t make it easy. My self-esteem was also at an all-time low, and I found myself no longer comfortable dealing with the difficulties of wearing a hijab. But this was all personal to me and I can’t speak for others.

Wearing a hijab is a deeply personal commitment that is very spiritual, empowering and dignified and I admire the women who hold their heads high and wear it with pride. Moreover, I give kudos to those who do it in style. But it’s ultimately a personal matter of faith and despite common threads, there are different approaches to modesty. It isn't, and shouldn't be, a marker for a woman's faith.

In discussing the purpose behind FFF, assistant curator Melanie Pitkin said fashion is universal and accessible; FFF opens a cultural and religious doorway many would otherwise not walk through. And you’re invited to do just that. The promotional poster is a striking portrait featuring Muslim women of different backgrounds, shapes and fashion persuasions. It shows confident Muslim women looking beautiful and proud. It’s refreshing proof that Muslim women don't form one big veiled conglomerate. We're a fluid, thoughtful bunch, influenced by faith rather than dominated by it in how we dress.

 

Faith Fashion Fusion is on display at the Powerhouse Museum until February 2013. The writer is not affiliated with the exhibition.

 

 

14 comments

  • Wow! What a thoughtful piece. Thank you.

    Commenter
    Grayhorse
    Location
    Blue Mountains
    Date and time
    July 16, 2012, 8:12AM
    • Thank you Amal, for explaining with such sincerity and simplicity, something that I, as a non-Muslim have believed to be the case for so long. I don't understand, in a country such as ours, where we believe in equality for all, especially between men and women, that we don't see the irony of telling women that they shouldn't dress a certain way because of their religion, and that surely none of them would choose to dress that way - they are just being brainwashed. It's a point of view that degrades and humiliates women and religion. I hope your words open some minds.

      Commenter
      Mimi
      Date and time
      July 16, 2012, 8:18AM
      • What a wonderful piece - the first I've read that bravely touches on the fact that Muslim women, like all women, have their own sexual identity and some struggle with the fact that the hijab suppresses it. So often we read stories about the liberating nature of hijab but this is the first article I've read from an "insider" perspective that is brave enough to address the difficulties it poses. Thought provoking and insightful, well done Amal.

        Commenter
        Samira
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 16, 2012, 9:36AM
        • "the fact that Muslim women, like all women, have their own sexual identity and some struggle with the fact that the hijab suppresses it."

          But does the hijab really do that? I don't believe it does, and nor should it. A woman is still a woman, whether she's wearing a hijab or not. The hijab doesn't change the fact that a woman has her own thoughts and desires. These are more intrinsic to a woman's sexual identity throughout her lifetime than how she looks or what she's wearing - and I say this as a middle-aged woman whose beauty is fading fast ;)

          As far as I know, Islam expects men to be modest too. Some observe this modesty by growing a beard. Yet no-one questions the sexual identity of these men, do they?

          Commenter
          The evil twin
          Date and time
          July 16, 2012, 11:57AM
      • An interesting article. I have pictures of my mother in the '50s very fashionably wearing a headscarf (she comes from Finland) and it was a fashion item for all women in those days. For westerners, the main problem comes as facial expressions are a big part of body language and thus non-verbal communications. This is where people have issues with Muslim religious dress for women. Headscarfs are fine and quite a number are elaborate and good looking, its the burkas and veiled coverings that are an issue. If you can't see the face, then you've lost a great amount of communication with that person.

        Commenter
        John Holmes
        Date and time
        July 16, 2012, 10:05AM
        • Thankyou for this piece which has encouraged me to go to Sydney and visit FFF. I agree about the arrogance of everyone feeling they have a right to tell women how they should and shouldn't be dressing.
          However I hope I'm not falling into the same trap if I ask why it's only female muslims who wish (or are expected) to show respect for their faith in this way. I've never heard an answer to this, and hope you understand that some non-muslims do wonder. At the same time, I'm happy to be told to mind my own beeswax.

          Commenter
          Amy
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          July 16, 2012, 10:54AM
          • Amy, this is something I have also wondered as a non-muslim woman. I agree that people should be allowed to wear whatever they want but surely men should also be modest and could wear the hijab as a sign of faith?

            Commenter
            Victoria
            Date and time
            July 16, 2012, 12:45PM
          • You shouldn't be happy to readily accept such an answer, there is nothing wrong with knowledge.

            Islam works on a two pronged system, women to guard their beauty and men to guard their gaze (eiither to the eyes on their toes) so that if one fails the other saves society. However, within muslim cicles both have failed cause in the end we're only human, and in any case it's not our place to judge just try and do the best we can (I know i've done plenty of sins).

            Men do have other restrictions such as not being allowed to wear gold or silk, nor have pants that don't cover knees (minimum length), however these are also usually disregarded by many men. It is also disputed whether men can be topless as that is considered by some to be indecent. Further more it is preferred but not required for men to grow a beard (no mustache) this is suppose to be the way men show their faith (usually happens to older gentlemen late 30s -40s in some societies it's considered a disgrace not to have one by 40).

            I do concede it is not equal in duty but nor is the rewards.

            Commenter
            TI
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 16, 2012, 1:05PM
        • Whenever a Muslim friend tries to explain to me that the hijab is not about oppression and control of women, I earnestly try to listen and take their point on board. But it usually falls flat, as the more logical part of my mind won't stop whispering, "If it's not control and subjugation, why is it only for women? Why aren't men doing it? Why the double standard?"

          Doubly so for the niqab or burqa. It's unhappily common to see a family walking along in the summer sunshine, with father and sons wearing t-shirts and shorts, and Mum walking (always a few steps behind) smothered in an all-encompassing, black fabric tent.

          I'm so encouraged to see Islamic women questioning these double standards, and standing up for their right to express themselves as they see fit, rather than merely in line with more traditional standards.

          May you enjoy the wind in your hair and the sun upon your shoulders. With a good whack of 40+, of course ;)

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          July 16, 2012, 11:40AM
          • @ Red Pony,

            I too feel the same way - at least, more so about the niqab/burqa (face covering) than the hijab, which I have absolutely no problems with because Islam is not the first culture that advocated hair coverings for women, but merely exercised it more openly and is today imposed in many cultures used as a form of control as opposed to an act of faith (sort of like how in some areas where genocide was prevalent certain races were singled out and made to wear tags that tagged them as so as a sign of dominance and 'shame'.).

            For niqab being a 'must' in some schools of Islam: when Muslims go for the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca women have to uncover their faces in front of God. If we have to uncover our face in front of God, why do we need to cover our faces in front of men?

            As with headscarves it can become a beautiful piece of religious expression with colours of one's culture and national identity.

            To be fair many men in the gulf do wear long robes called thobes which are white (beats me why women have to wear heat sucking black, cultural or not) which covers pretty much everything and cover their heads with the traditional head dress.

            Its just that as with most patriarchal cultures the women are always a few good decades to centuries behind to be allowed to do anything new, so in some of the cultures where this is practiced to an extreme, women are still shamed, manipulated or brought up to accept that this 'choice' they make between being a pious woman and a disobedient (to God, family and society) woman - you know what 'choice' the woman will make.

            Commenter
            Green Tea
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            July 16, 2012, 1:28PM

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