What it's really like to wear a hijab


Raidah Shah Idil

"I wear a hijab (headscarf) so when I’m in the public eye, I am unmistakably Muslim."

"I wear a hijab (headscarf) so when I’m in the public eye, I am unmistakably Muslim." Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model.

I wear a hijab (headscarf) so when I’m in the public eye, I am unmistakably Muslim. If you look at me, you’ll also see that I’m some garden variety of Asian. If you talk to me, you’ll see how much I love fantasy novels.

I remember officially putting on the hijab when I was 13. Like many Muslim kids, I had been prepped for it by my parents and religious teachers for a few years beforehand. I was taught that once puberty hits, all the rules I had been practising start to apply. My new dress code came into play alongside my five daily prayers and fasting in the month of Ramadan. When I was younger, I remember playing soccer with my cousin and brothers in a t-shirt, jeans, and a small headscarf. I figured that was akin to training wheels. Once I made the decision to wear the hijab proper, I upgraded to long-sleeved jackets or blouses. I took my decision with the determination of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and the only pang of disappointment I remember was about the loss of my Sunday morning swimming classes. With the invention of the fabulous Ahiida burqini, swimming is now another fun past-time.

Being a fruit salad (Mostly Malay, part Chinese, Indian and a smattering of other traders/colonisers who visited my motherland) who enjoys travel, I’ve had some interesting experiences wearing the hijab in different countries - Jordan, Malaysia and Australia, to name a few. When I lived in Jordan, I wore the hijab and the niqab (face veil) while I worked and studied. This was a choice I made to help me fit in with a very conservative community of other Western Muslims. The local Jordanians who didn’t cover their faces must have thought we were an interesting bunch, but they were lovely, and welcomed us into their homes. I wonder sometimes how on earth I survived the blistering desert summers with my face covered, but it goes to show people can adjust to all kinds of things. All it takes is faith and determination. And of course, breathable fabric.

In Malaysia, the land of my ancestors, my experience with hijab is quite different to the Arab heartlands. The beautiful, bold colours and patterns of the Malaysian people would make anyone in a black niqab stand out. Most Muslim women in Malaysia don’t cover their faces, and I wouldn’t even try with the humidity. The great thing about wearing hijab in Malaysia is that nobody bats an eyelid. I feel comfortable because it’s common knowledge that Muslim women in hijab are active participants in the public sphere - doctors, lawyers, government officials, and even members of the Malaysian royal family. Additionally, being Malay in Malaysia means I look like the majority of the population. Imagine that! That’s a novelty for me, having lived as part of a racial minority for most of my life in Australia. People only start looking at me funny when I start to talk. Almost two decades of living in Sydney has given my spoken Malay an odd twang, and that is when savvy shopkeepers start to hike up the prices. The irony.


When it comes to wearing the hijab in Sydney, my experience depends on where I’ve lived. Living in Lakemba brought a similar kind of anonymity. I fit right in with a lot of the locals who are dressed like me. Sure, there’s a whole spectrum of how you wear hijab, ranging from the long, billowing mono-coloured style with a black abaya (Arab-style one-piece gown) to the chic, vibrant style with kaftan tops and jeans. There is space for self-expression, and I’m comfortable with my trademark outfit that makes my mother wonder if I have no other clothes - my pink scarf, turquoise cardigan, purple blouse, black skirt and Skechers. My wardrobe is a non-issue for me because my hijab isn’t something I think about every day. It’s just part of who I am. Still, every now and then, I get asked “Aren’t you hot in that?” In the summer, my answer is, “No, because I’m wearing cotton.” Nobody asks me if I’m hot in the winter because we’re all freezing and extra coverage only means more warmth. Winter is my favourite month for attempting some semblance of fashion. I profess a great love for winter coats, colourful neck-scarves and boots. Summer, on the other hand, is all about surviving the heat by being smart with fabrics and direct sun exposure. Cotton or cotton blends are a life-saver, and so is wearing colours that deflect the heat i.e. dropping blacks and upping the light pastels.

Wearing the hijab in Lane Cove, on the other hand, makes me really stand out and feel a bit more aware of what I look like in the public eye. Thankfully, folks there are the polite sort who don’t gawk at me, and I’ve found that when in doubt, I smile. And that helps. On my self-conscious days, I start to wonder if people are staring at me, and this is amplified after media debacles involving Muslims. When I’m feeling positive about the world, I don’t notice anything unusual, and I just go about my errands. I’ve come to a happy realisation that most people out there are willing to keep an open mind, and they are much more interested in their own day-to-day lives than what I’m wearing. 

There is Raidah, the Muslim woman in hijab. And there is Raidah, who loves cats, enjoys reading the works of Charles de Lint and Raymond E. Fiest, and who can’t wait to sign up for watercolour painting classes. Like the rest of the world, there are layers to me. I belong to a global faith community of 1.6 billion, whose womenfolk are so clearly marked in the public sphere by our dress code. While we are united by our faith, each of us has a unique story to tell. My story has traversed different continents and postcodes, and each new landscape in my life has added to my story of self-acceptance in an ever-changing world.