Why I don’t wear hijab anymore

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(OPINION) I met an old friend last weekend, a reunion that is a perfect metaphor for major changes in my life. I was working in a small coffee shop in rural Pennsylvania when “Sandy” came up to me. After kissing and exchanging the classic banter (how are you, what are you doing now?), she finally addressed the elephant in the room: my hair.

It was the first time Sandy had seen my face without the Islamic headscarf. She was both shocked and fascinated. Perplexed and confused. We sat in awkward silence for a few minutes before she finally asked.

“Is this about, you know, what’s going on in Iran?”

I paused before giving a definitive answer. Although I took off my hijab over a year ago, it was dismissive of Mahsa Amini’s memory to simply claim that there was Absolutely no connection between my disclosure and the ongoing struggle of Iranian women for freedom.

Although I have always admired the bravery of Iranian women, I grew up in a community where these same women were considered “sinners”, “Western aspirants” or “servants of Satan”. And no, I didn’t grow up in the Middle East or in a theocracy. Although I spent my formative years in the Levant, I grew up here in the United States. The organization my family was a member of is based on orthodox Islam, following the Shafi school of jurisprudence.

We were taught that the “awrah” (private space) for a woman is her whole body except for her hands and face. According to my Islamic teachers, Amini was not properly covered as her hair was partially exposed. Now, would these aunts agree that she deserved to die? Probably not, but they would insist that it would all be easier if Muslim women covered themselves “properly”.

We were taught that the Islamic hijab is an order from God and not a choice. I remember as a little girl watching Oprah’s interview with Queen Rania of Jordan. Oprah asked her for her take on the matter and she said she thought it was a personal choice. My grandmother and my mother called her a “kafir”, simply because, according to them, she had denied the Koran.

Rania’s response is common, as it is a standard response from most moderate Muslims when speaking to Western audiences. I find this intellectually dishonest, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Originally, when Islam began, the purpose of the hijab was to create a clear distinction between freeborn believing women and slave women. Enslaved women in pre-Islamic Arabia only covered the area between their knees and their navel, leaving their chest bare. This naturally made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence from their masters and other men. Over the centuries, this clear distinction between Muslim women (good women) and others (bad women) has been embedded in jurisprudence as well as cultural ideas about women and sexuality in Islamic societies. Most Muslims still tend to consider the veiled woman as ‘pure’ and therefore more worthy of respect, while an unveiled woman is considered ‘fitnah’ (corruption).

The images coming out of Iran have given me so much hope for the future not only of the country but of the region. Cotton and muslin scarves ignite. Young women dancing happily in the unveiled streets. French and Italian women showed their solidarity on social networks by cutting their hair. There are those in the West who wish to view this revolution in Iran as the mere result of economic depression and sanctions. With Iran’s economy suffering for some time, to say that the contempt for the headscarf began with Amini’s death would be to scorn the decades-long protests against compulsory veiling since the early days of theocratic rule. The mullahs were unable to fully enforce compulsory public veiling until 1981 due to protests and pushback by Iranian women.

In recent years, the West has seen movements to normalize the headscarf, which I am not totally opposed to. I don’t think veiled women should be attacked or discriminated against in the workplace. However, given its history as well as how it is used in Islamic theocracies, I don’t think the hijab can be feminist or truly ’empowering’.

While Western feminists may support the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf, they must remember that some of us seek the freedom to remove it – both in theocratic states and in Western countries. Many of us may not be controlled by a mullah but by our families and our communities.

The editors of Religion Unplugged know the identity of the writer and, given the security concerns for expressing opinion, protect the identity of the writer.

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