The Hijab All-or-Nothing

I have now been asked about a million times: “When did you decide to wear hijab?” It was only about a year after my conversion that I came up with a satisfying answer: “this morning!” I have been wearing hijab almost full-time in July 2012 and then promptly began posting hijab tutorials on this blog and on YouTube. This has lead to many on- and offline conversations explaining, rationalizing and justifying hijab, something I find extremely difficult as I don’t believe hijab (covering hair) is mandatory and I don’t wear it in all circumstances.

I honestly don’t think that Islam exclusively mandates hair covering. “Hijab” is never mentioned in the Qu’ran but rather “khimar” (a large shawl worn loosely over the head) is mentioned in only one instance:

And tell the believing females to lower their gaze and keep covered their private parts, and that they should not reveal their beauty except what is apparent, and let them put forth their [khimar] over their cleavage. And let them not reveal their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women, or those maintained by their oaths, or the male servants who are without need, or the child who has not yet understood the composition of women. And let them not strike with their feet in a manner that reveals what they are keeping hidden of their beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, that you may succeed.
Qu’ran 24:31, translation by The Monotheist Group

I see this passage as one might interpret “it’s cold outside, put on a tuque!”: I don’t care if you cover your ears or your full head, if you put on a tuque, a bonnet or a headband or if you heed my advice at all – it’s cold out and you should cover. In the same sense, I believe that one should be modest, whether that means covering their chest, their hair, their face or simply keeping their attitude in check: that’s up to that individual. While there is no doubt that head coverings were worn by the wives of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him and them) and that they even covered their faces at some point, I sincerely believe that those types of coverings are suggestions not obligations.

Even so, the community and general society do not accept hijab as a part-time commitment. I cannot count how many times, prior to donning hijab, I was told “if you put it on, you can never take it off“. Since putting on hijab, I have also been told “you can’t just take it off whenever you want“. More disturbingly, I have been told that I “shouldn’t wear hijab” if I am to talk or act in various ways deemed “un-islamic”. In short, hijab is being branded as all-or-nothing. Not only are hijabis expected to wear hijab at all times, they also are expected to be devout and behave appropriately in all circumstances.

That is often an impossible standard and, for some women, because they do not feel comfortable wearing hijab in some circumstances, they abandon the idea of wearing hijab altogether. The reverse is also true, especially for me: I am sometimes afraid to remove hijab even in situations where I don’t feel it’s comfortable, appropriate or safe.

Let this be clear:

There is no compulsion in [matters of faith]; the proper way has been clarified from the wrong way. Whoever rejects evil, and believes in God, indeed he has taken grasp of the strongest hold that will never break. God is Hearer, Knower.
Qu’ran 2:256, translation by The Monotheist Group

I believe that each of us are guided towards what is right and away from what is wrong for us.  Forcing an individual away or towards something often comes at the risk of pulling them away from God.

Thus, I now comfortably admit that hijab is something I negotiate daily. To be true to myself, I have to consider many aspects of my identity: my relationships with God, my religion, my communities, myself, my life. As those relationships change and evolve, wearing hijab becomes more or less important based on my circumstances.

My Hijab Comfort-Zones

My very first outing in hijab was to a local breakfast place after the prayer of the Festival of the Breaking of fasts (Eid-ul-fitr). There is often an expectation of modesty in mosques, even though they are segregated, and while I was not yet Muslim, I was happy to don hijab during the prayer. After the prayer, out of laziness or curiosity, I kept on the scarf I had clumsily wrapped around my hair and neck. We entered the restaurant and were seated next to a Muslim couple who greeted us with warm “Salaams“. The mood quickly changed when the couple found out my then-partner and I were dating and not married.

Hijab is often depicted as the ultimate barrier between believers and sin – conflating identity with community and appearance with devotion. However, I have no shame and my image as a Muslim is not to be confused with an adherance to orthodox views. So when I began to wear hijab, I did so with friends and with my then-partner. I wore hijab to karaoke, to the theatre, and to shopping centres. I received “salaams” with gratitude and let disapproving looks roll off my back. Personally, hijab gave me freedom: it allowed me to do as I wished with my hair and body. Even though not all workplaces have embraced my religious identity, I know that at least my hijab is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms while my tattoos and candy-coloured hair are not.

I am also proud to be a hijabi at gay pride parades and burlesque shows. My hijab makes me an identifiable Muslim and serves as a point of reference when aligning myself with gender, sexual and body positivity movements – things I honestly believe were embraced by Prophet Mohammad and early Muslims.

Hijab definitely serves to me as a reminder of God’s presence and protection. I cannot control how others view me or what they will think of or do to me, but I can be reminded of God’s Mercy and Compassion through my amazement at the world He has created and through the warmth and comfort I feel in a piece of cloth.

Men Make my Hijab Haraam

Hijab is my relentless tie to God – a reminder that I am of the believers. But reminders do not provide magical cures against patriarchy, selfishness, abuse or ridicule, they simply serve as visuals and help me implement certain aspects of my believing self in various situations.

I have written about Muslim men and my hijab many times before. Since some Muslim men have been taught negative attitudes towards women, they sometime apply those attitudes to anyone who appears to be Muslim – especially seemingly naïve, white hijabis. Nevermind that the Qu’ran mandates modesty for men before women:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and keep covered their private parts, for that is better for them. God is fully aware of what you do.
Qu’ran 24:30, translation by The Monotheist Group

It often seems that pious Muslim men seek to guide and control me, moderate Muslim men see me as a way either to get a “sexually experienced” Muslim wife, and non-practicing Muslim men see me as an “aunty-approved” girlfriend – blaming my parents for their own lack of commitment.

Then again, non-Muslim men sometimes also bear negative attitudes towards Muslim women. Some wish I didn’t wear hijab at work, at home, with their families, with their friends or in certain public spaces. They often will voice their entitlement to safety, or try to affect my sense of belonging.

Male privilege means that monitoring what I wear and how I wear it seems to be a favoured past-time for many Muslim and non-Muslim men and I will unapologically say that my previous “white, Christian-passing” look seemed to get me less attention. So I try, as much as I can, to disregard men when considering hijab because positive or negative, I am not out to seek their attention.

Letting it all Hang Loose

With all that said, there are still times where I will choose to wear a “smaller” or dutch hijab such as during evenings at bars, pubs and clubs. While Islam frowns upon the consumption of alcohol, I will admit that my choice to wear “conspicuous” hijab has little to do with the forbidden nature of the outing but rather to the unsafe nature of identifying as Muslim amongst intoxicated people. There were the odd times where I have had a drunk lady wave her hand dangerously close to my face to slur at me that she likes “all of that you’re wearing on your head thing” or another time when I was told rather sarcastically  by a middle-aged man that I was “so brave” for being seen in public with “that thing” on my head, or when an intoxicated neo-hippy sat at my table to tell me that I am “a great example of tolerance for Muslims every where“. At times like these, I rolled my eyes, asked them (politely or not) to leave and felt a little more insecure in my hijab.

I don’t wear hijab for the recognition nor do I wear it to be tokenized. I am not a role model. I am me, with all the good and the bad implied in that simple statement.

There were the times where I could easily let my guards down and, with it, my hijab. Usually in private homes, more often than not, my own. With men and women who love, like or at the very least respect me. The new friends often do a second take when the blue or purple hair flows from under the fabric. It leads to interesting and often important conversations on my sense of pride, safety and spirituality. Recently, I have taken the strange habit of asking men before taking off hijab – often more as a warning than as a request for permission: I will be showing my hair now, run for cover if that’s offensive to you.

Then there is the convoluted issue of family. As a French Canadian, my family is extended all the way to 6th and 7th cousins. I could not see myself covering my hair with any of them. This is not my culture, this is not my religion: my family ties would be greatly damaged if I considered wore a scarf whenever a male cousin or an aunt’s husband entered the room.

Moreover, my definition of men “who are without need” includes gay and trans* men and women who I would not marry. I often also uncover with lesbians who, while desiring women, will never see their feelings reciprocated by me.

This is not to say, though, that I will uncover for any cis*/trans* woman, or gay/trans* man. Seeing my hair is a privilege: for both men and women! I have been to some women’s house and when told I could remove hijab because no men were present, refused all the same: “if you don’t mind, I’m more comfortable with it on.” Because hijab is safety from judgement, a reminder that my body, my soul and my mind belongs to me and God alone, that I do not have to let myself be subjected to judgment, tokenization, objectification, or scrutiny from anyone – woman or man, straight or gay, cis- or trans*. I am allowed to and should speak up if I do not like how I am treated, how my communities are treated, how individuals are marginalized.

Through all the discomfort of covering, I have chosen what makes *me* feel safe, makes *me* feel right, and brings *me* closer to God, and I will speak up and defend any woman or man’s choice to do the same for themselves, whatever that means.

5 thoughts on “The Hijab All-or-Nothing

  1. Salaam! Much love & respect to you, Sister. I’m delighted to find your blog. Can’t wait to read more. Peace & Blessings…



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