The headlines involving hijab seem endless. Last year, the modest swimwear often worn by Muslim women, known as the “burqini,” was banned in the French Riviera. A few days after the ban went into effect a photo surfaced of a Muslim woman being forced to undress at the beach by French police officers. In my home country of Canada, a Muslim woman in hijab was racially targeted and attacked. The aggressor yelled: “I am a Nazi.”
When I hear these stories, I sometimes wonder why I still wear hijab. Why do I endure the onslaught of hatred from strangers? Why do I suffer stares on public transportation from uncomfortable riders? Why do I risk my safety for the headscarf? My relationship with hijab has been extremely complicated, and not just for these reasons. Although its political symbolism in an ISIS-obsessed, post-9/11 world is undeniable, to me hijab’s complications lie in the personal dilemmas, hesitations, and insecurities it evokes.
When I first wore hijab, I did not associate any larger meaning with it. At the time, I did not understand the meaning of modesty, nor did I try to. To retroactively impose those beliefs on myself as a ten-year-old would be unfair. I wore hijab simply because it would have been weird not to. This is how I explain it to my non-Muslim friends—imagine growing up around women like your mom and your aunts, with uncovered hair, and then as a preteen suddenly announcing you want to wear the hijab. It would be absurd. For me, the reverse was true: Wearing hijab was just a natural thing to do in my community.
Perhaps it was the naïveté of an eleven-year-old, but when I first wore hijab I did not feel different from my close friends of other faiths. My school friends shared my innocence. They would look at my hijab and ask questions out of sincere curiosity. “What is it like?”
“Why do you have to wear it?” When they found out that I didn’t celebrate Christmas they replied, “Oh, you’re Jehovah’s Witness. That’s cool.” That’s the thing about eleven-year-olds: They don’t associate meaning with a piece of fabric on some girl’s head.
The insecurities around wearing hijab appeared in my life later on. I started to feel alienation and discomfort in middle school. Hijab meant I was “the weird girl.” I did not dress like the other girls. I did not look normal, but most importantly I did not feel normal. At the same time, hijab did not protect me from the turmoil of being a teenage girl. Hijab did not make me immune to having crushes on boys, making dumb mistakes, hating my body, or having mental health issues.
As I moved through life, the challenges grew. Sometimes I blame my hijab for my being excluded in social situations, for not getting a job, or for not feeling beautiful. I feel I have to work twice as hard to get half of what those who blend in have. On the worst of days, I am deeply afraid my hijab means I will be assaulted as a recognizably Muslim woman.
All these insecurities mean I must continuously question and reaffirm why I wear a hijab:
I wear hijab because I want to.
I wear hijab as a feminist, as a woman, as a Canadian.
I wear hijab to hold myself morally accountable.
I wear hijab for God.
Although these are the beliefs behind my choice to wear hijab, daily insecurities taint my experience. I cannot help but imagine that life would be easier without a piece of fabric around my head. So yes, I think about taking the hijab off. Even though it is a personal choice, I often have to justify it to strangers.
To wear hijab is not a simple or an easy choice. It is not an isolated act. Mix in the politics of fear, the War on Terror, and exclusive feminism, and many days wearing the hijab seems almost impossible.
Sometimes I ask myself, why do I bother carrying the burden of hijab’s political and religious symbolism (quite literally) on my head? My relationship to the hijab is not stagnant. The very act of perpetual self-inquiry makes hijab meaningful to me. My hijab has given me the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself. The insecurities and hesitations hijab prompts push me to acknowledge I am a work in progress. I am imperfect but determined to be the best version of myself and to stand firmly in what I believe.