By Imaan Irfan
“Do you shower in that?”
“Does it hurt when you stick those pins inside your head?”
“What do you call it…the head robe?”
It’s been just over four years since I first attempted to clumsily drape a scarf over my hair. I failed the first time, rather tragically. A swathe of cloth trailing down my back, I looked more like an Asian granny than a teenager bent on making a feminist statement…
Even after four years, people often seem at a loss to know how to approach to conversation, or even how to refer to the colourful piece of fabric wrapped around my head. I’ve heard the perfectly respectful ‘headscarf’, the culturally sensitive ‘hijab’, the slightly ominous ‘veil’, or my personal all-time favourite: the utterly bewildered ‘head toga’.
(If all else fails and you’re mortally afraid of causing offence, just gesture awkwardly, avert eye contact and say ‘your…’ and tail off as I figure out what you’re referring to.)
‘Hijab’ is a term which has colloquially come to refer to the headscarf in particular. In mainstream Islam, the headscarf is generally seen as a small but obligatory part of dress, though many people choose not to wear it for personal or cultural reasons. It isn’t a measure of piety, but is a symbol of faith, a physical manifestation of a spiritual identity.
We exist in an age where girls are crippled by unattainable beauty standards and women disproportionately bear the brunt of sexual objectification, as media perpetuates the commodification of our bodies. My hijab defies this, representing liberation from conventional expectations of attractiveness, or from being seen or judged based on the length of my hair or the shape of my body. Instead, it’s a reminder that our bodies are ultimately of limited relevance; I must be judged based on the non-physical: my intellect, my personality or my badly delivered jokes. My hair is made private, which means that I have complete control over who sees it. For me, it means that I’m tied to my own principles, not to other people, a powerful symbol of non-conformity.
As with anything in life, it’s not all a bed of roses. I practically shed straight pins — much to the horror of my family, who are convinced I’m trying to assassinate them (an accusation I am not in a position to either confirm or deny). With only my face and hands exposed, the tan lines are the worst. Then comes the ultimate test of faith: when a good hair day coincides with a bad hijab day. My hair remains an important part of my identity, perhaps even more than before I started wearing hijab. Though I don’t need to cover up to the same extent in front of close family, other girls, or young children, it’s difficult not to occasionally envy the off-the-shoulder tops or tea-length skirts I see on the pretty girls around me. Some days the main thing keeping my scarf on my head is the knowledge that I couldn’t respect myself if I didn’t act on what I believe in.
Aside from the whole ‘internal struggle’ business, women who wear the headscarf face challenges both from external prejudice and from within Muslim communities. In my experience, some upper-class Pakistanis can be pretty snobby about it, as the headscarf largely tends to be associated with working class people. My grandmother, tugging at the underscarf which keeps my hijab in place, once half-jokingly said “Imaan, jaani (dear), I love you…but I would love you a lot more without this”.
I remember I once tentatively tried to introduce the topic with a Muslim friend, as if this was the first time I’d considered the idea. “Hey…do you think I should start wearing hijab?” She promptly burst into laughter. “LOL no — your face will look fat!” The support was overwhelming.
Hana Khan, a ‘hijabi’ studying Engineering at Cambridge, summed up her experience by saying,
‘The thing about being a visibly Muslim woman is that you wear your faith very obviously to the rest of the world…with all the negative coverage of Muslims in the media, there’s a huge burden on these women to present an alternative view of Islam – one that’s moderate, and common-sensical, and doesn’t interfere with life as the West would like us to lead it.’ She tells me she resonated with the novel Hidden Figures, particularly this section:
“Katherine [Goble] understood that the attitudes of the hard-line racists were beyond her control. Against ignorance, she and others like her mounted a day-in, day-out charm offensive: impeccably dressed, well-spoken, patriotic, and upright, they were racial synecdoches, keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community.”
A synecdoche is ‘a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole’ and Margot Lee Shetterly’s description sums up some of the ubiquitous pressures minorities face.
Subconscious stereotypes are always at play; a day after the Boston Marathon bombings, a family friend of mine gave his teacher a gift for her help during a set of scholarship exams, only for her to comment “I hope there’s not a bomb in it!” Classic. I’ve been informed by one little girl that I would “look like a normal person” without my scarf, but almost all of the comments I hear become genuinely funny. Aside from the occasional dirty look or uncomfortable stares from strangers, I’ve had it pretty easy. Then there’s also the age old conundrum ‘is that guy looking at me because he thinks I’m cute or because he wants to deport me?’
We know the devastating cumulative effects of lower-level bigotry, of legitimising the language of ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’, of ridiculing the same people you claim are oppressed. There was a police car outside of my mosque the Friday after the New Zealand massacre, and five mosques in my grandparents’ city were vandalised in the aftermath.
On an individual and collective level, we can try to be aware of our blind spots, not be complacent in ignorance and try to cultivate understanding and knowledge of our differences while acknowledging a unifying culture. Ultimately, we must embrace the freedom to live and let live, to simply allow other people to peacefully get on with it. And that, (though the staunch leftie in me is reluctant to sound patriotic) is, ultimately, very British.
Read more of Imaan's blog here: https://exlibris.blog