Hijabis and the Pressure to Represent Islam
I remember the first time I put on a hijab.
It was pure white, one of that one-piece-slip-on which made my already small face look even smaller. At age 9, there isn’t much you object to. Everything that happens to you is expected to happen, and you are expected to accept it.
So, I did, with little difficulty. Besides, how do you protest against something you don’t even understand?
The first person to see me in it was Sam, one of my best friends at the time. I vividly remember him turning red, and asking me why I was wearing it with the shocked laugh of someone who wasn’t sure how to react.
Maybe this memory has always been fresh in my mind because he was the first person in school to see me wearing it. Or maybe it’s because I remember finding his reaction strange. Isn’t this something that was expected of me to do? After all, my mom wore it, and my sister wore it, and, come to think of it, all the women in both my extended families wore it. So why did he laugh?
The entire day, I remember, I got stared down by friends, students, and teachers alike. No one said anything outright offensive, because in a Muslim country, it’s not odd to see a young girl wearing the hijab.
It is, however — and this is something I realized much, much later — quite odd to see your friend and classmate go through such a radical transformation overnight. It is surprising, noteworthy, irreversible. You can’t help but see them in a different light, as someone who is now completely devoted to God, and who has now hidden a part of themselves from the world in an unrestrained proclamation of this to the rest of the world.
And it never occurred to me at age 9 that I had agreed to being perceived as such for the rest of my life.
The hijab transforms the way people see you act, speak, and interact. It gives them the permission to decide who you are, how you think, what you care about — all before they’ve even gotten to know your name.
I didn’t lose all my friends on day one. No, it was a much slower, much subtler process of distancing that took place over the next few weeks. Mimicking the trickling of water going down a drain, my sociability and likability dwindled until I was left with just a handful of those who still saw me for me, the few drops left behind after a colossal downpour.
As a child, it is easier to react than it is to act. And that’s what I did. I saw their eyes when they spoke to me, when they looked at me, when they moved away from me. I grasped onto their perceptions of me, and I became them.
Hijabis can’t do this, sit like that, joke about this, or try that. Hijabis must do this, sit like that, talk about this, listen to that. Hijabis are hijabis before they are girls, before they are people, before they are human. And, above all, hijabis must endure.
I understand endurance of pain, loss, fear, hardships.
But of deteriorating esteem? Of waning expressiveness? Of a noticeable loss in femininity? Of a dwindling perception of the self?
The promise of reward in exchange for endurance is a common notion in Islam. And endurance implies deeming something worthy enough to suffer for. But what exactly was I enduring this for?
To feel like an impostor in your own skin for donning something that has never represented you, and for morphing it into a part of your identity — it opens you up to losing the truest parts of your being.
To be robbed of the freedom to decide what you value, and to be expected to surrender arms raised, with a smile on your face, is the reality I didn’t have a choice but to accept.
…or do I?
Acceptance is dangerous when necessitated by survival.
And if, one day, I decide to stop accepting, it will not be without loss or consequence. It is an internal battle I fight every morning as I look in the mirror at the woman wrapping a hijab around her head.
Who am I acting for?
Read more from Mariyam Amir here