The hijab, the Islamic veil, does not mean anything in and of itself. It carries different meanings for many women around the world who choose whether to wear it, who must wear it, who refuse to wear it. For some, the hijab symbolizes domination by the patriarchy. For some it is the continuation of a family’s tradition; for others, it is a rejection of their parents’ secularism. It can be a sign of piety or an aspect of political activism.
I started to wear the hijab at 18 because my father told me that it was a religious duty as an adult to do so. I had no choice. I was already familiar with it from my summer vacations in Iran, where head-covering is mandatory for women. I didn’t mind because I was eager to try something new and please everyone. I knew amazing women who wore the hijab, and I wanted to be like them. Family and friends heaped praises upon me, telling their children that I was a model of discipline, virtue, and success. The good girl who didn’t date and lived with her parents. But I had two faces: In morning classes at my community college’s Running Start program, where I barely knew anyone, I would wear the hijab. But I was careful to remove it in the afternoon, when I attended high school with my suburban classmates, most of whom were white and wealthy.
I grew passionate about the topic to the point of becoming a public speaker on Muslim women and the hijab. Throughout high school and university, I conducted many presentations to diverse populations at churches, synagogues, and interfaith groups. People would open doors for me and celebrate my visible “otherness.” They respected me out of the respect I showed for my religion. I was also lucky regarding geographical location–you can walk the streets of liberal Seattle dressing like a clown, and no one would care. (As long as you don’t wear an “I Am a Proud Republican” t-shirt.)
All this positivity and accolade fed my ego. Consequently, my views about other women changed. I scorned those who didn’t wear the scarf, including my Italian mother who was uneasy with how I looked. I criticized friends in Iran who didn’t cover themselves properly. I considered myself superior, regal, and sophisticated. I had this public façade where my hijab made me special. I was a crypto-sexist. To my kind.
After I moved to Chicago for graduate school, my doubts about wearing the hijab deepened. Faced with a new freedom in a rough city far from my hometown paradise, I realized that the hijab projected an image of myself that conflicted with my personal reasons for wearing it. As a visible symbol, the hijab spoke in my place and limited me to others’ interpretation of it. I desired the right to choose for myself. I lost many things while wearing the hijab.
I lost my virginity, for example.
I continued to wear the hijab to classes, workshops, and parties but I felt that I disrespected anyone who wore it out of genuine religious beliefs. People continued to view me as “pure” and “pious” when I no longer thought of myself that way. And I was secretly breaking the rules, nevertheless. I descended headlong into an absence of sense which was only partly my fault.
was also frightened about the ideas, gestures, tones, tastes, and habits I had absorbed over the years. In spite of it all, I maintained a charming demeanor. In public, I pretended that none of this bothered me. Alone, I read countless articles about sociopaths and worried I was becoming one. Or maybe someone cast the evil eye on me?
Removing the hijab entirely meant erasing part of my being. It meant openly admitting that I failed to live up to expectations. But why would I let an object represent me? I wanted to define the object. Challenge it. Most of all, I hated this whole show of hypocrisy. I felt exploited.
One quiet morning, I left home without the hijab. Sunshine brightened the leaves and my hair.
People were mostly understanding, but some were offended.
“Why did you remove your hijab? It’s not a joke–it’s a requirement in our religion!”
I couldn’t answer them.
Despite being public about my decision, I kept the truth from those I love the most. Even after I stopped wearing the hijab, a different, worse kind of double life continued: For two more years, I didn’t tell my father about my decision. I was terrified of how he would react. Each time I arrived at Sea-Tac airport, I would go to the restroom and put on the scarf before meeting him. One night, at the hospital where my mother was recovering from a major stroke, I woke up distraught and overwhelmed. Asphyxiated. The double life exhausted me. I stepped out into the bone-white hallway and confessed to my father. He bowed his head and didn’t speak to me for six months. My wearing of the hijab mattered so much to him it was as if he was wearing it, not me. In retrospect, I believe my father had the right to be offended, not only because I stopped wearing the hijab, but because I lied to him for so long. After all, he was the one who asserted years before that it would make me a “better person.” Tensions flared so high that a family friend, a practicing Iranian Muslim, finally intervened and convinced my father to accept my decision.
Thankfully, my relationship with my parents is now flourishing. My father recently remarked how much he liked the pictures I sent him during my Grand Tour around Europe this past summer. My mother is walking again. They have been living outside the United States for over a year. Their distance has made me feel like an immigrant in my native country. One dilemma ends, another begins.
I’m glad that I no longer live a double life. A ferocious confrontation with an unsettled past full of vulnerability has led to an uplifting rediscovery of myself. We make choices, but how we understand the validity of those choices changes over time, as our ideas and feelings change. This current phase of exposure challenges my choices, decisions, and beliefs. Am I free when daydreaming? Reading? Making love? How do I want to blend in or stand out? Do I crave anonymity or fear loneliness? Women always ask themselves these questions, wary of attracting unwanted attention but also wanting to be counted on their terms.
Despite my mostly miserable experience wearing the hijab, I commend every woman who wears it, and I respect those who choose not to. Muslim women all over the world are making powerful social statements in rejecting hyper-sexualization and double standards. They are asserting themselves as equal to others and exercising their freedom of expression with full rights—regardless of race, religion or gender. Forcing women to wear the hijab and banning it are both manifestations of bigotry, attempts to control a woman’s image, mind, and body. Women everywhere know what it means to be marked by patriarchal expectations.
In subtle forms, these expectations shape the private and professional lives of women. Despite the fact that I’ve grown substantially distant from Islam, I study the religion academically with mostly-white colleagues. I admire them and value their perspectives, but my experiences have left me with feelings of resentment. Just as I tried to find acceptance from my high school classmates, I have struggled to relate to my fellow graduate students. The intense competition of academia fosters a high level of self-absorption, even coldness.
After I abandoned the hijab, I instantly noticed a huge difference in personal interactions with me. Colleagues now read my work more carefully and ask questions that are more intelligent while considering me “different” and this affects how they treat me, for better and for worse. This dynamic sets off a new storm of thoughts: How do my Middle Eastern heritage and past practice as a Muslim qualify or disqualify me for the honest academic study of Islam? How can I shape my identity and embrace my brand of feminism, without becoming discriminatory against my colleagues? I’m acutely aware that compassion here goes nowhere, but I don’t want to feed the negativity.
Talented women wearing the hijab are not taken seriously at conferences, instead viewed as “oppressed” or objects to be “studied.” Those with thick accents are more prone to being sidelined. At the same time, women who don’t wear the hijab get dismissed at lecture circuits organized by Muslims. I frequently hear friends complaining that when they help work on complex Arabic or Persian texts which are the subject matter of ongoing research, colleagues treat them like “native speakers” who “clarified a few things,” but not as professionals consulted for an expert opinion. I’ve seen instances where if a Muslim scholar makes an interesting observation it’s great, but when a non-Muslim arrives at the same conclusion, then it’s categorically valid.
In essence, I am talking about two different kinds of marginalization. One stems from a more direct kind of prejudgment directed at Muslim women. The other kind comes from taking Muslims seriously, but only as Muslims. The former involves undue skepticism; the latter implies a kind of exoticization that is marginalizing in its unique way. There are fundamental limits to the inclusivity upheld by well-meaning people. Racist attitudes, assumptions of entitlement and hypocrisy take many forms, inside and outside academia. We might not ever remove them entirely, but at least we can identify them and render them visible.
I also challenge forms of exclusivity that void our choice of representation. I’ve learned that there are no boundaries other than the ones we set within, and we make ourselves as we become, but we must also navigate the different standards of family and society which are constraining. Moreover, women are expected to internalize the male gaze and emulate certain ideals of femininity. I strive to be my own and realize a wild, beautiful, and independent femininity. The hijab taught me so much about ambiguity, sensuality, and strength. The visceral. Dark amber broodings. I firmly believe in choice for everyone and in everything. Choosing life experiences without guilt or shame. Appearance in and by themselves don’t matter—being true to oneself is the choice of love.
Maryam Sabbaghi is a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She focuses on early modern Persian literature, mysticism, and gender and sexuality in Islam. She loves cats, traveling, painting, cooking, grunge, classical music, and social justice.