1. this is my story
2. this is not the story of all Muslims
3. this is not the story of all hijabis
4. there can be more than one story
Once upon a time (about 14 years ago), in a land far away (South East England), I wore the hijab. It’s surreal looking back. I’ve spent a long time actively detaching myself from that part of my identity, so I feel almost fraudulent claiming it as my own. Even now, after 14 years of fixing myself up and reclaiming all the bits of me, I struggle to talk face to face with people about the hijab. My experience was bad, and the word and the memories still stick in my throat. This post is about how more than 5 years of forced veiling affected me.
Here, wear this lion costume…
I was ordered to cover my hair after my parents began practising Islam. To say I was upset is a monumental understatement. The idea of wearing the hijab was alien to me, the theological reasoning behind it seemed nonsensical, and it was obvious (to me at least) that it was happening because certain men felt threatened by my sexuality. But, at the time, all those things were irrelevant, there was no room for compromise or debate. Almost 20 years have passed since then, but when I think about it (which until now I’ve avoided) I remember feeling utterly trapped. I remember the panic, the ache in my muscles from holding back the tears, and the feeling that life had taken on a surreal, nightmarish quality.
It’s difficult to describe being forced to veil. The closest I can get is this: imagine you’re made to wear a fancy dress costume every time you leave the house, let’s say it’s a lion costume. You wear a mane, huge paws and a tail. No one asks you if you feel comfortable dressed as a lion, because it’s politically incorrect to question the norms of minorities. Only your immediate family know how ridiculous you feel, but after a while even they convince themselves that your costume is an act of freewill. So, you’re a lion, every day, for more than 5 years. You have to act normally and take yourself seriously despite your costume. It’s impossible. You start to hate yourself. Your physicality changes, you walk quickly and with a slight hunch. You want to take up as little space and time as possible. You want to disappear. Being forced to wear the hijab taught me that shame evolves. Months, weeks even, into wearing it and I was ashamed not only of the square of cotton on my head, but of my thoughts, my body, my lack of faith, and the daily charade of being someone I wasn’t.
The hijab didn’t make me feel protected or liberated, as some women claim. I felt like a walking sex object. The idea that I was effectively hiding from men who were incapable of defining me by anything but my body, filled me with shame. And it represented something else, even more insidious; it was a mark of ownership and control. When I wore it I was no longer my own person; I belonged to my stepfather, my brother, and in years to come, my husband. I was the girl dressed in a shroud, half-living, staring vacantly at the walls of my family home, a space beyond which I had very little presence. I willed the years to pass so I could be free. And then, finally, it happened.
Beyond the veil
After falling in love with a non-Muslim at university I was disowned. By this point I’d stopped wearing the hijab and I was at last free of the all-consuming control of religious men. But the huge expanse of freedom was as distressing as it was liberating. I was dizzy with the disassociation and self-loathing that comes with disownment. I spent my nights searching for ways to dull the pain of abandonment. Escapism became self-annihilation, but at the time it felt like the only way to get through the process of creating an identity from scratch, and of lessoning the gulf between myself and all the ‘normal’ people around me – people with families who loved them, despite themselves.
Making the leap away from religious misogyny was the best thing I ever did, but at the time I didn’t realise I’d be walking out of one sexist culture and straight into another. After spending years wrapped in cotton wool I was woefully unprepared for reality, whether that be the practicalities of surviving independently, or the pervasive culture of sexism. I attracted attention that only perpetuated my self-loathing. Despite leaving behind the bind of religious misogyny, I was still treated as a body that existed for the use and judgement of men.
The hijab and autonomy
The Qur’an is pretty ambiguous when it comes to the hijab. Wow. Typing that sentence without a Muslim yelling his disapproval in my general direction is liberating (that fact alone should give you an insight into how contentious the issue is, and how little room there is for dissent). The ‘party’ line is that different Islamic schools of thought have different opinions on the hijab. In my experience ‘schools of thought’ is another way of saying ‘men’. Some men argue ‘passionately’ (think: smoke coming out of ears) that the hijab is unequivocally commanded by Allah in the Qur’an. Other men disagree. As with any prescriptive text interpretation is everything. Personally I’ve no time for dogma that demands women dress a certain way. Conservative religion is cruel, detached from reality, devoid of any understanding of what it is to be female, and it tends to express the following basic ‘truths’: men know god best, men have divinely commanded authority, men fear women, men fear sexuality. And because of these ‘truths’ women suffer.
Of course many women are happy to wear the hijab. Some claim it offers a form of protection, and that it allows them to be understood and appreciated on the basis of their personality and intellect, rather than their appearance. Others believe it encourages men and women to focus on the greater jihad – the struggle for piety and a relationship with Allah in a world filled with distraction and superficiality. None of these things happened for me. The only thing I felt was a disconnection from reality and a deep depression. So, while I celebrate the rights of all woman to dress however they wish, I’m concerned about those who aren’t afforded that freedom. In my brief stint online I’ve come across vast numbers of women who are being forced to veil and practice religions that they disagree with.
When I think back to the convert community that I grew up in I remember very few women actively choosing to wear the hijab. I’m talking about real choice. The kind of choice you make from a position of autonomy. The kind of choice that means whatever you decide there’s no backlash, no guilt tripping, no shaming, and definitely no exclusion from the community. I do however know women who kid themselves into believing their hijab is an act of freewill when it’s not. I was one of them – after a few years of indoctrination and socialising only with people who argued in favour of the hijab, my sense of self was all but obliterated. The unspoken reality is that many girls and women within Muslim communities have little say in the hijab. As soon as parents recognise their daughters as sexual beings they are expected to veil. It’s a rite of passage. Once a girl starts to wear the veil she’s seen as having made the right ‘choice’, the only choice, and for that the community celebrates. In contrast the handful of women I know who made the difficult decision to stop veiling were met with a barrage of judgement and negativity from their respective communities. It’s often assumed that when someone stops wearing the hijab she’s been led astray, she no longer knows her own mind and she’s been morally corrupted. Initially the response is one of concern and encouragement to return to Islam, this can soon turn to outrage, disgust, and finally, exclusion.
The dangers of a single story
The biggest challenge, I find, when discussing the hijab and being Muslim (albeit a pretendy one) is that people aren’t great at are RUBBISH at understanding that my story (and the stories of other women I know and mention) doesn’t negate theirs. It’s pretty tedious having to explain this each time I blog, but just so we’re all clear: this post isn’t about judging Islam and Muslims en masse, it’s about calling out those who use religious dogma and culture to limit female autonomy. Even so I know this piece will be an inconvenient truth that many would rather I didn’t share. In the past radical Muslims, cultural relativists, and anti-Muslim bigots, have either taken issue with my story or used it to support their own hateful agendas. Ex Muslims with terrible experiences of Islam are generally expected to (silently) ‘man-up’ and be grateful for the fact that they’ve come out the other side of their shitstorm, or take one for the team – lest their talking whips up Islamophobia. It leaves us in a no-win situation. Wider society and the press find us tricky – our stories are too contentious and nuanced to be written about with ease, so we’re left to the internet, where we find solace in one another’s existence and either try to avoid, or plunge head first, into the wrath of people who wish we didn’t exist. However, on a more positive note, the tide is turning. Organisations like The Council of Ex Muslims of Britain and its affiliates are promoting voices that, until now, have been side-lined or silenced. And it was a pretty special moment last week when Janice Turner wrote about the experiences of ex Muslims in The Times – Ex Muslims, I should add, who documented their experiences in these brilliant videos.
When it’s worn freely the hijab is a political, religious and social statement, but when it’s forced it tells a very different story, about control and repressed sexuality. My hijab was endured rather than enjoyed. I felt no conviction. I wasn’t making a statement, it made a statement of me. Thankfully the misogyny I experienced is over, but it was life changing and it’s left me with uncompromising views about female autonomy and forced religion. My opinions aren’t welcomed by everyone, including many of the people I love. Indeed the more I talk about my past, the smaller my family becomes, but that’s just part and parcel of internalised patriarchy. It’s painful but it won’t stop me. In the words of Deeyah Khan, “being a woman is a provocation”. We must provoke, resist, debate and challenge, until the choice of every woman is hers and hers alone.