A reflection on the meaning of Hijab

It was late on a Friday afternoon, we were wrapping up our final tasks at work before switching the ‘out of office’ on for the half term break. There was one last email that I needed to write, one that I knew would leave a lasting impression, one that could impact my job, the perception of me as a woman, in fact my whole identity, both within the workplace and beyond. I had a lump in my throat and nerves rising from the depth of my stomach, but I knew that I had to be unapologetic, I needed to own where I was in my life. So I began;

To My Lovely Team, 

I hope you won’t mind me sharing something personal before we finish for the holidays. 

A few weeks back, at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, I made a commitment to myself and to God and decided to embrace Islam. I made a declaration of faith called a Shahadah and I became a Muslim. Some of you may have seen the progressive steps I have taken towards this religion over the last couple of years and will have witnessed the subtle changes within how I live my life. Others of you may have been completely oblivious and therefore find this statement quite a surprise. 

The reason for me explaining this to you now, is because I have decided that I would like to begin wearing the hijab, this is a decision that I have made of my own free will because of the love and commitment to my faith and my Creator. I don’t expect that it will have an impact on my work or change me as a person but I hope that you will support me in this decision as your friend and colleague. I look forward to seeing you all in a week, with my sparkly new scarf in tow!

This was how my journey with hijab unfolded, one honest conversation at a time. For me, the transition to wearing hijab came with the personal desire to be identified and ‘known’ as a Muslim woman. As a revert there were limited ways for people to be aware, and therefore it became my gateway to meeting new sisters, a visual representation of who I had become. My hijab spoke when I didn’t always have the confidence, or the words to do so myself. During the ten years that I have worn hijab it has been my protection, something I have worn as an act of my faith and to show my respect to God. It’s allowed me to make my own personal choices about what I show of myself to the world. It has  strengthened my character in ways that I would never have imagined. In placing that scarf upon my head all those years ago, I created a barrier between my life before and my life after Islam. It isn’t a barrier I resent, in fact it fills me with humility and gratitude. Wearing a hijab places me between two worlds, somewhat of a foreigner to both, but in a position where I hope, an open dialogue can be formed, questions can be asked and perhaps a different perspective can be given. 

Wearing my hijab has allowed me to focus on my moral grounding as a person, it’s ensured that I work on my manners and my social interactions. It has guarded me from places that could harm or distract me and most importantly, it has been a form of worship that has given me an inner peace and a sense of connection to my Creator. Introducing hijab into my family and culture as a British woman hasn’t been easy, everything about my appearance is a visual representation of how different I am to them. I had to first love and  accept myself as a Muslim woman, in order to present myself with confidence and authenticity to those around me. It has often felt like shedding an old skin in order to step into the one that was destined for me. Even now, I have to remind myself that wearing a hijab is not just an act of faith, it is an act of courage and strength that I take daily. 

For many Muslim women the hijab has also become a symbol of resistance to the Western and modern ideals of the feminie, which encourages more exposure, objectification and sex appeal. Not to mention the fashion industry and what these western ideals push us to in terms of consumerism and fast fashion. When we are surrounded by advertising campaigns and social constructs that send out very specific messaging about what a female should look like, we find ourselves dressed in a political statement whether we wish to be or not.  

Sadly there are still so many who misinterpret the meaning and depth behind the veil of hijab, they consider it a symbol of oppression and segregation. Muslim women are presented as weak and in need of “saving” often by the heroic West who simply disguise their Islamaphobia through their pleas to have us liberated! 

In spite of this outdated misjudgement, it has been amazing to see a rise in the online visibility of Muslim, hijab wearing women across media platforms. However, women in hijab are often highlighted for “breaking stereotypes” when they are simply pursuing their goals, partaking in activities that they are passionate about and making their unique mark on the world. Whilst the headscarf is a garment that shouldn’t prevent a woman from living her life in accordance with her faith, it is often still the thing that defines her, even when she is at her best. This world of ‘online hijabis’ is also a varied and complex one and we must question whether Muslim women are taking a stand against these surface level beauty ideals or actually playing straight into them? It could be said, that there have been efforts to ‘soften’ the hijab, to find ways to make it more creative, more fashionable and therefore more palatable for the dominant Western standards. Throughout my personal journey I certainly found myself adapting my hijab for the ease and comfort of others, particularly in the earlier days when I simply wanted to prove to everyone around me that I was still the same person. I wanted to show that I was Muslim, but not so Muslim that those who knew me (and those who didn’t) would need to feel threatened by it. 

Islam teaches us that modesty is much more than the garments that we wear and it is certainly not a concept that is exclusive only to women. Hijab is very much about encouraging appropriate interactions between believing men and believing women, reminding them both not to look lustfully at one another, to prevent temptations (other than with your husband/wife) and to cover your private parts. More specifically the Quran then mentions a physical ‘hijab’ referring to garments in Surah Nur;

“...and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms...” (24:31).

The Khumur here is referring to the ‘veil covering the head.’ There are many commentaries of the Quran that suggest pre-islamic women of medina used to cover their hair but still exposed their chest and neck (as they tied their scarves at the back) so when this verse explicitly asks that the women place their Khumur ‘over their bosoms’ it is understood that this was a dress code that would be most pleasing to Allah swt. In this context hijab acts as a barrier to prevent desire and any evil actions that may occur due to that desire.

Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) also says;

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw closely over themselves their chadors [when going out]. That makes it likely for them to be recognized and not be troubled, and Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful.” (33.59) 

In this Ayah, Allah recognises that the beauty of a woman may become harmful to her, especially outside of her home. There is a sadness and a deep reality that is felt with this ayah, we know all too well the risks posed to women simply by walking home alone. In his Might and Wisdom Allah has given us many forms of protection and preservation of which hijab is one. Hijab is our shield even amongst other women who may show off or compare themselves and thus attract unwanted attention. 

Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) says in the Qur'an:

"O Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover yourselves (screen your private parts, etc) and as an adornment. But the raiment of righteousness, that is better." (7:26) 

As believing women we should strive to safeguard our bodies as this is what Allah has asked of us, therefore in doing so, we hope to feel that closeness to our creator through abiding by His commandments as an act of worship. 

The dignity of a Muslim woman is highly respected in Islam and if you really take the time to delve into its inner complexities but also its inner beauty, you will see that there is so much wisdom within it. 

Whilst the hijab is much more widely accepted and celebrated today, we still see extreme attacks against women who choose to wear a headscarf. From the restrictions placed on women in France, to the recent hijab ban in Southern India, we are still seeing freedoms violated and women and girls marginalised because of  their clothing choices. This serves as a strong reminder that no two women will ever have the same experience. Hijab is a journey, one that is as delicately woven as the garment itself. 

What began with a tentative email at work for me, may be worlds apart from how hijab began for you, and perhaps it hasn’t begun yet at all. All we can do as Muslims, is support and empower one another, by creating loving and kind spaces to honour and explore the ever changing dynamics. We have a duty to rewrite the narrative of hijab for those who are yet to understand it, and that starts by being at peace with where you are at with hijab yourself. I hope that wherever you are on your journey, you remember that ultimately, it's between you and God alone. 

Further reading