In this four part series, three women look back on their years in the hijab, examining their own experience and offering their perspectives on the current political and cultural debate about how best to respect the choices of women. The other parts can be found here: Part 1 (Politics and Piety); Part 2 (Marwa Berro); Part 4 (Heina Dadabhoy).
Could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Reem Abdel-Razek, I am a twenty-one year old Egyptian blogger and translator who lives in New York. I write the blog for the Centre for Secular Space, a transnational think tank which aims to strengthen secular voices, fight religious fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights. (I also can be found at Facebook.)
How long did you wear the hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
I started wearing hijab at ten and took it off just before I turned eighteen. I wore it at my father’s request in a desperate attempt to win his approval. At the time that was all it meant to me, approval. I wasn’t aware how drastically it would change my life. Not long after wearing it at ten did my parents pull me from karate class, soccer practice, school plays, yearbook photos etc… They said hijab is not merely a head covering but a lifestyle, and what a miserable lifestyle it was for me. Family members started coaching me on how to act shy, fragile, and dumb. Things like running and laughing started to become a distant memory. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time but I was slowly disappearing.
Why and how did you stop?
I was severely depressed. I felt empty, like a robot or a zombie, but not truly able to pinpoint the reason. One day I got an email from my father and aunt with an ad for hijab in which the hijab acted as a protective barrier between a lollipop and flies. And I had an epiphany, there it was, the reason I felt nonhuman. I was, according to the email my own family members sent me…a thing.
And it occurred to me that the only way I could take my life back was by unveiling, not only my hair but also my true nature.I would have to obliterate the persona that I was so carefully molded into in order to discover who I really was.
My father constantly ranted about how Islamophobic western media is when it comes to Muslim women, how they delude the majority in to believing these women are helpless, oppressed victims who have no agency over something like the hijab while they’re clearly wearing it by choice. During one of those rants I commented saying “wearing the hijab is my choice?” to which he answered “Of course it is”. I found myself saying” I don’t want to wear it anymore”. As soon as I uttered those words, my father’s expressions changed drastically, it was like a Pandora’s box had sprung open of every nasty, hateful and vile insult aimed at me. It took about six months of struggle from the time I mentioned that I didn’t want to wear it to actually taking it off.
Emotionally, what was the transition like?
Both I and a Muslim friend of mine planned to take it off and take a walk down the street regardless of our family’s disapproval. That day my friend woke up with an eye infection and her mother told her that it was God’s rage manifesting itself, if she goes through with this according to her mother, she would be taking the first steps towards losing her eyesight. My friend cancelled. I decided to go regardless, to explore this uncharted territory, even if I did it alone.
As I walked without a hijab for the very first time. I felt joyfully excited, but also apprehensive and a little naked. I was painfully aware of everything that surrounded me, which says a lot since I am quite the space cadet.
How did your family members react?
The initial reaction was sheer rage. My aunt called and said I was no longer welcome in her house, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that he would never be seen with me in public again. They felt hurt and betrayed. I tried explaining that this had nothing to do with them, that I wasn’t trying to hurt them, that I was trying to find my self but they didn’t want to hear any of it.
I once saw a comment from a former Muslim woman on Facebook who said, simply, “For ten years I never felt the wind in my hair.” Looking back, are there similar experiences that stand out for you?
Oh yes, after years of been hidden under layers upon layers of thick black cloth in the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after many summers spent at the beach, sweating bullets and watching all the boys dive shirtless in the water, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time was an incredible experience.
For more of Reem’s writings, follow her at her Facebook.