In a series of deeply personal and nuanced interviews, three women look back on their combined 32 years in the hijab, telling the beautiful and painful stories that inform their perspectives on the current debate. The other installments can be found here: Part 1 (Politics and Piety); Part 2 (Marwa Berro); Part 3 (Reem Abdel-Razek).
Heina Dadabhoy was raised Muslim in the United States. She is a graduate of U.C. Irvine with degrees in English and Philosophy. Today Heina is a self-described atheist. She writes for Skepchick blog and is a sought-after speaker on topics including Islam, feminism, skepticism, gender, culture, and the intersections of the above.
Tarico: How long did you wear hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Dadabhoy: I wore hijab for a decade (ages 8 to 18). I started wearing it because I was always a people-pleaser; it seemed like the right thing to do to please my parents, many of my older relatives, my teachers at my religious school (a headscarf was part of the uniform for the Islamic girls’ school I attended in London for a year), and, of course, Allah. I was also a very literal and devout child. I wanted to make sure that I obeyed Allah as much as possible.
As I got older, my body image and Western upbringing began to play a more important role in why I covered myself. I have been overweight ever since I could remember and anything that could take attention away from my body was welcomed by me. I saw the Oprah shows on eating disorders and attended the Killing Us Softly assembly at school. As the fat girl subjected to merciless teasing, they really spoke to me. I unwittingly adopted Western second-wave feminist rhetoric in my conceptions around wearing hijab: I thought that I was fighting against the beauty myth by focusing on my mind and spirit instead of my looks.
Deep down, I knew that liberation from the beauty myth wasn’t the primary reason I wore hijab. Islam is fairly clear that the reason for covering is to prevent the provocation of male lust. As that seemed like an unpleasant notion to me, I chose to focus on my wish to show my dedication to Allah as well as my rebellion against Western beauty ideals instead.
Why and how did you stop?
I stopped wearing it because being an atheist in a headscarf stopped making sense to me. When I initially left Islam, I left it for philosophical reasons and saw no reason to stop abiding by its moral code. I felt sure that Islam’s modesty laws made practical and logical sense, even without theological justifications, since I’d been using fairly non-Islamic justifications for it for years. Over time, however, I came to realize that adhering to Islamic standards of dress was not much different from adhering to Western beauty norms. Both represent ways by which patriarchal norms attempt to control female bodies. I decided I was interested in neither.
Emotionally, what was the transition like?
There were definitely fraught aspects to it. Going out without hijab subjected to me to a lot more scrutiny of my body type, size, and styling choices; it felt overwhelming at times. Additionally, I came to realize that my non-white appearance affected others’ treatment of me. Before that, I assumed that people othered me because of my headscarf, not because of perceptions of my race.
It was freeing in other ways. Getting to wear clothing that I chose because I liked it rather than solely based on its modesty credentials was a new experience in which I indulged perhaps overmuch at first. Things like swimming, going to the beach, hiking, and so on were suddenly a lot easier.
How did your family members react?
I continued to wear a headscarf to family gatherings for quite a while post-deconversion in order to avoid making waves. When I finally attending a family gathering uncovered, the reactions were mostly positive. People thought I looked lovely in my short-sleeved outfit. There were some naysayers, but they chose to keep quiet or to gossip rather than to confront me. Most of the trouble I got from family had to do with being an open and out atheist rather than directly to do with wearing a headscarf.
Absolutely. Feeling the sun on my neck and head out in public for the first time was quite thrilling. It was liberating to realize that I could do any number of things, like swimming, without having to worry about an arm showing.
What were the advantages to wearing hijab?
Though I still got teased for being fat when I wore hijab, my body was certainly far more shielded from scrutiny, and not just physically. By covering myself, I was sending a statement that not only could people not see my body, but that my body’s adherence to beauty norms was not a subject about which I cared very much.
In the US, I was subjected to street harassment when I wore hijab, along the lines of men yelling out “Osama bin Laden!” or “fucking Arab, go home” at me, but nothing sexual; after I deveiled, I started getting sexually harassed. I have noticed that Muslim men in the UK sexually harass women with or without hijab, or even niqab.
What are your thoughts about the political debate about hijab?
All too often, the women who are actually affected by hijab and attitudes around it are left out of the conversation. Both women who truly want to wear hijab and women who have been coerced into it are often silenced, the former because many cannot imagine wanting to cover and the latter because Muslims want to claim that coercion isn’t “true” Islam. There is also a lack of differentiation between the plight of women in Muslim-majority countries and that of women in Western ones. It is possible for a woman in a Western country to make the choice to not cover, whereas that’s hardly the case for women in many if not most Muslim-majority countries.
There are a multitude of problems, experiences, opinions, and voices on the matter of hijab to be found among women whose lives are touched by it. They are the ones who ought to be consulted on the matter rather than those outside of it.
What are your thoughts about the question of how many women wear the hijab, abaya or burka voluntarily—or even what this means?
Physically and legally, it’s easy to see where a woman can choose to cover. In countries where women are forced to cover by law or through cultural and filial shame, it’s very clear that the term “choice” is not terribly meaningful. The same can be said for women who live in non-Muslim-majority areas but whose families pressure them to adhere to Islamic modesty laws. Their inability to choose is inhumane and unacceptable.
Outside of those contexts, the question becomes far less obvious. Islam itself can be seen as shaming women who do not cover and threatening them with eternal damnation if they do not. Despite that, there are plenty of women who self-identify as Muslim without covering themselves. In my view, it’s not my place to question a woman who covers within that context. Covering oneself as per Islamic law is hardly the only anti-feminist choice that some women make; demanding that level of ideological purity only of Muslim women who cover but not, say, white American women who change their surnames upon marriage, is rather inconsistent.
Do you see yourself as feminist or an advocate for former Muslim women?
I have self-identified as a feminist since I was a teenager. As for fellow former Muslim women, I do not presume to speak for them. I can, however, use my privilege as a born-and-raised Westerner to be visible where many of them cannot do so and to attempt to bring others’ attention to their plight.
What kind of support do you want from other liberals or feminists?
There needs to be a better effort to speak to us and to promote our voices rather than to talk over us or for us. The Internet is full of resources, individuals and groups who are not only willing to speak, but who want to be found. Liberals and feminists need to ensure that they are not promoting a monolithic, condescending approach towards Muslim or ex-Muslim women.