In this four part series, 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 parts can be found here: Part 1 (Politics and Piety); Part 3 (Reem Abdel-Razek); Part 4 (Heina Dadabhoy).
Marwa Berro (a pen name) is a Lebanese-American Ex-Muslim, writer, and philosopher. She has been an expat most of my life, growing up between Saudi Arabia and her native Lebanon, and living now in the United States. She writes narrative essays and reasoned critique of the societal structures that govern Muslim-majority societies at Between a Veil and a Dark Place and offers support to other women questioning Islam at Hi Reddit!.
Tarico: How long did you wear hijab, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Berro: I wore the hijab for 15 years, starting from the age of 8 years old. I grew up in a very conservative Shia family, who believe it to be fardh (required) for young girls to begin to wear the hijab by their 9th lunar year birthday, and I started wearing it the summer before I turned 9 so that I wouldn’t have to transition in the middle of the school year.
When I was a child, it seemed the right and natural thing to wear the hijab, which my mother and all her friends, who I viewed as aunties, wore, and I was asked if I wanted to wear it, and said yes, as if I child is capable of comprehending the implications of such a decision. The rhetoric surrounding it when I was a child was simple and easy for me to find appealing: the hijab was protective, like an oyster around a pearl, keeping the most precious and special things safe and guarded. It was a matter of dignity, pride, joy. It was a normalized value system that I was immersed in.
In my fifteen years wearing the hijab, I progressed through many stages of my understanding of the hijab, especially as I became circumspect enough to realize that the beautiful concept I had appreciated as a child was based on a flawed, dehumanizing analogy of comparing women to objects such as pearls and wrapped pieces of candy, and especially as I became aware of concepts of sexuality and how directly and irreversibly they were linked to the hijab. So in short, the hijab meant many different things to me at different points in time, and the journey to leaving it behind was a long one of exploration, questioning, and self-examination.
What were the advantages to wearing hijab? Why and how did you stop? Emotionally, what was the transition like?
I stopped, in short, because I took severe issue with the ideology behind it. At first, I thought it to be humanizing, a defense against being treated as a sex object, a guarding and preserving thing. I later realized it did the very opposite of those things.
As a child, the hijab hypersexualized my body and I understood this at first through the way my body was regarded but not with discretely worded concepts: I had not even developed breasts yet, but my arms and hair and legs had to be obscured by wide swaths of cloth in case any of those things might be considered tempting or alluring. If something wiggled loose, the urgency and anger with which it would be called out was telling. I deeply felt the restrictions on my body and the behavior that accompanied it: a lack of privacy in every regard, my things searched through routinely, my phone calls with friends listened to, routine probing and questioning that sometimes reached interrogation. These weren’t separate from the hijab: they were part of the same value system of protecting and preserving, which amounted to having to limit your interactions and body in order to remove the potential for temptation into sin.
At this point in my life, I was living in Saudi Arabia, where I attended an American international school with an expat community from all over the globe. There were only a handful of girls who wore the hijab in the entire K-12 school, and I was tormented and bullied for it. At that point, I hated the hijab for the wrong reasons: not so much because I took reasoned issue with its ideology, but because of the way others treated me for it.
It is of course entirely possible to be mistreated for a harmless, good, or morally neutral thing, but that situation is what gave me the first real realization of the underlying controlling and insidious nature of the ideology behind the hijab, and how it could be dangerous and utterly destructive. I attempted to take it off when I was thirteen years old because I was tired of the bullying–so one day I took my scarf off in the cafeteria at school. My parents found out, of course–only a child would be naive enough to think something like that could remain hidden–and I was punished severely. I was beaten, interrogated, my hair sawed off (literally, with a knife, not even the courtesy of scissors), and I was banished to the storage room to sleep in and do my homework for a few weeks. I was let out for school and meals. I had to hide my bruises and my botched haircut in the locker room when changing for PE at school.
At the end of the school year, my dad shipped me and my mom and siblings off to Lebanon, where I was enrolled in a strict Islamic school. The urgency and severity of such a reaction helped me realize that although wearing the hijab was always presented as a voluntary choice, there was really only one viable option to choose, which was compliance, because it belonged to an ideology that was so strongly linked to honor and redemption that extreme and violent measured were acceptable to enforce it.
Unfortunately the coercion wasn’t enough for me to condemn the hijab because surely a good thing could be forced by misguided people, and the forcing shouldn’t be enough to discount it. I later came to realize the coercion was caught up in the moral imperative and honor dynamics laced into the ideology of the hijab, but at the time, I needed more than ‘some people coerce others into this thing’ to reach the conclusion that ‘this thing is inherently problematic’.
I became more religious later, and for a while fully embraced the ideology behind the hijab as I began to understand it in more complex terms than oyster-pearl. I believed that it humanized me, creating an actual shield for my body that would make it impossible for me to be sexually objectified, and thus I would interact with others as a human being regardless of how my body looked and regardless of any desires anyone had pertaining to it. I eventually became very critical of that justification, realizing that by viewing my body in such a way, I was acknowledging it as an object of discord that needed to be covered up in order for me to be treated like a human being, realizing that I had to limit and obscure myself in order to have the very reasonable expectation that I be treated like a human and not an object, and realizing that I was in fact hiding myself so much for fear of my body and voice being sexualized that my voice and contributions were often overlooked and discounted as unimportant, and I was not treated as a human subject anyway.
That’s the simple version as to why I stopped: there is so much complexity regarding the ideology of the hijab and my stances regarding it can only be summarized here.
As to how I stopped, part of my realizations as a young adult included the very painful one that I was in such a closed system of control and power that there was no way I could exit it forcefully. I tried to run away from home when I was 18 and was tracked down and returned by Hezbollah. I realized that the only way to get out was if the system let me go willingly–so I spent a few years conforming, living an impeccable double life in order to gain the trust and approval of my family and society. Then I applied to graduate school in the United States, saying yes to all of the conditions and qualifications placed on the possibility of me going, knowing that once I got to the States I would have at least a chance of forging the life I wanted to. It was a long process, but I ultimately succeeded, removing my hijab when I was safely alone in the US.
The process was difficult and often traumatic; I had to be silent and accept control and abuse, suppress myself in unimaginable ways and live a complete double life. I have been disowned and/or estranged from much of my family. I still speak to my mother and sister, but that is all. I’ve been trying to build a new, whole existence, but the effects of that process still reverberate. I struggle with depression and PTSD, and have recently had to resign from my graduate program because the incredible toll and stress of it was impeding my recovery.
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?
Too many to count! The sun, the wind, the rain. Especially on my skin. Swimming, biking, sunbathing. Wearing clothes that just flow around my body, breezy and comfortable. Touching people! Holding hands! Hugs! Dancing! Running running running in the warm warm rain. Just walking down the street without having to check and adjust that not even a sliver of wrist is showing. Last summer my neck *exploded* in freckles from sun exposure. It’s never done so before because it’s never had the chance, and it was a strange and interesting thing to see a potential my body has always had suddenly blossom.
What are your thoughts about the question of how many women wear the hijab, abaya or burka voluntarily—or even what this means?
It’s not a free choice unless you’re free to choose otherwise. There were several points in my life, even after the incident in Saudi Arabia, when I had thought myself to voluntarily cleave to the ideology of the hijab. I had grown up some, become more religious, and convinced myself that the treatment of my parents was the work of their individual flaws and biases and not Islamically-sanctioned, that it was the mistakes and misinterpretations of Muslims at fault and not the influences of a true Islam, that I had been a young, rebellious child who did not understand or appreciate the value and wisdom of the hijab. At that point in my life I would have angrily challenged anyone who implied that wearing the hijab was not my choice, or who would have demanded I take it off.
It’s sort of privileged point of view to be able to point to the easy, socially accepted choice you have made and defend it as a free choice. Especially if you have the voice and resources to defend a choice publicly, as many Muslim women in the West do, when your sisters lack the voice or platform to give an alternative viewpoint. The fact remains that in Muslim-majority societies where the hijab is normalized as proper, good, and morally incumbent, women do *not* have the free choice to wear it. It’s not a free choice if choosing otherwise leads to ostracization, disowning, sanctions, punishment, legal repercussions and/or violence, and if women do not have the rights or resources to remove themselves from that society in order to make the choice to not wear it.
Unfortunately, in most Muslim-majority societies where the hijab is the norm, it is nigh-impossible to choose to leave the hijab or not wear the hijab without being unjustly treated and shamed at the very least as a result. Thus the freedom of the choice is a mere sham, and it seems to me to be utterly uncompassionate and disingenuous for people to herald the hijab as a matter of free choice because they themselves are free to cleave to it when their sisters are not free to reject it.
What are your thoughts on the political debate about hijab?
While I still vehemently oppose anybody asking a woman to take off or put on a piece of clothing that she actively chooses to wear if it does not pose harm or discrimination to others, I’d like to challenge the ethics of continually heralding the hijab as a free choice when it actively drowns out the experiences, testimonies, and legitimacy of women who do not have that free choice, presenting their experiences as anomalous, unrepresentative, or the results of misinterpretation of Islam. Defending Islam as an ideology from criticism often obscures an honest examination of the injustices done to women in its name, and it is frankly appalling to me that shoddy excuses like ‘that’s just a misapplication, that’s not the true Islam, those are just mistakes fallible Muslims make’ are continually given to keep the suffering of women in Islamic societies invisible.
Do you see yourself as feminist or an advocate for former Muslim women?
I do. My goals are ultimately for every woman from a Muslim background to have the freedom to make her own choices regarding her body and her life, whatever those choices may be, without social or legal punishment. This involves a critical and honest examination of the religious bodies and their ideologies that structure those societies.
What kind of support do you want from other liberals or feminists?
Enable our voices. Let us speak for ourselves. Questioning Muslims, progressive Muslims (especially LGBTQ Muslims), and Ex-Muslims, *especially* women, have yet to be normalized as legitimate voices in mainstream media. We are often discounted as inauthentic commentators on the societies and belief systems that we are incredibly familiar with and that governed our entire lives because we are viewed as defectors and deviants. We are thus often silenced or our silence is enabled in favor of those who would deny our experiences.
Unfortunately, it is often our would-be allies who are liberals or feminists that contribute to this silencing by attempting to deny the religious-based oppression and suffering of women in Muslim-majority countries or societies for fear of enabling anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia. But we do not need white liberal feminists to speak for our experiences and obscure and misrepresent them. Nor is it optimal that the issues of our oppression be brought up for discussion without our voices being included. After all, we are the ones who have the requisite knowledge and background to speak to those experiences. We have lived these things. Allow us to speak for ourselves.