Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 4: Heina Dadabhoy

 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 DadabhoyHeina 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?

Hijab - hijabiheinaDadabhoy: 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.

Hijab - nothijabi heina dadabhoyI 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?

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.


Unveiled Part 1: Politics and Piety
Unveiled Part 2: Marwa Berro
Unveiled Part 3: Reem Adbel-Razek

Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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16 Responses to Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 4: Heina Dadabhoy

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  5. mriana says:

    Very nice series of articles. I only wish you could have interviewed Maryam too. That said, these three women have said and even confirmed what I often thought about wearing the hijab and berak- that it is not actually a choice, that it causes one to feel inferior, inhuman, invisible, and causing other feelings about themselves that are not conducive to self-appreciation, as well as virtually causing them to be invisible and even unheard. Many women, who wear the clothing, often say it’s a choice, that they don’t feel inferior, as well as self-loathing, etc., but I have often questioned those statements. It’s nice to read that my thoughts concerning the psychological effects are not unfounded, because it makes no sense to me that one who covers and hides their body doesn’t feel like an object, self-loathing, inferior, and alike, nor does it seem like its a choice to me either, given some of the laws in predominantly Muslim countries and family reactions to not veiling themselves. How can it be a choice when some women are killed by family members who call it an “honour killing”? Thank you, Valerie, for interviewing these three women and allowing us to hear their stories and feelings about it.


    • Thanks, Mriana. I think that those of us who have been subject to any kind of fundamentalism have a more complicated understanding of the word “choice,” especially in our roles as women.


      • mriana says:

        You’re very welcome and I agree. The word “choice” does take on a different meaning in fundamentalist religions.


  6. MM says:

    So, here we have interviews of 3 very young (inexperienced) women who ALL had horrendous life experiences (particularly with their families) and now have rebelled against hijab and Islam?? I would rebel too under those circumstances. I came from a European family myself who immigrated to Canada and guess what? I too suffered tremendous abuse and control, even beating related to my status as a “female” and perhaps over aspects of perceived sexuality (this mostly from my deranged father who nevertheless would stare openly at every Western “bimbo” or misguided young woman in revealing clothes). This is not an ISLAMIC thing per se. I would say my own parents were sort of Secular-Catholic. And, I went through my own phase of rejecting religion based on the experiences I endured and reading about human history.

    However, after many more years of life experience (which included all the worst aspects of Western male harassment, disrespect, use and abuse, and all the acceptable ugly aspects of Western secularism such as drug/drink lifestyles, hedonistic consumerism, unbelievable bad language and ridicule in schools, workplaces, streets, transit, hyper-sexualization of the entire society and all interactions all hinging around female sexuality as depicted in every magazine, store, street advert, TV/film program, etc. and the massive insecurities I myself faced due to the overwhelming focus on my weight, appearance, beauty) I realized that Western Secular society is empty, meaningless, and superficial.

    It’s nice that these girls got away from the bad situations they endured. Kudos to them. A few years ago I too (being Canadian) had a weird image of crowds of angry Muslim men with beards promoting polygamy in the West and trying to control women. Fast forward to a move across the country and deep study of all spiritual traditions and I came to identify myself as “Muslim”. Why? Because many of the values in Islam are similar to mine. Values around nature and animals, around how wives and husbands should be to each other, how to treat your parents (I actually became more tolerant of my difficult parents), of helping your brothers and sisters, of charity, of fasting to remember the poor and appreciate what you have and so on.

    And, like many other women have discovered I realized the years of sexual harassment I endured were indeed related to Western ethics, Western male perspectives, AND to the Western ridiculous clothes I had been brainwashed into thinking were normal even though they never felt comfortable. And yes, I do wear longer more covering clothes which are actually much more stylish and comfortable than the box and triangle shaped “rags” that pass for Western dress (or lack of in some cases). And yes, I wear scarves when I go on the street in what I can call an Iranian-European version. And yes, I have worn hijab and abaya for Muslim functions. And….it was great!

    My perspective is that the men and families these girls suffered with are VERY similar to the ones I also suffered with. Different cultures, different religions, different political views. What’s the common factor??? Dysfunctional parents/families or other caretakers. It’s not psychologically accurate to extrapolate the experiences of these girls to “hijab” or “Islam” as even a long-time friend of mine born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada ALSO had similar experiences of abuse in her early family life.

    I agree that feeling sun, wind, whatever…or wearing a scarf in whatever way you wish to as a woman should be HER choice. Not the choice of her parents or society. But the problems of abusive families or subcultures within societies are one extreme where the opposite extreme is the hyper-sexualization of the female as in Western cultures. BOTH have problems. Please don’t make this into a “hijab” or “Islam” thing because it shows your bias as a psychologist and that you are creating misguided correlations. I don’t care what religion or society you come from – dysfunctions are endemic in all of them (including atheism and science, which is a religion/culture to many).

    The problems of human rights, human dignity, and a world where the masculine (not “male” but masculine) energies are destroying everything is the real issue here. To be honest, I also don’t buy into the idea that women should be as equally free to walk around naked everywhere as to wear a long gown and scarf. There is a wide range of clothing styles that can be considered “dignified” but mini skirts and hyper-sexualized clothes worn in public places (sorry but this is the truth) are NOT dignified for either the women displayed or the people seeing them. The Western expression “eye candy” says it all as does the Western epithet (b****) used widely against Western women and even adopted by some misguided “feminists”.

    I’m sorry to hear of the experiences of these girls and happy they are free. However, my own story is very similar as I too tried to get away from my family (who are not Muslim). I have more dignity, more fulfilment in life, and more respect after reconnecting to the spiritual/religious realm on my own terms. While I never dressed trashy in my life, I was subjected to catcalls, lewd suggestions, stalking, and many other things I don’t wish to mention that left me disliking men, especially Western men. Funny thing is, since I changed my attire somewhat and added a scarf when going out in public I can walk past construction areas, men working on elevators, travel on transit and so forth with approximately 85% LESS HARRASSMENT OR UNWANTED ATTENTION coming at me. It feels great to have this freedom.

    I hope you print my comment to balance out the flaw in associating all the things these girls suffered to a headscarf “ideology” (LOL), which has become a ridiculous rally point for atheists and secularists. Leave the women alone, please. Focus on rehabilitating the dysfunctional men and women instead, who come from ALL backgrounds and abuse others. Western cultures are rife with problems too of abuse, rape, murder, drugs, etc. Thank you.


    • mriana says:

      So your answer to preventing men from sending “wolf calls” in your direction is to cover yourself and hide your body? You prefer the Islamic treatment of animals, despite that dogs are considered “unclean” and think the technique of killing animals for halal food is humane?


      • Kiera says:

        The most inspirational thing I’ve read for the first time in many weeks!! MashAllah! I have so much to relate to this. Btw Mriana, what’s inhumane in Islamic way of slaughtering animals? (It’s slaughtering, killing is too strong a word). Or shall I say, what’s humane about electrocuting animals, torturing and stripping fur of their skins while still alive (the price the animals have to pay for the sake of a production of a branded fur coat)? Either way, we will always come on top of the food chain and having animals slaughtered to be our food. It’s just a part of the nature.
        It’s not haraam to touch dogs. It’s just unhygienic (since the dogs keep salivating) when keeping them at home (especially when it comes to praying). We are taught to have compassion for all animals. Just because Muslims can’t eat pork and keeping dogs as a pet, that is silly to think that we are allowed to abuse those animals however we wish.


      • Sha'Tara says:

        This is where Earthians show their true colours: when the start arguing amongst themselves about the benefits and drawbacks of their particular religion… or political party. I like to sit on the curb and watch the mindless fireworks.


    • groverguy says:

      “…including atheism and science, which is a religion/culture to many).”
      > that nonsensical passage undermines the integrity of your entire argument.

      Hypersexualisation is not a western phenomenon. ‘Hypercovering-up’, or I’d call it pathological-covering-up, is a manifestation of hypersexualisation. Sadly around my area of the U.K., some little Muslim girls are covered up. Of course that has the effect of drawing attention, not making them invisible. Their images are far more sexualised than girls running around in simple shorts and T-shirts.

      The more you cover up, particularly needlessly, like wearing black sheets in the seering heat, the more you project the sexual nature of who you are. A woman wearing a bikini projects far less sexual tension than one wearing an abaya, niqab or burqa or, to a lesser extent, a hijab.


      • Sha'Tara says:

        What you resists, persists. Hence why society should grow up and simply slip into public nudity, especially on beaches, public swimming pools and private yards without commenting about it. Sure, go ahead, take a look, then move on. Most would be shocked at the thoroughly unexpected results of such freedom.


  7. Yasamine says:

    I will have to super agree with what MM says. I was born in a Muslim family in the states and I was never forced into anything. I really and truly had and have a choice. I do feel sorry for these girls after reading their stories. They definitely were raised in very cold and controlling families, forced to do Hijab. I have never worn a Hijab and probably never will, but that doesn’t make me a less of a Muslim. My parents allowed me to wear a swimming suit, shorts and short skirts but taught me to respect myself and try to be a good human being. However, I chose not to wear shorts and a bathing suit because “I” didn’t feel comfortable in it, it was my choice. My parents are educated and believe religion is very sacred between God and the individual. This is true with almost 89% of the Muslims that I am around with. I believe that for these girls, it has to do with their cultural backgrounds and illiterate families. Again, we should not hold any religion responsible for what they went through, it was more of a family dysfunction and culture. I say this because I am a Muslim and no, I have NEVER been forced to do anything. I wish these girls the best in life and sorry that they were weren’t allowed to experience true Islam. It is sad how some of these backward cultures have hijacked the religion!


  8. Doko says:

    The whole Islamic religion is cruel, suffocating, disgusting, centred of men ruling, killings, violence, raped, beheadings, stoning by death as punishment and their heaven according to the quoran? Where the men who go to heaven see through 10 layers of clothing and have all the virgin women they can have. Disgusting.


  9. kam X says:

    Science has advanced so much that today we know the composition of a cell and how to reconstruct it but even with all the scientific advancements, we still don’t know how to bring a cell to life. We can use a part of a living cell to create a twin but we can’t create a living cell. It is questionable if the created twin will be fully functional and have a normal life span as the original cell’s animal or plant race. No creation of man is as complex as human mind and body thus first we have to understand human mind and body thoroughly before we even attempt to defy the existence of God. – http://bit.ly/1AhuIW1


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