When I first started wearing the hijab, it was hard to wrap my head around it.
I was a shy 11-year-old, fresh off the proverbial boat from Pakistan, and entering the battleground that was sixth grade. I came into school in March, I might add, meaning that cliques had already formed, friendships had been sworn, and alliances had been made by way of pinky promise. I knew I had no hope of making any friends. All I wanted was for someone to take pity on me, invite me to sit with them at lunch, and not laugh when I asked them what ‘pencil crayons’ were.
Instead, thanks to the cloth my mom had forced me to cover my head with, all I got were cold stares, awkward silences, and a girl in my class harassing me to “take it off.”
So I did what every young adult novel would have its heroine do: I started living a double life. I would wear the hijab when I left for school, take it off and stash it in my bag before my first class, and wrap it around my head again before I went home.
It was dishonest, draining, and frightening. I was always on edge, scared of being caught, or worse — being called out. I didn’t know who to turn to. I had no friends at school, my relatives back home were an expensive phone call away, and my mom was a single mother, apartment-hunting so she could give us a roof over our heads that was better than our small, smelly Scarborough apartment.
The paranoia became too much to withstand, so I gave up my double life — which hadn’t garnered me any friends, anyway — and started wearing the hijab full-time. Still, I wasn’t head over heels for it.
A little later, my mother found us a place in Mississauga, and I took this as an opportunity to restart. I was grateful. I decided the hijab was out of my life and off of my head, and nothing could change that.
After two years of not wearing the hijab, I started attending religious classes geared toward young Muslim women. I related closely to my teacher, who used to have a fear of the hijab that echoed mine. She had hated wearing it as a young girl, she told us with humour, because it made her ‘uncool’ and unfit to hang out with the popular girls. But she had had an epiphany that changed her mind — we would all experience that epiphany at one point, she promised us, regardless of whether it would lead us to choose the hijab or take it off.
I was skeptical of her promise until I decided to learn more about the hijab. What I discovered left me pleasantly surprised.
The hijab, also spelled ‘hejab,’ isn’t just a piece of cloth that covers a woman’s head, neck, and chest. It is a concept that denotes modesty, not only through clothing, but through words and actions — and this idea applies to both women and men. It is a physical form of my commitment to my faith, and as I got to know more about the hijab, I suddenly found myself wanting to make that commitment.
The only thing holding me back was the fear that my non-hijabi friends might not accept me. But I reasoned with myself that if my friends abandoned me simply because of a cloth on my head, then they weren’t really friends, were they?
In January 2011, I decided to wear the hijab.
I’d be lying if I said that in the seven years that have since passed, I haven’t once thought about taking it off, because I have. The poor representations of hijab-wearing women in popular culture have caused me to feel ugly, insecure, and to question my decision. This is especially the case when I see how hijabis who aren’t ‘white passing’ are misrepresented in the media as being timid and oppressed.
But then I remind myself that the hijab is more than a piece of cloth to me. Aside from being a sign of my commitment to my faith, for me, the hijab has become a symbol of feminism and resistance in an age when misogyny and Islamophobia are being perpetrated by leaders of nations.
Not to mention that the hijab literally hides my flaws: it hides my double chin, hairy sideburns, and occasionally oily hair. For these reasons, it’s probably better that I keep it on.
I love the hijab and everything that it stands for. What I don’t love, however, are the questions that it comes with and the lack of instructions on how to answer them.
Some of these questions are reasonable, but many are downright ridiculous. I’ve heard these questions and many more:
Can I see your hair?
If you are a female, sure, but not in public. If you are a male, no.
Do you wear it at home?
It depends. A hijab is supposed to be worn around unfamiliar males, so if there are men other than my father, grandfather, or brothers, then yes.
Do you sleep with it on?
I don’t even sleep with my bra on because that’s too restrictive. Why would I sleep with a hijab on?
Do you shower with it on?
My hijab is not permanently attached to my head. It is a piece of cloth that, like the rest of my clothing, comes off when I shower. Also, a wet hijab feels even worse than a wet sock.
Don’t you feel hot?
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any hijabs that come with cooling technology, so yes, I do feel hot. The heat still pales in comparison to the oppression I face every day in the form of ignorance and Islamophobia.
What’s under there?
The answer to this question has endless possibilities. While it’s usually just hair, there is nothing stopping me from putting all kinds of things under my hijab. What could I put there?
A water bottle? While that would certainly free up hands, a water bottle is prone to leaking, and my hair must only be washed every two days, otherwise it frizzes.
Plants? This would be lovely, except my hijab is too thick and would block it from getting enough sunlight. Also, how would I water the plant without getting my hijab wet?
Dumbbells? Given the numerous excuses I invent to skip the gym, that would certainly be useful and allow me to exercise on the go. However, they could also fall out of my hijab, down my shirt, and maybe break a bone or two. I don’t know if my insurance would cover that.
A blanket? A blanket would be useful given my tendency to nap anywhere, regardless of the time or place. However, a proper blanket would probably make my hijab look too bulky, and I have standards of hijab-wearing to abide by.
Textbooks? Physical textbooks are too heavy for my gym-skipping, low-upper-body-strength self.
Cheat sheets? As a linguistics student with no time to memorize the distinctive features of every sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is tempting to stash cheat sheets in my hijab. However, it would be hard to extract them discreetly, especially without messing up my hijab — and since I would be far too lazy to fix it, that will probably never happen.
Voldemort? The Last Battle of Hogwarts took place in 1998, a year after I was born. Voldemort had no time and no need to possess the head of a Muggle like me — he already had a physical form by then.
I can’t make heads or tails of any of these questions, but I shouldn’t be surprised to hear them in a time when countries and provinces regularly ban the hijab under the guise of removing religious symbols, and hijab-wearing women are constantly attacked. All I can say is that I’m keeping my head — and hijab — up.