Mainstream media is fixated by the idea of the hijab as a symbol of oppression, but for me it opened up a gateway to freedom
As more young women in the Western world self-identify as feminists and the dialogue on women’s social issues continues to grow, I can’t help but notice that Muslim women are repeatedly and deliberately excluded from the conversation. It seems that Western feminists are so used to seeing Muslim women as victims of internalised misogyny that our input is automatically deemed void of any real value.
The hijab is a constant fixation across mainstream media, something largely seen as the ultimate symbol of patriarchal oppression. Most people seem to form their opinion of the hijab through articles written by political analysts that seem to veer more towards cultural shaming rather than balanced reporting. Rarely does anyone seem to actually speak to any women who wear it. This is incredibly frustrating to many Muslim women, including myself, who not only feel committed to upholding women’s rights, but also see our hijab as a means to liberate ourselves from some of the hyper-sexualisation and degradation that women are exposed to across the world.
It is far too simplistic to make generalisations about nearly a billion Muslim women all being submissive victims of manipulation at the hands of men. The reality is that the highest demographic of Muslim converts today are young, educated women. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge at the very least that Islam and indeed the hijab may have something to offer women. I can’t speak for all Muslim women, only for myself, in reference to my own spiritual journey and how I went from being a typically vain teenage girl craving all the wrong types of attention, to a hijab-wearing, practicing Muslim woman.
I grew up in a fairly relaxed Muslim household, in a pretty much all-white suburb of North London. Like a lot of diaspora kids I was somewhat culturally confused, as well as totally disengaged from Islam, which I generally associated with stifling restrictions and rules. And so in my early teenage years I began to take great pleasure in rebelling against my cultural upbringing in any way I could. I partied a lot and fell into long periods of reckless highs and consuming, depressive lows. By the age of 16 I began to mature into somebody considered attractive by mainstream beauty standards, and I noticed that I was getting a lot more male attention.
To be considered attractive was flattering, but more than that, it made me feel accepted and valued. Like a lot of young women, I felt that as long as I was considered attractive, it would somehow disguise how insecure and low I felt most of the time, and it gave me a sense of purpose. So the dresses got shorter, the hair extensions got longer and the makeup got heavier. And when I say heavy, I mean I was pretty much ready to audition for RuPaul's Drag Race at this point.
My vanity routine became utterly time consuming and exhausting. It would take me about two days of waxing, shaving and tanning to prepare for a night out. Only to spend the whole evening sucking in my belly in a tight and unforgiving dress. It only heightened my insecurities, and ultimately just really didn’t seem worth the cheap attention I was getting from some guy in Voi jeans with too much hair gel.
My journey from this point to becoming a practicing Muslim was a slow and gradual one. I grew out of things like going out all the time and being around destructive people. However one of the major benefits for me was that for the first time, I began to stop viewing myself through the male gaze and through the love of a genderless divine power who values both men and women for their good deeds alone. That was a beautiful concept to me.
And so I eventually started to become repulsed by the same attention I once found flattering. I became acutely aware of situations in which I was being sexualised without my consent, and of men who had no interest in me other than a physical one. I felt angered by things like the every day use of the naked female body as a decorative object, that was, for example, used to sell a car in an advert. Something that men simply were not subjected to.
Only a woman can understand what it feels like to walk down the street and experience the piercing stares of men as they undress you with their eyes. I couldn’t believe how as a young girl I had normalised and internalised things that now made me feel so disgusted. If I just ignored these things, who would really benefit from that? Deep down I would still be uncomfortable, and the men would still hold all the power.
At some point, and I can’t quite remember when, I decided that enough was enough. I recognised how unbelievably damaging the constant degradation and exploitation of women was, and no longer wanted to allow random men to enjoy my physicality in any way. I wanted to be in total control of who can see me and who can’t. What they can see, and what they can’t.
By practicing hijab and covering some of the most traditionally attractive parts of a woman, the hair and body, I feel so much more in control. I no longer feel like an object ready for public consumption. While I still take pride in my appearance and will always love my makeup and dressing up from time to time, I feel that I can remove some of my sexuality from the public sphere which forces men to value me simply for my character. Truth be told, it can be daunting at times to be valued only for one’s character. Sometimes, on a bad day, I might worry that I don’t have enough to offer the world without being perceived as a "hot girl" too. But I have never felt more free.