I have written a blog post about removing the hijab which you can read here: Part 1.
A few months before I made the decision to wear the hijab, the Islamic Society at my university hosted a lecture about the modesty of women in Islam. I volunteered to help at the event so that I could attend and not feel like an outsider. I felt out of place at Islamic lectures, 85% of attendees wore the hijab and didn’t take me seriously because I chose not to. It was as if they believed that I wasn’t authorised to be a part of Islam. During the lecture, the speaker discussed the way that covering ourselves protected us from the gaze of men. She addressed the un-hijabed women in the room, maintaining eye contact to signify that these words were directed at us, victimising us. She told us that we were disappointing God.
During this period of my life, I was struggling with severe anxiety. I could not be left alone, I was constantly sick with fear, I was always crying, I had to be supervised everywhere. My mother took me to see an imam because I was no longer able to cope. He recited a prayer and told me that I needed to cover my hair if I wanted to feel better. The girls in the Islamic Society reiterated this; I was made to believe that it would help me. In such a vulnerable condition, I didn’t have a choice; I was desperate to rid myself of the anxiety.
I just wanted peace.
I just wanted peace.
The hijab and abaya made me feel as if I had the entire weight of Islam on my shoulders, as if everything that I did would be attributed to the religion instead of me as a person. By wearing the hijab, I was adorning myself in symbolism. I felt pressured, as if I constantly needed to have my guard up, as if I couldn’t be myself because I was so concerned with trying to be a good Muslim. Meanwhile, the anxiety was feeding itself; growing stronger, greater. I remained terrified. Always terrified. I was afraid of God, of Hell, of the devil, of sin, of being punished, of dying, of everything.
In my anxious state, people would still tell me more things that I couldn’t do, inducing episodes of grave panic. Someone once told me that taking photographs was haraam, that God was going to ask us to make the photos come alive when we died. I was petrified; I removed all of my photographs from my albums, ripping them into shreds at 4 in the morning because I didn’t want to go to Hell. Someone told me that it was haraam to wear makeup, it attracted attention from men. I panicked and stopped wearing makeup. Sometimes I received messages telling me that my status on Facebook was inappropriate. I couldn’t do anything right. Everything was haraam; I didn’t know how I was supposed to exist. I became withdrawn, it was easier. I cut off contact with my male friends, stopped reading stories because people said that I should use my time to learn more about Islam. I stopped watching TV, ‘it was from the devil.’ I became so conscious of my own movements, terrified of sinning, of burning, of rotting in Hell. Sometimes I would sit and think about my past and all of the sins that I’d committed. I would cry and cry, begging God for forgiveness, shivering until I could feel the Hellfire inside my limbs.
I wore the hijab and abaya for 2 entire years. I didn’t write or talk about anything but religion. My entire life was about Islam but I felt out of touch with God. I was struggling to concentrate in prayer, I couldn’t keep fasts, I didn’t feel connected to Islam. My body was withdrawing from itself, rejecting everything. It took me a long time to understand that this was my mind’s way of telling me that it didn’t know who I was anymore. It was refusing to absorb anything.
I was angry at God for putting me through this. I took off the hijab because I didn’t want to resent Him. I didn’t want to resent Islam. I wanted peace; I wanted to feel connected to something. I wanted to be myself. At the time, I was volunteering at a charity shop. When I went into work without my hijab for the first time, everyone was fascinated with my red hair. They commented on how much happier I seemed, how alive I looked. I was talking, I was interacting; I was alive. That’s when I realised the true extent of what had happened.
It took me a long time to go back to the way I was; I had to constantly tell myself that it was okay to look a male sales assistant in the eye. It was okay for me to laugh if he made a joke. It was okay for me to wear what I wanted. It was all okay. I don’t want to advocate that it is the best thing to do, but in my case it was the only thing left. I’m still Muslim, I still believe in God and I recognise that our whole lives are battles with the turbulence of our faith. I recognise that we are always at war with Satan.
There is always reasoning to sustain actions; we are in no position to decide whether these are valid enough. We’re here to live, we’re trying to survive and if we need to do it in our own ways, it’s okay. God is the judge; we can’t stand with pitchforks and berate others for the way that they choose to exist. I felt a huge responsibility to be the perfect Muslim, as if I had to take it upon myself to solely improve the reputation of Islam. It was too much; I was just a girl trying to find my way in the world. Wearing the hijab was an act of desperation during my residency in the abyss.
The hijab was never about wanting to look modest; it was a means of annihilating my anxiety. I wanted to be closer to God; I was told that this was the only way. But I was uncomfortable, I received more attention, I was followed. I tried to love the hijab; I tried to make myself want to wear it, but it didn’t feel right. When answering the door for the postman, I wouldn’t wear the hijab, it didn’t even occur to me. I didn’t want to wear it, I felt like I needed to. I just wanted to get rid of the anxiety. I suppose you can liken it to losing weight. It’s easy to lose a large amount of weight, but the challenge is keeping it off. It is a gradual process; you have to change your entire lifestyle before submitting. I went from mini skirts to an abaya overnight.
I had to walk through the fire to save myself. People are narrow-minded, they only see one means of becoming close to God. We have our individual feelings and just like we don’t have the same experiences, we’re not all going to walk the same path to find God.
Mankind struggles with letting other people be. There’s always criticism of one’s character, but Islam teaches us to be tolerant of others, kind. It is the essence of the whole religion. We should be giving others space to exist in their own way. We’re fighting our own battles; you can’t stand and measure someone else’s pain against your own. We have different tolerances, and if you take one thing away from this post, please let it be to allow others to make their own decisions and be free.
I receive messages from people telling me that there is ‘still time to change.’ But I’m more in touch and aware of God than ever before because there is no compulsion. I’ve learned that submitting to Him doesn’t just mean through prayer, it means through our movements, through the remembrance and acknowledgement of Him. I thank God, I innately find myself mumbling ‘alhamdulillah’ in a state of overwhelming bliss. I recognise these moments as being from Him. That’s faith, that’s worship. We’re blindsided by doing things like wearing the hijab in order to get closer to Him, we forget about the smaller things that are rooted in our everyday lives. These are characteristics of piety; they demonstrate that someone recognises their moments as part of a greater movement.
At the end of the day, our purpose is to get closer to God, it doesn’t matter how you get there.