By Sienna Lewis-Borett
Never in the history of the modern world has a single piece of clothing caused so much controversy as the hijab. Some countries want to ban it, others want to enforce it. Rarely do any of the conversations about ‘what to do about hijab’ ever actually include those whom it concerns. So, what does hijab mean and why should you wear one?
In Arabic, the word ‘hijab’ comes from the root ح ج ب ha-jeem-ba which means a barrier, a screen, or a veil; essentially, something that forms a partition between you and someone or something else. While Arabic words have slightly different meanings depending on the context in which they are written, you can see how all of these translations relate to the hijab/headscarf we know today.
Hijab is ordained for women by Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) in the Quran. The clearest command from Allah (swt) in regard to hijab is in surah 24 verse 31, where women are advised to guard their private parts and draw their khimar over their chests. In pre-Islamic Arabia women typically wore khimars, a type of head covering, which Allah (swt) ordered women to also use to cover their neck and bosom. Without getting too deeply into the nitty gritty of quranic exegesis, what we wear to cover our hair today and typically refer to as the hijab is actually more closely aligned with quranic notions of khimar. However, because of the usage of the term ‘hijab’ to refer to headscarves in popular discourse, this is the term that will be used here. It should also be noted that hijab actually refers to a whole lifestyle of modesty, not just clothing, but here the term hijab will refer specifically to headscarves.
My Personal Journey
I must confess, before I took my shahadah and I was still on the path to accepting Islam I maintained that once I did convert, I would not cover my hair. I would pray, and be a fully practising muslim otherwise, but I didn’t want to wear a scarf. In my ignorance I thought it was optional and that if other people didn’t wear it then I didn’t have to either. I was undoubtedly influenced in that decision by the society I grew up in; a society which unfortunately views headscarves as oppressive and which overwhelmingly sees liberation as the right to be as naked as possible in public, not covered. I am cringing writing this, thinking about some of the things I mistakenly believed, but I am also grateful for the evolution of my thought. Coming to see wearing the Hijab as a feminist statement was a real lightbulb moment for me, but that’s a story for another day!
I have been wearing a hijab now for about four and a half years. I actually put it on only a few weeks after taking my shahadah, and it has been quite a journey! For me, I found that making my scarf fashionable and matching it to my handbag or shoes or other accessory was a way to enjoy wearing it more. I don’t want to trivialise what it means to wear a scarf but I found this was one of the things that helped me become more comfortable wearing one. My hijab also forms part of my identity; I love that it’s one of the first things people notice about me and it lets them know I am a Muslim. I’m not going to sugar-coat it; I haven’t always loved wearing it. If you are thinking about wearing one or have very recently started wearing one I guarantee there will be times when you wonder why you bother, and there will be other times when it feels like a piece of armour protecting you. That’s ok. It’s normal to feel like this and to have doubts. My desire to cover my hair has been tested, but as Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) says in the Qur’an in surah 29 verse 2, “Do they think once they say ‘we believe’ that they will be left without being put to the test?”. The recent spate of ‘influencers’ who have made the decision to take the hijab off, and be largely applauded for it by their followers, was one of those times I was tested. How can I wear one if everyone I look to for inspiration is taking it off? It has been disheartening to see so many women take it off. Not just one but four of the (former) Hijabi style icons I followed on social media and looked to for fashion inspiration have taken their hijabs off in the last 2 years. It’s almost as if they used hijab to gain followers and then decided once they were ‘big enough’ in the modest world that they could cast it aside… I had to unfollow them as they were no longer an inspiration, but my point here is that when you choose to wear hijab for the right reasons, i.e. for almost any reason other than to gain internet fame, then you will be less likely to fall off the wagon.
If you are struggling with the decision to put a hijab on then remember that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) will reward you for every struggle you have in this life, including every time you wear hijab if it is something that is not easy for you. As reverts, some things are harder for us than those who were born into Muslim families. On top of putting a hijab on and the internal battles you may be having about it, you will likely have battles with family members about it. It can help if you are well informed about what you are wearing and why you are wearing it, but disagreements with parents, our mothers especially, are not easy. It may take them some time to get used to you wearing a scarf but they will come around eventually inshaAllah. They love you and a piece of cloth is not going to change that. It is of course possible that you will lose some friends over it, so be prepared for this. I lost some. But Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) blessed me with new friends who were either on the same journey as me or who were accepting of my choices.
Wearing a headscarf in public for the first time can be daunting, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s really not as scary as it seems! The bus driver doesn’t know this is the first time you are wearing a scarf in public and he’s not looking at you funny. The cashier at Tesco doesn’t know you’re worried that it might slip off. The lady sat opposite you on the tube isn’t thinking your head looks big or that you look uncomfortable. To them, you are just a Muslim woman and you’ve always looked like this. No one is judging you. Your colleagues at work who knew you pre-hijab are obviously going to notice a change but a smile and a simple “I’ve decided I’m ready to wear hijab now” should suffice. One of the great things about living in the UK, and big cities like London in particular, is that they are so diverse! There are thousands, if not millions of other Muslim women wearing headscarves so you will never be ‘the odd one out’. I cannot speak for the whole country, especially smaller towns in rural areas, but this has been my experience in cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool. I have also learnt that if people do stare, it’s not always a bad thing. Countless times I have received compliments on my headscarves…from non-Muslim women!
Here are my top tips for wearing a hijab for the first time.
- Find a Hijabi whose style you like, and copy them. Instagram is a great place for inspiration. Some favourites of mine are @jasminefares @ebrusootds @sevtesettur and @fa.t1ma
- Practice at home. I wore hijab badly, in public, for almost a year before I found a style and scarf material that worked well for me. Don’t be afraid to experiment – with colours, styles, and types of material
- Youtube, and even Instagram, are full of tutorials and will help you to experiment. Or if you have a Hijabi friend I have no doubt that they would love to help you style one!
- And finally, get out of your own head! It’s really not as scary as you think! As Nike says, just do it!