If you think I’m not wearing my hijab properly, that’s your problem – not mine


I started to experiment with various hijab styles in the hope that I would find one that would suit me (Picture: Arub Syed)

Growing up as a hijabi – a term coined for Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf – in 21st century Britain can be exhausting.

We have to juggle Islamic principles with Western ideologies and it’s no easy ride.

I’ve had people take one look at my hijab and hurl hostile remarks like ‘go back to your home country’ or ‘f*** off, you p***!’ While this has left a sour taste in my mouth, miraculously, these comments never really had a long-lasting impact on my self-worth.

What did influence me, however, were fellow Muslims and their observations of my hijab – and how strongly they feel about how I wear it.

I was 14 years old when I made the choice to cover my hair – for religious and spiritual reasons. My parents had no say in my decision and neither did the community. In fact, I was the first woman to wear a headscarf in my family.

Of course, reasons for covering differ from person to person. For me, covering was a reminder that as a woman, I deserved to be judged for the content of my character, not my outward appearance.

It’s a symbol that in a world where society feeds off of our insecurities, our worth is not to be reduced to something as shallow as our physical attributes. It’s also a daily reminder of my faith.

In my early 20s, I began to alter my dress sense. I started to experiment with various hijab styles in the hope that I would find one that would suit me.

I eventually settled on a rather unconventional one: tying my scarf and letting some strands of hair loose at the front. I was able to continue wearing my headscarf whilst also expressing myself. I felt comfortable.

Following this shift, a close friend told me: ‘If you don’t wear it properly you may as well just take it off.’ I could see that this brash statement was well intentioned, just expressed terribly.

I remember feeling confused. If I wanted to remove my hijab, I would have. But that wasn’t what I wanted. All I craved was a change. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I had received unsolicited advice regarding hijab. I had several more friends, family members and acquaintances who felt the need to offer similar words of infuriatingly callous advice.

As ashamed as I am to admit it, I once held such confining views about hijabi women myself. I distinctly remember my own disgustingly judgemental musings, sniggering at the thought of a hijabi with a few strands of hair on show and taking the holier-than-thou stance every time I heard an anecdote about a hijabi engaging in ‘sinful’ activity.

I was a hijabi, and apparently, I was an instant spokesperson for Islam (Picture: Arub Syed)

Over the course of a few years, I naturally began to broaden my perspective. I travelled, I saw the world and I experienced new things. Perhaps through my own frustrations as a hijabi, I came to learn that everyone has their problems, and everyone has their own way of solving them.

It was a fairly straightforward concept to grasp, for me at least. Unfortunately, I came to realise not everyone shared my views.

It began with relatively innocuous comments. Family members commenting on my fitted clothing. Acquaintances criticising my persona, telling me that my behaviour and type of dress does not match with that of a hijabi. I was supposed to be demure, prudent and timid; not confident, loud and outspoken as I always had been.

I recall a relative telling me to remove my headscarf because I had some strands of hair on show, rendering the concept of hijab obsolete. I remember a friend’s derisive slurs on seeing a hijabi with her ankles on show.

I felt trapped. Somehow, hijab had become nothing more than a symbol that determined my levels of religious devotion, and how I should be, because of a headscarf.

Suddenly, I wasn’t just a human – I was a hijabi, and apparently, I was an instant spokesperson for Islam. Of course, what this meant is that anything I did whilst my hair was covered – be it wearing tight clothes or having male friends – was either glorified or critiqued. It felt like there was no middle ground.

Many take the stance that if a woman decides to cover and publicly proclaim her faith then she should be prepared to accept any subsequent backlash. I couldn’t disagree more.

I distinctly remember one occasion where a fellow Muslim university classmate berated me publicly for sitting in the uni pub.

‘I mean, it is weird seeing a hijabi sitting in a pub, isn’t it?’ his friend sniggered along. I had no qualms in confronting him, especially since he was employed as a nightclub bouncer on the weekends.

‘That’s different,’ he retorted, ‘it’s my job.’

In his mind, it wasn’t acceptable for me to sit in the pub – drinking water, I might add – yet it was OK for him to work at a nightclub.

People need to understand that the Quran doesn’t state that sinful actions are more of a sin when hijabis are to carry them out.

Eventually, I began to embody self-acceptance (Picture: Arub Syed)

As much as I tried to block out peoples’ perceptions of me, there was only so much I could handle. It got to a point where I began to believe everyone’s comments. So much so, that I felt I was unworthy of wearing the hijab.

I thought I was too ‘haram’ – meaning ‘forbidden’ – for the hijab. That despite my intentions in observing modest dress through head covering, my behaviour and incorrect observation of covering made me an unfaithful hijabi. That I should ‘fix’ myself before asserting my faith to the world.

I felt incredibly isolated and vulnerable. I reluctantly confided in a few of my hijabi friends, who revealed that they felt exactly the same way. 

Thinking I couldn’t do justice to the hijab, I removed it for the first time in eight years. 

That sensation will never leave me. The icy cold winds piercing my neck as tiny strands of unkempt hair tickled my face for the first time in years. At that moment, I was free. Free from judgements, negativity and insatiable expectations of a society I didn’t care about.

Yet ironically, removing the hijab didn’t lessen the judgments from those who knew me. The same people who so harshly criticised my manner of wearing hijab were the same people who disapproved of me for taking it off. I couldn’t win.

It took me a few nights of insomnia to discern my true thoughts. As much as I enjoyed unveiling my buoyant curls for the world to marvel at, it simply wasn’t me.

When I lost my hijab, I had also lost my sense of self. I covered my hair for eight years. Maybe not the ‘correct way’, but it was my attempt at drawing myself closer to my faith.

Eventually, I began to embody self-acceptance. I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t a perfect Muslim, that I am flawed and making mistakes is an inevitable stage of growing up.

When I came to this realisation, I began covering again. Not in the way others would like me to, but in a way which allowed me to balance my religious beliefs whilst simultaneously making me feel comfortable in my own skin – the same way which originally incited uproar within my community.

I learnt that the world isn’t so black and white. We see what others allow us to see and we don’t see their struggles.

Everyone is on their own path, a journey that is between them and God. If someone attempts to get closer to God, even if it’s not the ‘conventional’ way, don’t discourage them and push them further away from their faith by telling them that what they’re doing is wrong.

If you truly care for someone’s sins, pray for them. Speak to them in a respectable manner – a gentle manner. Be candid, but not harsh. The way our faith urges us to do. Practice what you preach. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.

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