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Bliss 2022  •  01 June 2022  •  Society & Culture

Hijab: An Oxymoron

Two months before I turned 16, I started wearing the hijab.

By Arshmah Jamal
Content Warning: Racism, references to sex, islamophobia, pornography, violence and sexual harassment
Hijab: An Oxymoron

For a 16-year-old, it was a challenging and life-changing decision. The added pressure of finding a new outfit for my birthday party because my dress was short-sleeved and had a long slit coming up to my thigh didn’t help. The main reason I started wearing the hijab was because my dad said I couldn’t do it.

“You won’t get any jobs.”

“It’ll be harder to find a job.”

“You might get fired because of the hijab.”

Your whole life will change.

I have a history of trying to prove people wrong, so of course, 16-year-old me proved him wrong by wearing the hijab to school the next day.

I was nervous and jittery during the car ride. I was scared of people talking about me and suddenly knowing who I am. Despite that, I remember walking through the wired gates of my school with a huge smile and a messy hijab perched with pride on my head.

Maybe it’s because I went to an all-girls school, or perhaps it’s because I was friends with everyone, but I was showered with compliments and genuine happiness the whole day. Girls came up to me and told me how beautiful I looked. Teachers offered advice on where to get hijab-friendly clothes. One of my friends cried out of pure joy. The hijab became a part of me that day, like second nature. 

I am eternally grateful for the experience and memories that came about that day. I am luckier than most hijabi women.

So how did an innocent piece of fabric become something so performative, bitter, and sexualised once I had become an adult?

My religion is not your costume.

The first time I looked in the mirror and realised my hijab was during my first year of uni. 

One of the reasons I chose UTS was because I saw people like me at the open day. I remember talking with another hijabi, and she told me how diverse and accepting this uni was compared to others. 

Nice. I won’t get jumped because of my hijab!

But oh, how I was wrong. 

A group of us were sitting in Building 2, discussing our plans for the upcoming Halloween weekend. The topic of costumes came up, and one guy said he was going to dress up as an Arab, thawb and all. 

My friend (let’s call her Chloe) and I jumped at him to tell him how racist that was, even though he was Muslim. A few google searches later, he apologised after realising his mistake. The guy on his right then loudly asked us to guess what he would wear.

None of us said anything. 

“I’m going to wear the burqa and not wear anything underneath so that I can flash people!”

Throughout my 18 years I had never experienced such silence before. 

He had a shit-eating grin plastered on his face, and his eyes lit up manically. 

I was silent as another girl immediately started yelling at him and Chloe dragged me away from the table. Blood rushed to my ears, and my hands shook uncontrollably.

“Are you okay?” 

No? Yes? I don’t know? I thought. This was the first time something like that had been said to my face directly, in public. 

Going home that day, I stared in the mirror. For the first time in two years, I felt my hijab on my head. 

Many other bigoted experiences have occurred since then. People have thrown food at me, people have yelled at me, customers have refused to allow me to help them. It used to hurt me a lot; however, I’ve learnt to bask in the discomfort people feel from not showing my hair.

Kill them with kindness.

There’s an artwork my art teacher introduced us to in high school. It is a video piece of a hijabi woman standing in front of a white-picket fence, smiling. The stagnant woman smiles for five minutes — nothing else. 

A lot of my classmates said how it made them uncomfortable due to the sheer length of the video. “We get it. She’s smiling. She can stop now.” 

I remember saying how angry I had felt after it finished. My teacher was smiling at me when she asked why I felt angry. “As a hijabi, I feel like I have to constantly smile to make other people around me know I’m not a threat.” 

I wish I could recall the artist’s name, but I can remember my teacher telling us how those were the thoughts behind the artwork.

Statistically, I’ve been wearing the hijab for 30% of my life. Emotionally, it has been with me for 80% of my waking life — the times when I am self-aware.

My mama had told me how, when I start wearing the hijab, I’ll represent my religion of Islam, my culture of Pakistan, and my family of Jamal. Unfortunately, that was a heavy weight for a lonely, first-generation teenager to carry. I lived my high school life impressing outsiders to ensure they would not have a negative viewpoint of my religion or hijabis. At the time, I enjoyed it. I had a fiery personality and was eager to argue with everyone (even if they did not want to be educated). Most importantly, I wanted to make a difference to the world I lived in. 

However, with every flip of the calendar, I realised how unrealistic I was being, and how people would say something — good or bad — no matter what I did. 

I’ve recently seen many hijabis being abused on MuslimTok (the Muslim side of TikTok). Women wearing the niqab are dancing to the renegade, and the comments are yelling: music is haram, dancing is haram, your actions are haram.

Take it off. 

Women in a dupatta are doing a storytime, and the comments are yelling: your hair is showing, you’re wearing too much makeup, wear it properly. Take it off. 

Women in a hijab are making a day in a life, and the comments are yelling: your jeans are too tight, dress modestly, you look like a whore. Take. It. Off.

I admit I don’t dress “modestly”. I absolutely hate modest fashion looks because it’s always boiled down to dresses, floral wear, and clothing pieces that flatter skinny bodies. I wear flared jeans, leather jackets, and corset tops on button-down shirts. I wear clothes that will not get me featured on Hijab House. Tendrils of my hair sometimes escape my scarf. I am not “perfect”. I wear these clothes to challenge the soft, kind image I was forced to entertain society with from a young age.

Why was it that the weight of my religion was on my fragile shoulders? Why did I have the urge to always apologise on behalf of other Muslims? Why do I have to smile regardless of what I feel that day?

I am aware in Islam that you get rewards if you smile, but if it means I can be “normal”’ and live as myself, I can get these rewards somewhere else.

Mia Khalifa

Sexuality was never discussed in my culture. It’s taboo, and you only have sex when you get married to procreate. Women are to be virgins, never touched. Men can get away with it. Simple actions became connotated with being a “slut” in my community, such as red lipstick, wearing “too much makeup”, or showing your shoulders. The hijab, to me, was a deterrent to sexual advances. I was taught how the hijab curbed sexual desires, and women in the past wore it for modesty. Ironically, this has not been the case.

There was this tweet that was making rounds on Twitter. The user wrote how he needed a Muslim girl because of “how nice it is to fuck them”. Of course, the comments were in shambles. Someone replied at how demeaning that statement was and went into the weird obsession men have with virgins. The original user responded back, saying how they should have sex with a hijabi and then talk. 

Last week, I was at the train station looking at the timetables and a white man approached me and asked if I was Muslim. 

No shit. Can’t you see the hijab on my head?

I ignored him and started to move towards the platforms. Instead of taking the clear hint, he followed. 

“I just think the hijab is so beautiful, and you look really good in it.”

I know I do. I don’t need this validation from you, asshole.

“Can I fuck you with it on?” 

I stopped. There was a sour taste in my mouth, and my hands started to shake. I knew he was talking, but I couldn’t hear anything he said. I remember my fists curling up my sides, ready to punch him in the nose. By some grace of God, a worker had overheard this and pulled him aside. I have never run that fast. 

In February, I went on a date with a guy I had met on Hinge. I had told my friends where I was going to be and kept them updated. It was in public and broad daylight, so I knew nothing would happen. 

It started with mellow compliments. 

“You look beautiful. You’re so much prettier in real life.”

I asked him what he thought about the hijab. He started mentioning how beautiful it is, and how strong the women are. 

“It’s unfortunate, though, how people like Mia Khalifa ruin it for you!” 

I stared at him in confusion, and he proceeded to explain how it was demeaning and ugly that someone could sexualise a religious cloth like that.

Khalifa’s porn career was short-lived. In the span of three months, she made 11 videos, but her video of a threesome while wearing the hijab blew up and subsequently led her to leave the industry. She got disowned by her parents, and received horrifying death threats from ISIS. When asked why she didn’t say no, she replied with intimidation. It wasn’t a place to say no.

Even after eight years, Khalifa’s actions still impact the Muslim community. On TikTok, users are divided. Open up the comments, and you will see people defending and attacking her. It’s always the same comments as well — she was coerced by her company versus it was her choice to don the hijab. 

Her regret for her past versus still using her stage name. Her apology for wearing glasses versus not apologising for wearing the hijab. Khalifa’s porn hurt many girls in my community, especially when boys would call us Mia Khalifa because we were brown and wore glasses. 

But I believe it was not her fault. She was young, immature, and forced into it. She has expressed guilt for her past and regrets how her videos objectify women like me. Yet no matter how remorseful she is, it will never be enough for everyone. Anyway, we walked on some more when I asked what he thought of *my* hijab. 

He assured me it was beautiful and told me how cute I looked. A beat of silence went past when he looked at me and asked if he could be honest. 

“It turns me on.” 

For me, my hijab was an armour during this date. My mind had convinced my heart that nothing would happen. No kissing, no touching, and no sex. I had told my date my boundaries as well. After all, I’m told I’m a great communicator. 

Unfortunately, my armour led me to a battle I was unprepared for. 

Tl;dr

The hijab used to be an innocent and happy piece of clothing when I was surrounded by people with similar thoughts and ideologies. However, once I stepped foot into the real world, my relationship with the hijab flipped.

The hijab has made me feel violated in many situations. It’s also been a base for my emotional, physical, and sexual trauma. At this current point in my life, I don’t feel the same love I did in high school. Neither do I feel that hatred when I am racially abused or sexualised. There are days when I feel highs and lows because of my hijab, but I have realised it would take something else to get rid of it completely. Even though it has been a source of my pain, I will still wear it with pride, just as I did when I walked through that wired fence.

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