When we talk about hijab, it’s usually as an act of resistance to Islamophobia. But why do we ignore the women whose hijab is not a choice? Why do we avoid discussions about why hijab is not always a choice? The concept of agency is often not discussed because much of our understanding of women’s choices in Islam revolve around challenging discourse and policies that undermine the hijab. In the fight for liberation and self-determination, I think it is disingenuous to ignore the lived experiences and firsthand accounts by women who’ve experienced violence for exercising their agency to not wear hijab.
When I was in elementary school, I was not given a choice whether or not to wear the hijab. I wasn’t equipped with the know-how of negotiating or expressing my concerns as a child. My agency and sense of self-determination were stifled. Agency is described as an individual’s capacity to make their own free choices. I grew up in a very strict Islamic household where music, jeans, and going to the movie theaters were forbidden. On the weekends, my parents sent me to dugsi (Islamic school) to memorize Qu’ran. Being humiliated and violated in public was profoundly traumatizing and degrading.
Was violence going to be an integral part of my life forever? I thought to my 10-year old self. I felt my upbringing steadily chipping away at my dignity. In hindsight, this was the groundwork that would normalize a lifetime of dehumanization. My oppressor was always going to be there albeit in different forms. Whenever I attempted to exercise my agency by speaking up for myself, I was shut down by violence.
Hijab is not a choice if you fear violent repercussions unless you wear it. Hijab is not a choice if you’re threatened with getting kicked out, harmed, or denied resources (i.e. money, transportation, emotional support) if you refuse. This is abuse. When we talk about women’s liberation in Islam, are we including young girls who are utmostly vulnerable to abuse and coercion? Are we also including Muslim women who are met with violence when they exercise their agency? Or are we only centering our right to wear hijab in the U.S. because this is the only acceptable conversation we are allowed to have? Misogynistic “scholars” will not eradicate patriarchal violence.
As an adult, I am just now learning how to establish boundaries, speak up for myself and honor my autonomy. I knew that whenever there was violence, I was void of choice. I exercise my agency by living the life of my own choosing. Breaking the cycle of violence is the most challenging experience ever, but it is so worth it. I am creating my dream life which is brimming with choices, excitement, and joy. Sometimes, I hear my family mourning the girl I used to be. You used to wear jilbaab, and you never went anywhere! I don’t know that girl anymore.
One thought on “Why Hijab is Not a Choice”
I think the issue that many Muslim communities face, in particular the Somali community, is that there’s a very simplistic narrative on the hijab. The hijab is the only acceptable clothing, and a woman is ‘naked/qaawan’ without it. This is the narrative that makes random men feel entitled to write on womens’ posts on Facebook and IG (Ilwad Elman’s IG comes to mind where many men advise her to cover up irrespective of the amazing work she does and the fact that she’s doing far more for Somalis than they are!). We need another narrative, or at least several narratives because that’s what allows the diversity you see in some Muslim majority countries like Morocco, Malaysia, Tunisia and Jordan where just as many women wear the hijab as those who do not without it being a big deal.
I myself grew up in a household where my dad was very critical of the hijab/niqab/jilbab/abaya, and when I decided to wear it he wasn’t happy about it but I continued to wear even the jilbab (full head to toe that’s usually worn in Saudi Arabia). This view towards the hijab is arguably strange for a Somali man, and for me I felt that the lack of choice you refer to in regards to wearing the hijab was the same for me, but in the case of not wearing a hijab. With this being said, we need a wider discussion on female agency in general. The agency to wear a hijab, the agency to not wear one. Agency isn’t something that’s afforded to people from collectivistic cultures, and anyone who dares to break out of the norm is considered an outsider and is shunned, and you see this in collectivistic Christian communities as much as within Muslims.
It’s very strange to me how almost 30 years ago our mothers grew up not wearing the hijab in Somalia, in fact my own mother decided to wear the hijab well into her thirties, yet now we’ve done a complete 180 to not even allowing the smallest leniency… bizarre.
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