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.