“Take it off!“. The controller is sitting before me, behind the glass, my passport in her hands. She is staring down at me with threatening eyes. I explain to her that I cannot just “take it off” in front of all the other passengers queuing behind me. Outraged, she aggressively pulls a fence down by my side, barely covering me and reiterates her command. I take off my hijab and think that will put an end to it. The conversation then takes a turn both unexpected and long feared: “What if I was a man? Why did you not wear hijab on your pictures but you do now?!” I stand straight and with a clear and decisive voice remind her of my rights. The tone changes. The obnoxious, disrespectful, and familiar Russian “ты” (you) turns into a gentler, politer “вы” (you). The woman is clearly taken aback. She was expecting me to justify myself, to feel ashamed, to accept her intrusiveness and stay quiet. She goes back to the standard questions about the purpose of my travel (as I am leaving the country) and finally hands me back my passport. I greet her off with a smile and a “Goodbye”. Inside, I am overwhelmed.
I want to cry.
This was to be expected anyway. I heard about this on social media and from friends, but I could’ve never imagined it would happen to me. I mean, not long ago I was a typical “white girl.”
A year ago, I decided to start wearing hijab. Little did I know this small piece of fabric slid up from my neck to head would alter my reality. This “rebranding” process was the result of a long, personal, and spiritual transformation undertaken since my first year at university. I look back to myself with a mixture of amusement and pride: the slightly oblivious Moroccan girl moving away by herself, settling in Scotland, a different country with a different language and culture. How amusing to recall the first night spent at a friend’s house watching movies, him serving as a translator between his Glaswegian flatmate and me, as if we were speaking different tongues. Even though not even three years passed since, an abyss lies between me and that person.
Living far from home, in a western, non-Muslim country, away from all the post-colonialist, self-diminishing, schizophrenic western-apologist/western-blaming discourse of a certain part of the Moroccan society, I learned to accept myself, my identity, and my background.
In the UK, I found that, despite the racist and intolerant views of a minority, people accepted difference. I didn’t have to conform to the common perception of “normality”. I started to truly develop as an individual. In this context, I felt empowered to apply my religious beliefs to my lifestyle. Becoming a “hijabi” was merely the most visible change.
But the psychological effect this decision had on my life was hardly imaginable.
I was raised an Arab Muslim in an Arab Muslim country. Being light skinned with light brown hair, having two distinct mother tongues (French and Arabic), and consequently a very particular English accent that didn’t really fit any stereotype, I grew up with the ability to melt into the background, to adapt to any setting as would a chameleon. I would often be mistaken for a French person by French people themselves, but I could just as well be Russian, Hungarian, or Spanish (very random, but I got them all!).
During my vacations abroad and the first year and a half spent in Scotland as a white-looking religious-neutral girl, I never felt like a minority. I could act so nonchalant. My friends would describe me as “carefree” or even “a bit crazy”. I considered myself to just be “unique”. The centrality of that adjective in my identity never occurred to me.
You can imagine that wearing a hijab was a game-changer.
For the first time in my life, I learned what it meant to be a minority, to be self-conscious, to be uncomfortable because of a stranger’s incomprehensibly scornful stare, to be held back a bit too long at the airport security, to be called at in the streets by someone unaccepting of your religious practices: “You women have it bad in Islam, don’t you?”. Given that I live in Scotland, these occurrences were fortunately quite rare, but they were incredibly impactful on my conduct in public.
But more than anything, I learned what it meant to be a minority. Before, watching the news unfold the usual narratives of the violent, retrograde, radical Muslim was heart-breaking and extremely concerning. Hearing France’s former Ministry of Women’s Rights compare women wearing hijab out of personal choice to “n*****s” complying with the slavery system was unbearable. I examined the societal trends, cultural foundations, and political calculations that enable this kind of discourse.
I felt insulted because of my religious affiliation; however, I knew that none of it would directly affect my life.
As for now, any reported words and actions of or about other Muslims can potentially influence the way strangers perceive me and interact with me on a daily basis. Prior to talking to me, their preconceived idea of what a Muslim is defines me. In the streets, I am not just me, I am a Muslim woman; that means very different things to different people. The entailed uncertainty is suffocating.
In the same way, my actions are a reflection of the whole community. Subconsciously aware of that fact, I would make sure I was overly polite and nice; I would make a supplementary effort to dress well and be “presentable” (whereas I used to feel comfortable going around in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt); when meeting a person for the first time I would show that I am not “that kind of Muslim”, that covering my head doesn’t mean the head itself is empty, that I can crack jokes and be playful, that I am just like them.
Although this pushed me to better my behaviour in society and improved my character in many ways, it was extremely corrosive.
I came to restrain and judge myself more than others did. In trying to debunk the stereotypes commonly held about my community, I was pressuring and trying to perfect myself to the point where I lost what I liked about my personality.
Furthermore, this whole situation was defying many purposes of hijab. As a matter of fact, the hijab represents the idea that a woman is not just a body. She is not an aesthetic or sexual object. She is a human being, whose external appearance is not a determinant of her value, as would be internal factors such as intellect, goodness of the soul, and manners. It is also a way to decrease the importance given to the gaze and opinion of others and to direct that attention to yourself and God. But here I was, making myself sick by constantly presenting an idealised version of myself in public to “please others”. What a sad irony!
As I was in Russia for my year abroad, I realised the extent to which I was psychologically pressuring myself. Aware of the racism there, having heard of very violent and racist happenings from friends that had returned from their WIYA, and the first page of results on Google to the search “Muslims in Yaroslavl” being reports of an attack on the local Mosque, I decided to wear a beanie instead of my normal hijab. As I shuffled through my first semester, I crossed hijabis in the streets. There were very few, but they existed and no one was stabbing them or spitting on them in the streets! (My level of paranoia was high!) So, I gathered the courage to leave the house with an apparent headscarf on. I can barely describe to you the feeling of my heart, pounding about to burst out of my chest as I stepped out the front door that day. It was such a humiliating feeling. I was scared of people, hiding who I was: pathetic, so pathetic. That was my wake-up call.
To other people, who don’t have the luxury of blending in, who are constantly reduced to a representative of their community: is it worth letting people define who you are or who you ought to be in order to be “accepted” and “loved”? Do you content yourself with being a passive “victim” suffering others’ actions or are you going to grab the reins of your life? Is your appearance a defect or a blessing? If you can’t change it, is there any point in torturing yourself with it? If YOU like it and it is part of your identity, why change it? Should “proving people wrong” be a satisfaction contingent to the achievement of your goals or is it the goal itself?
I will let you find your answers.
As for me, ultimately, I was always a minority. It was just not apparent before. So, I will stop being a coward and proudly hold myself up.
Safaa is a 20-year old Moroccan studying International Relations and Modern Languages in St Andrews, Scotland. She loves to learn about new things and feels the best with a book in her hands lying on a beach. Safaa admits she is very competitive whether that is in a political debate or in sports, and tries to push herself (all in peach though ????). Follow Safaa on Instagram @loukilisafaa