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How the Turban Hijab Became a Symbol of the Modern Muslim Woman

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 17th October, 2020

From a once hidden and repressed vessel of the Orient supposedly waiting to be explored and discovered, to adorning covers of Vogue and defying societal norms, Muslim women are all the rage. The hijab, representation, and breaking stereotypes has been discussed at length, and have quite frankly become mind-numbing and repetitive discussions. This is a risky topic to discuss, I know that – and this is because it speaks to millions of women across the globe. A wealth of women identify with the hijab and calling its fundamentals back into question will trigger many – however, I believe this is a topic requiring imminent attention.

I never really knew how I felt about the commercialisation of hijab until now. Once upon a time I wished for more representation in the West, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. Representation here didn’t mean that I would somehow be accepted for who I was and what I wore – no.

My acceptance would come so long as I conformed to an acceptable and digestible version of Islam – a reformed, restructured and repackaged type. One where I covered my hair but didn’t really cover it – one where I was a Muslim, but only to a tolerable degree.  One where I kept my observance confined to my four walls and stayed a ‘house Muslim’.

I would be accepted if I didn’t drink but still went along to the pub and the socials where there is nothing but prosecco, prosecco, and more prosecco. I would be accepted so long as I covered my skin but maybe not all of it. So long as I continued now to not just live up to one standard of unattainable beauty, but two. Commercialisation didn’t make hijab easier, it changed what it is. People no longer ascribe to the hijab, they ascribe to a fashion trend.

The Symbol of the Turban

The turban has become the symbol of the New Muslim Woman. A marker of success, liberation, and modernity. Yet this symbol supposedly aiming to help Muslim women feel included, for many, has done the exact opposite of what it set out to do. In including one faction of society, it has ostracised another, and a number of Muslim women no longer feel represented. If you find, and you will, that a Muslim woman who once adorned the traditional headscarf now feels obliged to change it up, i.e. wear a turban that she never felt the need to before, show some hair etc.,

then know that these campaigns for representation and inclusivity have achieved nothing but pave the way for a neo-Islam, palatable to the West and those seeking reform.  It seems that in this bid to be more inclusive, Muslim women who seem even remotely ‘conservative’ are being excluded.

Empowerment does not mean raising one at the expense of the other. All Muslim women are important, full hijab, mid-hijab, and no hijab. This isn’t about cultural differences or interpretations of a dress code. It’s about pressures to conform to either or. It’s about the idea that Muslim women were once seen in a fixed way, and now this fixed way has changed but is still fixed. It’s about young Muslims trying to navigate through this world faced with an identity crisis and two unattainable standards to live up to. It’s about the creation of a binary. Where once we saw Muslim women in long dresses and head coverings, we now see a whole new Muslim woman, but where does that leave those who still ascribe to the former? If you cover in a certain way because of your culture, so be it – but if pressure to conform to a different mode of dress forms the premise for change, the issue is evident.  If the point is the representation of diversity, where is the difference? Because I don’t see it.

Commodification Culture

On the topic of diverse representation, we rarely see Muslim women who ascribe to an outwardly ‘conservative’ version of Islam spotlighted, and when we do, it’s not for revolutionary campaigns. We can’t have this false notion of acceptance when it doesn’t exist. We’re not suddenly being represented in the industry because Islam is being celebrated – no. We’re just a target market, another number.

D&G, H&M, L’Oreal, River Island and co. care not for our Islamic values so much as they do our pay cheques – thinking otherwise is hopelessly naïve.

When Ofsted stop policing little girls about their hijab, when counter-extremism legislation is recalled and duly assessed for its negative impacts, when Muslim women in a traditional Islamic dress code alongside their contemporary counterparts are given positions in institutions of power, then I’ll take it, and only then will I believe in the tolerance, diversity and acceptance facade. But putting aside industry representation, we also lack in representing ourselves. I’ve seen numerous photo shoots and initiatives attempting to showcase the diversity of Muslim women, and in all of them, I was flooded with images of women wearing turbans or no headscarves doing amazing things – but I could count on one hand the number of women I saw photographed who adorned a traditional headscarf. And I have to say, it hurt.

It hurt that there are Muslim women who wear the niqab and are neuroscientists, tech geniuses, medical marvels, etc.

It hurt that there are women who wear the Abayah and work with sexual/domestic abuse survivors.

It hurt that there are women who wear a traditional headscarf and fight fires with their bare hands.

It hurts that they’re nowhere to be seen and have been confined to a bygone era, as though they did not battle stereotyping and racial aggressions for decades, alone.

It also hurts that the elder generations are being forgotten in this tug of war of representation; we are supposed to be their voice, yet never speak for them.

All the elder women in my life cover in a traditional way (specific to the Asian community), and I know they feel more alone than ever. Coming to this country in the mid 60’s to 70’s and being the only women of their kind, and once again pushed to the sidelines by those they raised, it must hurt.

A note to readers here: highlighting the lack of representation of a ‘certain kind’ of Muslim woman doesn’t mean that there is an issue or negation of the contributions of those are in the spotlight – rather quite the opposite. They should be applauded and commended for their work and sacrifice as there is finally some semblance of recognition also.



My journey to being a part-time Hijabi 

Listen to these Muslim women discuss the Hijab

  The struggle of covering

It seems the case that those who struggle to wear hijab ‘properly’ are often shown collective support from multiple factions of society, yet if you’ve been wearing it your whole life, it’s as though you’re immune to the pressures and never seemingly struggle to wear it. Well, people couldn’t be more wrong. Every day is a struggle. Wearing an Abayah is hard, especially when you see those gorgeous culottes in River Island or a dashing pair of work trousers in Zara. It’s hard covering your hair when it fell just right in the morning and the color looked so radiant. It’s hard walking around and feeling pressured to represent the Faith, act as though there is no struggle associated with it, and then face marginalisation from the sisters who ‘outwardly’ struggle, because they show a bit of hair, or they took it off.

Don’t assume that Muslim women who cover conservatively are not battling the same pressures as everyone else. Sometimes, it feels more because I can’t just whip it off. I can’t say I didn’t grow up with it. I can’t say that I’m not used to it – because I did, and I am.

It needs to be stipulated here that this is in no way attempting to take away from the struggles of Muslim women who find it difficult to wear the hijab, who feel pressured to put it on or take it off, who still struggle to ‘fit in’ to their own world and friendship groups, and who are trying to find and express themselves. It’s hard, and nobody said it would be easy. This isn’t to say, ‘do it properly or don’t do it at all’. This isn’t to say, ‘you’re doing it wrong’. And this isn’t to say anyone is ‘better than you’. Because they’re not.

But what it is doing is calling a spade a spade. The reformation of hijab to fit beauty ideals is an exceptionally heart-breaking but very real reality, and though I can’t and won’t judge anyone’s intentions, the public portrayal of these acts is diluting the message of hijab on a severe scale. Why is it that whenever we see hijab anywhere, it’s always portrayed in the context of ‘Muslim fashion’ or ‘breaking stereotypes’? Why is it never spoken about from a context of Islamic values? And God forbid should you try to address this without being marred as a judgemental ‘extremist’ who doesn’t appreciate the struggles of wearing the hijab.

The Commodification of Islamic dress code

The commodifying of the Islamic dress code ultimately reduces its purpose and significance and strips it of its ideological roots. It’s a deceptive reformation of core values via something that is not necessarily haram. We need to speak up and say, ‘actually wait, this isn’t the prescribed method of wearing hijab. This is not why we do it. Under all schools of thought, in any madhab, any sect, in an offshoot, this is not hijab.’ Why are we still succumbing to these ideals? I don’t think I need to sit here and list all scholarly opinions on hijab, for its fairly simple and straightforward. Hijab is not all about being modest, for that can be done in many ways. Hijab is not to detract from sexual attention because it won’t do that either.

The hijab is not a fashion statement or an entitlement to freedom of expression/religion. The hijab is a command, made compulsory upon the Muslim woman by God.

And that’s it. And sometimes it’s hard to say that, so we feel the need to identify more poetic ways of justifying our choices –we squirm under the pressure and adopt buzzwords and catchphrases which, no doubt will have truth to them, but will also facilitate in diluting our explanation behind why we do what we do. As a community we no longer seem to even have the zeal to help each other out or remind each other of the principles we hold so dear and the akhirah that looms on the horizon; our standards have dropped so low that we even reprimand those who do. (I’m not calling here for a reversion to the days of ‘haram-police’ or harsh accounting – but gentle reminders and remembrance of the greater good).
There also lies the issue with problematic terminology, ‘liberal’, ‘moderate’, ‘extreme’ – who gets to decide? Why is the niqab viewed as ‘extreme’? Why is the traditional head covering with no Abayah ‘moderate’? Why is the turban viewed as ‘liberal’? Who came up with this and why did we adopt it?

Battling East and West

Muslim women come in all different shapes and sizes, with varying levels of Imaan and outward observance. They are not a homogenous group and this is a point we must recognise. They’re all different, and if you’re going to be inclusive, then be inclusive. If many Muslim women do not feel a part of the movement or the struggle, then its core aim of representing diversity has failed. If tomorrow you see my hijab is different, and instead I have a turban on, know that I don’t feel liberated or represented. In fact, I have never felt less represented and more oppressed, and every day I pray for my strength back. Fighting misinformed readings of Islam was one thing but battling the entire Western beauty world is a whole other ball game, and I’m afraid to say I’m losing. Badly.

I don’t feel strong and independent, instead, I feel beaten down and weakened. If you want to know how to cripple a Muslim woman, I’ll tell you. You remove that which gives her dignity. Change it, reform it, and package it with values of beauty, freedom, and fashion.

Values she never previously ascribed to. And from there, you have her directly plugged into the matrix. The inherently flawed, oppressive and immoral matrix. A matrix in which she will always be lagging, never quite there and never quite good enough. In attempting to break stereotypes, as Muslim women, we, have unwittingly played right into them. Falling for a cleverly crafted rhetoric, we were once viewed as ‘hidden and repressed’ vying for representation and needing liberation. Yet our ‘saviours’ have not ‘freed’ us in any way. The only difference is that we are no longer just vessels of the East, but are also vessels of the West, subject to a new Master’s rulebook.

*For the purposes of this article, Hijab refers to the Islamic head covering and not the entire concept.

*Abayah here is being used interchangeably with jilbab to reference a long dress which is common across many Muslim cultures.

*The turban in this article is no questioning the religiosity of Muslim women, and is not referring to the cultural interpretation as is seen in Afro/Caribbean culture.

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry is a historian, writer. Her interests span social mobility, British Muslims, educational theory, pedagogy and curriculum development. She was recently published in the best-selling anthology It's Not About The Burqa, and has written extensively on British Muslims, Education, and ideology for an equitable society. She completed her undergraduate at SOAS, University of London, and later went on to study at King's College London and the UCL's Institute of Education. She is currently completing her DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford.