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The Day My Identity Became a Noun: “I’m a Lot of Things but Not a Hijabi”

by in Identity on 25th February, 2018

I spend my days navigating life while wearing the socio-political flag for Islam. Instead of just being present in the reality that I am a believer, one who struggles to be in alignment with herself and to get all five daily prayers in on time, I am an ambassador. Representing. I wasn’t consulted of this part.

Some 6-7 years ago on my journey towards understanding my existential purpose, God made sense. I believe in there being one God, and so Islam made sense. As part of this religion, I had accepted for my life; I reached a point where the hijab confronted me. One of my primary concerns was covering my hair,  was wearing this piece of fabric going to bring me closer to God? Or is that a lot of pressure on a piece of cloth?

The more I thought about and reflected over it; I figured the key must be in understanding that this is an act laden with symbolism, also a personal and subjective one. An act that fits into a broader landscape of the manifestation of belief in God, possibly. Truth be told although I was able to reconcile some of my concerns with regards to the wearing of the headscarf through this understanding, there were other aspects that I have continued to struggle with over the years, none quite like this. Interestingly, although at the time I decided to start wearing the headscarf I had doubts, and I can recall those feelings, I didn’t have the vocabulary to truly express my concerns against the tide of agreement that I was met with when exploring it. These thoughts and ideas needed further nurturing, as well as boosting my confidence in owning my experiences.

One real difficulty that I struggle to reconcile my wearing of the hijab is the part that relays it is an act of worship. Yes, I began wearing it because I believed it added to my ability to be mindful of God. Increase me in my capacity to seek nearness to God. I realise while typing this that to some of you this might sound a bit ludicrous as that’s potentially a lot of pressure on a piece of cloth, or is it?
However, if I’m honest with myself, I wonder if over the years, particularly in response to a generally hostile environment towards ‘Muslims’ as a whole, especially Muslim women, if this has become my rebellion? My way of posing a challenge to the ideas that Muslim women don’t speak English, part-take in civil society, aren’t allowed out. Where I’m certainly not of the opinion that these things have to exist in binaries, a plurality of intentions is both normal, healthy and to ‘be expected’ when a multi-faceted human being (as we all are, I think) makes any decision.

However, if I’m struggling to identify my primary motivation with absolute clarity, this makes me worry for something that at its core is an act of worship. Another real difficulty is that at the highest level of academic influence, interpretation, and dissemination of knowledge, in Islam the patriarchy reigns supreme, at a highly uncomfortable level. Where even senior female scholars are trained by males, who, unfortunately, in my opinion, a lot of the time are generally misogynistic in their views and outlooks. I struggle to reconcile this. I strive to reconcile this about institutional religion period. I am encouraged to look to these people to scaffold my relationship with God. But I struggle to trust that their primary motivation isn’t to uphold the patriarchal structures that mean they get to hold the positions in organisations and circles of influence, without facing any real challenge to their values? I struggle with this a lot.

I worry at times if the wearing of the headscarf adds to or takes away from my opportunity to reach my potential, access spaces, and people indeed. To demonstrate how I’m able to best manifest Godliness rather than to continually talk about *it*, why I cover my hair, to serve as an object of endless fascination and curiosity, suspicion and even fetishisation. I’m a bit bored of it, and I’m sure it’s not great for my mental health.

The wearing of the hijab is a real identity marker of the ‘in-group.’ I recall this experience of being ‘accepted’ overnight, one day I was just a lightish- brown, dark-haired and dark-eyed girl, with an anonymous belief system and relatively ambiguous heritage and ethnic configuration too. The next a ‘salaam’ receiving Muslim hijabi woman, receiving these ‘salams’ everywhere from the escalators in train stations to the park. A very interesting experience indeed. A pleasant one for sure, I think I felt accepted the kind of shallow acceptance demonstrated by being greeted in the street by a stranger. Am I doing it for God? Or am I doing it to be accepted into this beautifully diverse group of people, with each of them holding I’m sure as diverse and rich experiences of wearing the headscarf to the next? With their unique take on the hijab.

I write this to document where I’m at in my journey with regards to my hijab, which is one part of my journey towards God. I pray you take some good from reading this if there is any, and indeed are protected from any negativity from it. I am certainly not perfect, just a struggling believer in God.

Yes, you guessed right. The noun that became my identity is, in fact, the term ‘hijabi.’ I’m not a hijabi. I’m a lot of things, but not a hijabi.

Mariam Malik

Mariam Malik

Mariam is a Paediatric Speech and Language Therapist. She is particularly interested in furthering the conversation within communities to enhance access and acceptance for individuals with difficulties. She can be followed on Twitter for more updates. @mariammaliks