Growing up in a Scandinavian country, my experience of sexuality, modesty and the concept of hijab are markedly different to even those living in the UK. I say this as is it is common knowledge that globally Scandinavia leads the way when it comes to gender equality. As a child in school it was a mantra that you were conditioned with, and in almost every class one took, it was an underlying truth that directed the way we interacted with opposite sex. I would have to say that personally, I am very grateful for this as I developed a healthy attitude towards my own sexuality and very rarely ever felt that my sex hindered me from certain pursuits or that I had anything to fear from the other boys.
That last point is an important one, as it underlies much of the traditional arguments for female-male interaction in Islamic discourses. And I am not just talking about the fear of being raped or assaulted because you “aren’t dressed right”, I am too talking of the fear of angering God because you might be in a state of perpetual sin; leading men on via your dress, the way you speak, and the level of your exposure in the public sphere. As Muslim women we are conditioned from a very young age to think of our bodies as sexual and sources of fitna in society, to the extent that it defines our very being and colours how we perceive our potential as individuals and what we can achieve in the world.
I would often go to my mother’s Muslim/Arab home country during the summer months, where I experienced a completely different gender dynamic. I remember as a teenager being extremely conscious of my surroundings every time I was out, because of the sheer amount of unwanted male attention I was getting. I was always conscious if my top was long enough to cover my bum, and being naturally endowed with large breasts, if my top was too tight- I would always wear cardigans and jackets to hide them. I would never acknowledge anyone going out or make eye contact; I learned to walk with my eyes glued to the path ahead of me and completely ignored all attention- even if it was innocent or a shop keeper asking me for change. I was told I looked scared. My female cousins, almost all of whom wore headscarfs, told me that I should be flattered by this attention and many of them indeed liked the catcalls and would dress to impress, even under the guise of modesty. However for me, coming from a society where I didn’t even think twice being outside about how men would view me, the experiences were always unsettling. I felt a deep sense of injustice over the fact that I was made to feel so uncomfortable, but moreover, I could not reconcile the idea that I was in a Muslim country and I got more respect from non-Muslim men than I did Muslim men.
These experiences subsequently altered my perspective on the khimar. My mother didn’t wear one growing up, but post-911 she did, and I felt that I should wear one too. Not out of a sense of modesty as I felt I was already modest, but I sensed that as a Muslim I had a duty to proclaim my Islam in the public and prove all those who maligned Islam, wrong. I had a deep-seated sense of self-righteous indignation and need to proudly wear Islam on my sleeve (or in this case my head). I started watching online videos, sermons, and reading justifications for it. And I was left feeling completely unsatisfied, especially with the oft-cited modesty arguments. The modesty reasoning went against everything that I had been taught. I thought they were there because of certain cultural contexts and norms, but I never brought the idea that they were the core justification for wearing the khimar. I knew it was an element of it, but I believed the purpose to be deeper than that. And living in a society where women weren’t reduced to sexual beings, and all the benefits of supposedly wearing a piece of cloth on your head were already present, the rationale for it just seemed absolutely nonsensical and counter-intuitive to everything I believed. Nonetheless, I still believed it was fardh and decided that once I was ready I would wear it and I should practice my deen out of a sense of duty to Allah, not to assert the whims of my ego.
When I moved to the UK I started wearing it for a short period, loosely, to transition into it, but surprisingly got more unwanted attention from Muslim men wearing it- some even at the door of the mosque! I sought guidance from my Muslim friends, but was left feeling so underwhelmed with their arguments for it. I felt I was wearing it to please others more than any sense of religious obligation. And it wasn’t until I spoke to my brother about it that I understood why. I felt that wearing a headscarf sexualised me rather than de-sexualised me. My brother articulated to me that wearing a headscarf didn’t make me more modest, that men didn’t go crazy if they saw a woman with her hair bare, and if they did that’s their problem not mine. And I felt such a relief to hear that from a man; that It wasn’t my fault it men looked at me and I didn’t need to make a public and tangible proclamation about my virtue and modesty. It was then that I decided that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe it was fardh (though I had spoken to scholars and on the matter too, who left me with more questions than answers).
Ultimately for me, I cannot divorce my experiences as a woman living in a society where I have felt for the most part respected, non-fearful of men and free to be myself, from the idea that to wear something that I understand as making a statement for the effect of creating the very society that I have grown up in, as inherently contradictory.
If you are reading this, please don’t take this piece as a “take it or leave it” statement on wearing the headscarf. I completely respect and understand the multitude of reasons why women wear it. I really do understand why some women see it as emancipatory, and I also understand why some women see it as a prison. I 100% support the idea that all women should be free to make their own choices when it comes to dress, and this piece does not mean to belittle the genuine liberating experiences some women have felt adopting the headscarf. That being said, the khimar and the whole hijab debate has become so saturated with politics and the power-play of global patriarchy dictating what women should and should not wear, that I can’t change the idea in my mind that wearing it is for the most part to make a sexual statement about a woman’s presence in society with an implicit underlying premise that women are under the perpetual threat of the male gaze; and I just can’t bring myself to accept that.