The Islamic extremists may not like it, nor the bigoted Islamophobes, but today’s Muslim women have revolutionised the narrative of the hijab
Fashionistas and influencers during an event in Istanbul, 2021. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images
Wed 1 Feb 2023
At first, he began with, “What the fuck are you staring at?” The man was shouting at my friend and me as we travelled through east London on the underground. Then he stood up and stepped towards me screaming, “F***ing Muslim whore”, beginning a tirade of disgusting Islamophobic abuse. Though it lasted about five minutes, it felt like hours. Finally, another male passenger confronted him and managed to make him sit down. But as he left at the next stop, he came up close to my face and said, “If you get off here, I’ll be waiting for you.”
With depressing regularity, hijab-wearing women like myself are being subjected to appalling abuse and discrimination. Last year, a shocking video shared on social media showed a group of white men and youths in Sheffield launching a vicious attack on a veiled Muslim woman and her daughter. A 2019 paper from Nottingham Trent University reported that attacks against hijab-wearing women in the UK were on the increase, suggesting that this was because veiled Muslim women were “represented as ‘agents’ of terrorism”. And Tell Mama UK, the watchdog that monitors Muslim hate crime, reported in 2018 that 58% of recorded Islamophobic incidents were related to Muslim women because of their “overt religious identity”.
Kamila Nuh (L) and Nasro Bahnaan Hulbade at a football training session at the MUP Stadium in Vantaa, Finland, 2021. Photograph: Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP/Getty Images
Today is World Hijab Day, founded 10 years ago by Nazma Khan in the US, in which people from more than 190 countries take part. The day supports people’s rights to personal choices and creates respect for each other. In 2017, in the House of Commons, then prime minister Theresa May declared her support for this day, and backed the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf or hijab “without fear”. Yet other prime ministers from her Conservative party have been actively hostile. In 2013, David Cameron said he would “back up” British schools and courts demanding the removal of the veil. And in 2018 Boris Johnson mocked Muslim women in burqas as looking like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” – sparking a huge increase in anti-Muslim incidents, half of which were targeted at women wearing the face veil.
Across Europe things are no better. The Netherlands and Switzerland have imposed burqa bans. In Norway, a Muslim was offered a job only on condition that she removed her hijab. Ever since 9/11, it seems, Muslim hijab wearers have been either demonised as fanatics, or pitied as downtrodden.
Growing up, I didn’t always wear the scarf. I wore it when it was time for prayers, special occasions, and when nosy aunties popped round. It came in handy when I skipped school to get a perm and used the scarf to hide my hair from my mum.
Halima Aden, a US model who wears a hijab during her work, in Buyukada, Turkey, 2018. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
I began to wear the scarf regularly after I suffered from a life-threatening condition during my first pregnancy. My blood pressure had soared, my vision blurred, and I found myself in a high-risk treatment room. I had flashbacks of when, just to fit in, I had chosen not to wear the hijab at school and in the workplace: it made me question whether I would want the same for my daughter. I chose to wear the hijab to be my more authentic self.
In my transition to becoming an “obvious” Muslim, frequent stares became the norm and interactions with non-Muslims were often awkward and tense. It was almost a relief to be occasionally asked, “I’m not being funny but why do you wear that?” I remember a sunny day in my 20s when a white male colleague in the City of London asked me if I would like to take my scarf off. I looked at his sweltering, red face and smiled: “Yes, it is a bit hot: if you take your trousers off, I’ll take off my scarf.”
There are signs of progress: last month, British Airways launched a hijab-friendly uniform. A step to normalise the hijab by a distinguished national institution is something to celebrate. In 2001 the Met police allowed Muslim women to wear the hijab, and in 2016 Scotland’s police force made the hijab an official part of its uniform.
Right now though, one ongoing issue – ironically driven by pro-hijab extremists – is making life harder for us. Iran’s state-sponsored violence against women who exercise their human right to refuse to wear the veil is not only brutal but counterproductive: it serves only to reinforce those outdated stereotypes that the hijab is a sign of oppression. Yes, that oppression is certainly true in Iran, but in most parts of the world it’s women who decide whether or not to wear the hijab.
The Islamic extremists may not like it, nor the bigoted Islamophobes who feed off them, but today’s Muslim women have revolutionised the narrative of the hijab. It has become a statement of contemporary style and strength. Women do not just wear the hijab; they have built a whole fashion industry around it.
I see a future of promise for Muslim women and girls, whether they wear the hijab or not. Just before lockdown a bullying schoolgirl told her classmates not to talk to my non-hijab wearing niece because she was a Muslim. My niece’s friend, in an act of kindness, told her: “Don’t worry. I told them that you aren’t a Muslim.” To which my niece smiled and said, “But I am a Muslim. I’m a Muslim girl.”
For Muslim women and girls, our courage, tenacity, and resolve to occupy spaces in all aspects of society is a testament to our resilience. And the popularity of the hijab is a reminder to everyone that we are no longer prepared to lie about who we are in order to be accepted.
- Rabina Khan is a former councillor and special adviser. She is a London-based writer, an Aziz Foundation scholar and works for a national charity empowering girls and women
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Categories: Europe, Europe and Australia, UK
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