Skip to content

Wearing Hijab Essay

Eight months ago, I woke up one day and decided to start wearing the hijab. I understood that the decision would inevitably affect almost every aspect of my life — but I didn't care. I told my family that I was "just practicing," but in the back of my mind, I knew I would not be taking it off. I was making natural-hair videos on my YouTube channel at the time of my decision, so my choice came as a shock to many of the people who watch me. But it is a choice that I have never once regretted. Wearing the hijab and committing to the lifestyle that goes along with it is something I've always wanted for myself but never imagined it coming so soon.

At 21, wearing the hijab was a huge step I took entirely for myself, but one I had to mindfully maneuver in front of the entire world.

It's different when you live in the Western world. People stare, stores don't cater to modest dressing, and I constantly have to explain that, no, I don't shower with the scarf on my head. It means being persistent and strong in my beliefs. I shouldn't have to go out of my way to make you feel comfortable that I'm not a terrorist. Islam literally means peace, but TV shows, movies, and even news coverage rarely show that, hence why these stereotypes are created. At 21, wearing the hijab was a huge step I took entirely for myself, but one I had to mindfully maneuver in front of the entire world.

I made this choice just after the presidential election, which hit me hard. Though it was a change I'd been thinking of making for some time, Donald Trump's victory was just the push I needed. It was a conscious choice to combat the hateful rhetoric of Trump and anti-Muslim sentiment. I would hear stories of young women taking off the hijab out of fear every day. We hear the hate-crime stories and, unfortunately, hijabi women are common victims. And while I'm proud to wear the hijab, I've noticed the way it changes how some people view me and treat me. Just a couple weeks ago, I was told to take off my hijab by LaGuardia airport security. It was hard not to wonder if the question was asked out of ignorance or if this woman was abusing her power because she finally felt she could.

For me, wearing the hijab has been the most liberating experience. It is a reminder every single moment that I am a Muslim and that my actions should reflect that. It's changed the way I speak and interact with people. I've learned more about myself in the past few months than I have in my entire life. It feels crazy to say, but it's really put things in perspective and helped me to realize what is actually important to me. I fall more in love with myself as I fall more in love with the hijab. It's the greatest feeling when women come to me for advice or tell me how I've inspired them to start wearing the hijab. Or even women who've been wearing the hijab for years telling me that they're excited all over again — it's the greatest reward.

By wearing the hijab, I reject your ability to objectify, sexualize, or body shame me.

That's why representation is needed now more than ever. There need to be more Muslim women in the public eye. Take model Halima Aden, for instance: her success has influenced young Muslims across the world while also showing the public an accurate, positive depiction of a Muslim woman. Not to explain how the hijab is not a form of oppression, but to show it. If people took the time to understand that the hijab is not just a headscarf but really learned about the values and philosophy behind it, there wouldn't be such a divide. By wearing the hijab, I reject your ability to objectify, sexualize, or body shame me; I reject the pressures of society telling me I need plastic surgery or Botox. Rather, see me for my ideas, my character, what's inside my brain. Aden told Allure: "I have much more to offer than my physical appearance, and a hijab protects me against 'You're too skinny, You're too thick, Look at her hips, Look at her thigh gap.' I don't have to worry about that. Society puts so much pressure on girls to look a certain way." Halima depicts perfectly how most hijabis feel: that their hijab is simply an extension of their beliefs, strength, and grace as a Muslim woman.

Though representation is extremely important to me, and I'm proud to wear the hijab, I don't want to be solely defined as a "hijabi vlogger." "Hijabi" is not the first word I would use to describe myself, therefore it's not how I'd like to be defined. I recently sat down with a few other bloggers who felt the same as me. Some felt as though it's important to have the word "hijabi" in the title of their YouTube channels, blogs, or Instagram accounts. Others, like me, felt it extremely unnecessary. While I respect and celebrate other women who do choose to make their hijabi identity a key part of their videos, for me, it feels as though I'm being placed in a totally different category when the "hijabi" title comes up. The reality is that we're normal people who love what we do and want to share our passion with our audiences.

It's a huge step for hijabis to be noticed and celebrated in the media, and I'm both proud and honored to be witnessing this progress. But, please, remember that the hijab does not define us. I'm more than willing to shed light on why I wear the hijab to anyone who asks with genuine respect. A question I am always asked is, "What is it like to wear the hijab in the US?," and I'm always tempted to respond with something like, "How does it feel to brush your teeth in the morning?" You don't think twice about it. It's a part of my routine like it is a part of me. I can't speak for everyone, but the hijab has quickly become second nature to me, and I can't imagine leaving my home without it.

Image Source: Shahd Batal

By Asra Q. Nomani and Hala ArafaBy Asra Q. Nomani and Hala ArafaDecember 21, 2015

A woman pays attention to her iPhone while seated in a Starbucks coffee shop on Dec. 16 in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Last week, three female religious leaders — a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopal vicar and a Unitarian reverend — and a male imam, or Muslim prayer leader, walked into the sacred space in front of the ornately-tiled minbar, or pulpit, at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City, Utah. The women were smiling widely, their hair covered with swaths of bright scarves, to support “Wear a Hijab” day.

The Salt Lake Tribune published a photo of fresh-faced teenage girls, who were not Muslim, in the audience at the mosque, their hair covered with long scarves. KSL TV later reported: “The hijab — or headscarf — is a symbol of modesty and dignity. When Muslim women wear headscarves, they are readily identified as followers of Islam.”

[Do Muslims and Christians worship the same god? College suspends professor who said yes.]

For us, as mainstream Muslim women, born in Egypt and India, the spectacle at the mosque was a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies. This modern-day movement spreads an ideology of political Islam, called “Islamism,” enlisting well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders and the media into promoting the idea that “hijab” is a virtual “sixth pillar” of Islam, after the traditional “five pillars” of the shahada (or proclamation of faith), prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage.

We reject this interpretation that the “hijab” is merely a symbol of modesty and dignity adopted by faithful female followers of Islam.

This modern-day movement, codified by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan and the Islamic State, has erroneously made the Arabic word hijab synonymous with “headscarf.” This conflation of hijab with the secular word headscarf is misleading. “Hijab” literally means  “curtain” in Arabic. It also means “hiding,” ”obstructing” and “isolating” someone or something. It is never used in the Koran to mean headscarf.

In colloquial Arabic, the word for “headscarf” is tarha. In classical Arabic, “head” is al-ra’as and cover is gheta’a. No matter what formula you use, “hijab” never means headscarf.  The media must stop spreading this misleading interpretation.

Born in the 1960s into conservative but open-minded families (Hala in Egypt and Asra in India), we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair. But, starting in the 1980s, following the 1979 Iranian revolution of the minority Shiite sect and the rise of well-funded Saudi clerics from the majority Sunni sect, we have been bullied in an attempt to get us  to cover our hair from men and boys. Women and girls, who are sometimes called “enforce-hers” and “Muslim mean girls,” take it a step further by even making fun of women whom they perceive as wearing the hijab inappropriately, referring to “hijabis” in skinny jeans as “ho-jabis,” using the indelicate term for “whores.”

But in interpretations from the 7th century to today, theologians, from the late Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi to UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl, and Harvard’s Leila Ahmed, Egypt’s Zaki Badawi, Iraq’s Abdullah al Judai and Pakistan’s Javaid Ghamidi, have clearly established that Muslim women are not required to cover their hair.

[Another opinion: A conservative theologian explains why he disagrees with Jerry Falwell Jr. on Christians and guns]

Challenging the hijab

To us, the “hijab”is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it. This ideology promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up.

The new Muslim Reform Movement, a global network of leaders, advocating for human rights, peace and secular governance, supports the right of Muslim women to wear — or not wear — the headscarf.

Unfortunately, the idea of “hijab” as a mandatory headscarf is promulgated by naïve efforts such as “World Hijab Day,” started in 2013 by Nazma Khan, the Bangladeshi American owner of a Brooklyn-based headscarf company, and Ahlul Bayt, a Shiite-proselytizing TV station, that the University of Calgary, in southwest Canada, promotes as a resource for its participation in “World Hijab Day.” The TV station argues that wearing a “hijab” is necessary for women to avoid “unwanted attention.” World Hijab Day, Ahlul Bayt and the University of Calgary didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In its “resources,” Ahluly Bayt includes a link to the notion that “the woman is awrah,” or forbidden, an idea that leads to the confinement, subordination, silencing and subjugation of women’s voices and presence in public society. It also includes an article, “The top 10 excuses of Muslim women who don’t wear hijab and their obvious weaknesses,” with the argument, “Get on the train of repentance, my sister, before it passes by your station.”

The rush to cover women’s hair has reached a fever pitch with ultraconservative Muslim websites and organizations pushing this interpretation, such as and, which even published a feature, “Hijab Jokes,” mocking Muslim women who don’t cover their hair “Islamically.”

Last week, high school girls at Vernon Hills High School, outside Chicago, wore headscarves for an activity, “Walk a Mile in Her Hijab,” sponsored by the school’s conservative Muslim Students Association. It disturbed us to see the image of the girls in scarves.

Muslim woman Samantha Elauf (R), who was denied a sales job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa in 2008, stands with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lead attorney Barbara Seely (C) at the U.S. Supreme Court. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Furthermore, Muslim special-interest groups are feeding articles about “Muslim women in hijab” under siege. Staff members at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has pressed legal and PR complaints against U.S. companies that have barred employees from wearing hijabs on the job, has even called their organization “the hijab legal defense fund.”

Today, in the 21st century, most mosques around the world, including in the United States, deny us, as Muslim women, our Islamic right to pray without a headscarf, discriminating against us by refusing us entry if we don’t cover our hair. Like the Catholic Church after the Vatican II reforms of 1965 removed a requirement that women enter churches with heads covers, mosques should become headscarf-optional, if they truly want to make their places of worship “women-friendly.”

Fortunately, we have those courageous enough to challenge these edicts. In early May 2014, an Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, started a brave new campaign, #MyStealthyFreedom, to protest laws requiring women to wear hijabs that Iran’s theocracy put in place after it won control in 1979. The campaign’s slogan: “The right for individual Iranian women to choose whether they want hijab.”

Important interpretations of the Koran

The mandate that women cover their hair relies on misinterpretations of Koranic verses.

In Arabic dictionaries, hijab refers to a “barrier,” not necessarily between men and women, but also between two men. Hijab appears in a Koranic verse (33:53), during the fifth year of the prophet Muhammad’s migration, or hijra, to Medina, when some wedding guests overstayed their welcome at the prophet’s home. It established some rules of etiquette for speaking to the wives of prophet Muhammad: “And when ye ask of them anything, ask it of them from behind a hijab. This is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.” Thus, hijab meant a partition.

The word hijab, or a derivative, appears only eight times in the Koran as an “obstacle” or “wall of separation” (7:46), a “curtain” (33:53), “hidden” (38:32), just a “wall of separation” (41:5, 42:52, 17:45), “hiding” (19:14) and “prevented” or “denied access to God” (83:15).

In the Koran, the word hijab never connotes any act of piety. Rather, it carries the negative connotation of being an actual or metaphorical obstacle separating the “non-believers” in a dark place, noting “our hearts are under hijab (41:5),” for example, a wall of separation between those in heaven and those in hell (7:46) or “Surely, they will be mahjaboon from seeing their Lord that day (83:15).” Mahjaboon is a derivate verb from hijab. The Saudi Koran translates it as “veiled.” Actually, in this usage, it means, “denied access.”

The most cited verse to defend the headscarf (33:59) states, “Oh, Prophet tell thy wives and thy daughters and the believer women to draw their jilbab close around them; this will be better so that they be recognized and not harmed and God is the most forgiving, most merciful.” According to Arabic dictionaries, jilbab means “long, overflowing gown” which was the traditional dress at the time. The verse does not instruct them to add a new garment but rather adjust an existing one. It also does not mean headscarf.

Disturbingly, the government of Saudi Arabia twists its translation of the verse to impose face veils on women, allowing them even to see with just “one eye.” The government’s translation reads: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed, and God is most forgiving, most merciful.”

Looked at in context, Islamic historians say this verse was revealed in the city of Medina, where the prophet Muhammad fled to escape persecution in Mecca, and was revealed to protect women from rampant sexual aggression they faced on the streets of Medina, where men often sexually harassed women, particularly slaves. Today, we have criminal codes that make such crimes illegal; countries that don’t have such laws need to pass them, rather than punishing women for the violent acts of others.

Another verse (24:31) is also widely used to justify a headscarf, stating, “… and tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and do not reveal their adornment except what is already shown; and draw their khemar over their neck. . . .”

In old Arabic poetry, the khemar was a fancy silk scarf worn by affluent women. It was fixed on the middle of the head and thrown over their back, as a means of seducing men and flaunting their wealth. This verse was revealed at a time, too, when women faced harassment when they used open-air toilets. The verse also instructs how to wear an existing traditional garment. It doesn’t impose a new one.

Reclaiming our religion

Asra Nomani talks to audience members in 2009 after Doha Debate in which she argued for the right of Muslim women to marry anyone they choose. (Photo courtesy of the Doha Debates)

In 1919, Egyptian women marched on the streets demanding the right to vote; they took off their veils, imported as a cultural tradition from the Ottoman Empire, not a religious edict. The veil then became a relic of the past.

Later, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser said in a speech in the early 1960s that, when he sought reconciliation with members of the Muslim Brotherhood group for attempting to assassinate him in 1954, the Supreme Leader of the Brotherhood gave him a list of demands, including, “imposing hijab on Egyptian women.” The audience members didn’t understand what the word hijab meant. When Nasser explained that the Brotherhood wanted Egyptian women to wear a headscarf, the audience members burst out laughing.

As women who grew up in modern Muslim families with theologians, we are trying to reclaim our religion from the prongs of a strict interpretation. Like in our youth, we are witnessing attempts to make this strict ideology the one and only accepted face of Islam. We have seen what the resurgence of political Islam has done to our regions of origin and to our adoptive country.

As Americans, we believe in freedom of religion. But we need to clarify to those in universities, the media and discussion forums that in exploring the “hijab,” they are not exploring Islam, but rather the ideology of political Islam as practiced by the mullahs, or clerics, of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State.

In the name of “interfaith,” these well-intentioned Americans are getting duped by the agenda of Muslims who argue that a woman’s honor lies in her “chastity” and unwittingly pushing a platform to put a hijab on every woman.

Please do this instead: Do not wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with “honor.” Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.

Republican presidential contender Donald Trump said on Dec. 7 that he was in favor of a '"total and complete" shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. (C-SPAN)

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” She is a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, a new initiative of Muslims and their allies, advocating peace, human rights and secular governance. She can be reached at Hala Arafa is a retired journalist who worked for 25 years at the International Bureau of Broadcasting as a program review analyst. She was a news editor at the Arabic branch of the Voice of America.

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Teaching about religion in public schools can be risky, but it’s worth it

High school debate coaches call for Liberty University rebuke after Muslim remarks