Let Me March in My Hijab: The Expectations of Being a Hijabi in Bangladesh

By Samaya Anjum

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Art by Anushka Koirala 

 

I have been wearing the hijab (a piece of clothing worn by some Muslim women, that covers their head and their chest) for about seven years now, a period of time longer than anyone else in my family. During this time, this particular aspect of my lifestyle has grown into something more than just an extension of myself. It became an identity, as per: 

“I am Bangladeshi. I am 19 years old. I am a descendant of the Rahman ancestry. I am a  female. And, I am a Hijabi.”

The hijab turned into something that sprouted inside me, rendering my body a host. It became a limb, that, just like any other organs, defined the way I cohesively functioned as a human. It gave me strength and it made me vulnerable to its failures. Of disapproval, dismissal, and policing. 

Inside my memory archive, the event of my first public appearance in a hijab never shifted. It was a weekday morning in April 2013, when my parents had just returned home after performing Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage). I was getting dressed for school when my mother entered my room, wrapped a red and blue chiffon scarf around my head and told me that I was a woman now, so I needed to always wear it out in public; because my beauty was precious. All without a warning. Later, upon exiting my room and walking into the living quarters, I saw my parents’ faces light up to the sight of me. Growing up a parent-pleaser, my 12-year-old self refrained herself from displaying any sort of negative emotion or gesture. 

A part of me still regrets doing that. 

Since the hijab had initially been imposed on me, I, very naturally encountered a psychological limitation that made it hard to discuss personal struggles relating to it with my parents. I knew for a fact that as long as I was under their shelter, there was no option for me to take it off. Hence, to make the practice easier, I decided to do some research on my own as to why Muslim women were advised to wear a veil, and what were the limitations that it brings about. Something I realized is that a lot of my insecurities came from the South Asian definition of what beauty looks like, but I subconsciously took to blaming the hijab – it was a way of expressing my disappointment from not being able to meet their standards up to mark.

In all honesty, the initial years of wearing the hijab, a time when I had little knowledge regarding it, had been much easier compared to the time I began learning my way into my faith. On several occasions, I even went as far as taking off my scarf as soon as I was out of my parents’ sight – an act I later became ill from regretting so much. Within a short span of time, I emotionally and spiritually hit the rock-bottom twice, one of the major reasons being my struggle with religious obligations, which is exactly why I now treat myself annually during, what I like to call, my hijabi-versary, to signify gratitude for myself.

The Quran has always been an ultimate source of guidance for me in learning about the rights I have as a Muslim woman. Even though I have always been one with strong Imaan (faith),  rediscovering my love for my religion made embracing the hijab much easier and meaningful. There were several other factors too that helped me throughout the process, such as my friends and my Muslim role model Yasmin Mogahed. But even so, after years of practicing, I do not call myself the perfect hijabi; I still like to wear tight clothing, bright colors, and I mostly just loosely drape the scarf around my head that in strands of my hair being exposed – something that isn’t appreciated within my community. Which is why in recent years, I have opted for labeling the piece of clothing as a headscarf instead of a hijab, just to save myself time that I’d otherwise have to spend explaining why saying “either wear it properly or don’t wear it at all” to someone isn’t wise at all; because I know that something as simple as a label could multiply the obstacles in my journey towards self-discovery. My relationship with my God is strictly personal, I am learning to become a better version of myself every day, and so is everyone else. And to assist with that, the one thing that I have mastered at is censoring the number of remarks I take personally. This hack serves as a lifesaver on countless occasions.

The image of a “true” hijabi, as set according to the subcontinent standards, which are influenced mostly by men in white gowns and pepper-colored beards, who know nothing about the struggles that a Muslim woman goes through, never quite aligned with me as a person. “Yes, that is a headscarf that I’m wearing.” “Yes, I put it on intentionally, and do so every day.” “No, you can’t see what my hair looks like.” “Yes, I am aware of the few strands of hair peeking out from the front.” “No, I will not take it off just because I like wearing jeans.” Yes. No. No. Please keep your opinions to yourself, I have 7 deadlines to meet and meetings to attend, I cannot afford another “discussion” about how eternal hellfire is waiting for me in the end. 

Even in a Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh, the practice of openly showcasing one’s faith came with a number of, often unreasonable, difficulties. The amalgamation of different mindsets in people, ranging from strongly conservative, to the unconcerned, and the uninformed, or rather the recklessly carefree, meant that there was constantly a game of tug of war being played with your conscience. 

Something more is always expected of you, and that constantly keeps you under the pressure of feeling incompetent; if you wear the hijab, you have to quit wearing clothes that were too bright or which allowed people to make up the shape of your body. You could not travel alone, or be in close proximity to any male counterparts. People automatically assumed you were an avid observer – praying 5 times and knowing the verses of the Quran by heart. Last but not the least, how wearing the hijab automatically makes you “wife material”, which is awful because it only means that Muslim women who choose to not wear the hijab are not worthy of being a one. 

Similarly, every human error that you make is used to pick on your religious sentiments, such as, you become a bad hijabi if you accidentally use a curse word, or if you’re seen at someplace where conventionally “hijabis” are not supposed to be seen. 

You essentially have to maintain perfection if you ever want to present yourself as Muslim, more specifically, a Muslim woman.

The unrealistic expectations of a hijabi keeps returning, each time in a different guise.

We, as children, were taught to always treat other people and communities in the same respectful manner that we wanted ours to be treated. But how do you cope with the agony that births from being sidelined, misunderstood or misrepresented by the very community you belong to? The ideal Muslim woman I was taught about was timid, soft-spoken, and observed chastity on all worldly emotions and desires. However, all my personal legends – Arundhati Roy, Oriana Fallaci, Oprah Winfrey – were assertive, inspiring and advocated for human empowerment, battling whatever stood in the way. And the causes that now impassion me – human rights, refugee crises, the LGBTQ+ community rights, foreign policy – also require me to follow suit with the women I look up to. 

But even though the obstacles would persist, no one told me I could both be a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously. No one told me I could have a secular mindset whilst embracing something that openly showcased my faith in Islam, just like nobody told me I could be strongly political whilst being utterly feminine. No one told me I could march in processions, 

write about romance, or have the ambitions that I do, all while staying true to my definition of modesty. 

The people around me always seemed to have a preconceived notion about what a hijabi Muslim woman is supposed to be like, which drove me countless times into wanting to take it off, even though I genuinely loved wearing it for what it represented. 

“Iqra.” The first word that was revealed in the Holy Quran holds the meaning – read. And so I did. I dug deep and learned interpreted meanings, contemplated my actions, and the words of those who always had a disdainful opinion prepared at the tip of their tongues. In the history of Islam, women in hijab had taken revolutionary steps of resistance. For example, Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) partook in business and trade, and was quite successful at doing so. Asma bint Yazid ibn Al-Sakan, a woman from the Ansar and a companion of the Prophet, accompanied him at the Battle of Khyber and participated with the Muslims in their war against the Romans during the Battle of Yarmuk. At the time, Asma was the leader of the women in the war. 

These, along with myriad other examples, depict how Islam never held back its women from accomplishing things. Most of the farcical rules that hover above the distressful minds of young Muslim women are culturally and socially imposed. 

Despite how long it took, my choice of standing up for women like myself, for humanity, of marching on the streets in defiance, and chanting slogans that hold meaning will no longer be governed by the boundaries that my community has built surrounding me. And I shall do it, all while embracing my identity, my hijab.

Samaya Anjum

Samaya Anjum (she/her) is an impassioned journalist and writer from Chittagong, Bangladesh. She occasionally contributing feature South Asian news stories to GlobalVoices.org. Besides being driven by the stories of marginalized communities in her native land, her writings are a collection of narrated musings on personal observations. When not engaged in political debates with herself, Samaya likes to travel in-between the alternate worlds of Indian and French literature.

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