Scarf or scoff: How do you wrap your head around hijab?

I started wearing hijab at the age of 21. In my quest to become a “better Muslim”, I began reading the English translation of the Qur’an, where I came across a verse in which women are told “to wrap their head covers over their chests and not expose their adornment” except to women, children and male relatives they cannot marry.

Based on this verse, as well as other Islamic texts, the majority of Islamic scholars define the hijab as a loose-fitting, nontransparent clothing that covers the entire body apart from the face, legs and arms.

And so, on a Friday morning 18 years ago I donned a maroon headscarf and a long dress, and made my way to my best friend’s house, where she excitedly shouted to her mother and sister to come and have a look at me.

I have worn hijab ever since. But the manner in which I have worn it has changed over time. I went from long tops and trousers to coloured abayas (long, loose-fitting dresses that originate in the Arab world), then to covering my face (with the niqab) and then removing it, to wearing black abayas and then to my present look, which is a combination of all of the above, excluding the niqab.

I have never considered removing the headscarf, but I have observed with interest – and perhaps a degree of judgment – a handful of women I know who now go without the headscarf (after initially wearing it).

Mandatory, but not a major sin
At a seminar last year, I asked a visiting Islamic scholar for his opinion about this small but growing trend. He told me that the covering of the head was mandatory, but that not doing so did not constitute a major sin.

This was a wake-up call for me, which inspired me to spend more time reflecting on my own internal state than judging the external appearance of other women.

So when the Mail & Guardian asked me to write an article about how different Muslim women feel about hijab as a symbol of religiosity, I took to Facebook and email and asked them.

My inboxes lit up with responses from a range of women. Some spoke about the significance of hijab in their lives, and those who no longer wore it were happy to tell me why. And despite one woman writing that she had “her reservations about an article on hijab” because she was “concerned that it unwittingly fits in with the presiding media paradigm to obsess about Muslim women’s appearance”, everyone who responded seemed excited about sharing their views, even if some requested anonymity.

The comments I received inspired me to make a stop at Elegant Muslimah, a home-based Durban business that stocks abayas (which are made in South Africa) and scarves in every colour imaginable. And I updated my hijab wardrobe!

Here’s what the women told me:

“My hijab identifies me as a Muslim. As such, it’s a daily reminder to me to conduct myself in a manner befitting an ambassador for my faith. So even if you drive like a moron or make unkind comments about me or my kids, I will not respond in an unbecoming manner – ‘cos *deep breath* that’s not behaviour befitting a hijabi. Does it make me more religious than you? No. It’s a part of my faith, not all of it. And Allah knows best. Best part about being a hijabi: no bad hair days and I can stretch trips to the hairdresser until the grey is really bad.” – Anonymous (36), psychiatrist

“The reason I took my scarf off was because I was seen to be so religious. What people thought me to be and what I was no longer matched. I have since come to learn about some very unreligious behaviour by friends of mine who wear hijab. It is a symbol of Islam and makes you recognisable. I find I struggle to tell Muslims who I meet now that I am Muslim because I know I look like anything but. So yes, it’s a symbol of religion but by no means a measure of religiousness or faith.” – Jessica A’isha Mouneimne (28), communications specialist

“My hijab is a part of my Muslimah identity. It is a command from my Lord in the Qur’an. Yes, if you do not wear it you are sinning but we all sin in different ways, so my hijab doesn’t make me better than the next person. There’s more to hijab than simply covering the hair; it’s in the way you speak, who you speak to, how you behave and so ‘hijab’ for me is a daily jihad [struggle] of the nafs [ego].” – Basheera Dawjee (31), pharmacist

“In our political environment now, the hijab is definitely becoming more and more a symbol of religious expression. But there are women who would, for example, wear a hijab that looks like the United States flag. This then speaks volumes in expressing not only their religious identity, but their patriotic affiliation as well. I felt that I did not need to don hijab to ensure my Muslimness [sic] … I feel that my Allah (as in the relationship I have with my God/Creator) is not a punitive God who will punish me for showing my hair when there are far more important issues in this world and life.” – Shenaaz Muslim (49), academic

“My hijab is a very personal connection for me in terms of who I am in relation to my Creator. I love it, I find it inspiring and awesome, and I cherish the dignity it adds to my identity and my interpretation of my own self-worth. But wearing the hijab does not make me more religious than someone who does not wear it – each person is their own judge and religion, belief and religiosity are very personal to each individual. We all battle so many demons, so many challenges – does one really have the luxury or self-aggrandisement to sit in judgment of others?” – Quraysha Ismail Sooliman (46), academic

“I stopped wearing hijab after the xenophobic attacks in 2008. It’s hard being black and Muslim because at that time it wasn’t quite South African but ‘other’ African … I’d get into a bus and the people would be like: ‘Look at this ma-kwerekwere‘ and they’d be openly xenophobic. Meanwhile I’m one of them, Zulu too!” – Saberah Gumede (28), market research analyst

“I have been criticised both for wearing and not wearing the headscarf at various times. My most recent experience of that at a macro-level was when I did the Al Jazeera coverage post [Nelson] Mandela’s death. On different days I wore different forms of (full and partial) head covering, and once no head covering. The sheer volume and diversity of responses – many from total strangers – on this issue were unprecedented and ranged from approval and admiration to extreme disappointment and harsh censure, almost amounting to hate speech.” – Ayesha Kajee (fortysomething), political analyst

“When I started wearing the hijab, I immediately felt more conscious of myself and what was appropriate. On a positive note, a non-Muslim white lady I have contact with said: ‘If white women had to dress the way you do, we would have a lot less shit in our lives.'” – Anonymous (30), stay-at-home mom

Fatima Asmal is a freelance journalist based in Durban. She also runs the Institute for Learning and Motivation South Africa, a nongovernmental organisation that uplifts the lives of many, and hosts the well-known Muslimah Today conference every year

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