In celebration of Muslim Women’s Day on March 27, Teen Vogue is highlighting the real stories of Muslim women. In this op-ed, Mariam Ansar talks about the problem with the recent European Union court ruling that employers can ban hijabs in the workplace.
“C’mon.” My friend nudges my knee with hers as we sit, hijab-less, on her bed. “Have you ever thought about taking it off?”
She doesn’t mean taking it off in the way that we do as soon as we get home, sliding keys into locks and fabrics off our heads as we close the door on the outside world, the way that we just did. She means it in a different way. The way that most Muslim woman have turned over in their heads at least once, musing over the meaning of what it means to cover our hair and how we, as those who have chosen to wear the hijab, deal with it. I grip the gray piece of cloth that had covered my hair, now simply covering the crossing of my legs, with the tips of my fingers, rolling it between them as though maybe it’ll say something about itself if I do that.
“Doesn’t it annoy you that the world keeps talking about this?” I say after rolling my eyes at her. I gesture at the space between us. “Including me and you?”
Translated from the Arabic, the term hijab literally means “cover,” but it can also be translated to mean “barrier” or “partition.” In practice, wearing the hijab corresponds to a principle of modesty, asserting the autonomy of the individual on top of being an assertion of faith for Muslim women. But there is something about covering your hair that invites more than one kind of judgment: We hijabis open ourselves to many of the thoughts of others, including condemnations — being barred from being perceived as normal, or capable of simply belonging. Recently, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that head scarves in the workplace could be banned. On top of recent political tension in the U.K. following the Brexit vote and reports of escalating violence against Muslim women as well as much more personal insecurities about standing out, more than a few of my friends have taken off their hijabs. “It doesn’t make me less Muslim,” they say using different, but equally pained, words. I am always nodding in these interactions, wishing they didn’t feel that they had to defend their decision to anyone at all. “It’s just what feels right to me right now.”
The decision to act on what “feels right” is a personal one. It is the relationship between the signifier and the signified that has Muslim women fretting over what choosing to cover their hair, or choosing not to cover their hair, means. At 11 years old and trailing after my amused mother with a handful of fabric imitating a tail behind me, I did not know and would not learn until much later the repercussions of what covering my hair truly meant. Though I vaguely understood what it meant, I’d often come home from school with the cloth jammed into my book bag, having forgotten that I’d meant to wear it over my head because I wanted to play tag and it got in the way. I wore it because my mother wore it; I saw it framing her face when she came home from work and let me tell her about my day. At 16, with a much neater method of wrapping it around me and a much messier awareness of my identity I wore it as I argued with classmates about bands and film directors and politics and terrorism. It served and still serves the function of marking me as Muslim but, somehow, also aids my refusal to be boxed in by someone else’s prejudice.
In so many ways, the hijab remains an expression of religious identity that is precious and personally acknowledged. But today, it is also publicly acknowledged. We see girls in hijabs on billboards endorsed by Nike and H&M, represented in makeup ads, presenting the news, and occasionally portrayed in TV series. The drive to represent the hijab has begun, but still the decision to wear it is misunderstood: Policies like the ECJ’s ruling, the silent pressures that come with being wrongly perceived as “oppressed” or simply “other,” and the insecurities hijabis feel about standing out make existing as a visibly Muslim woman difficult.
It would be nice to imagine being able to go to work wearing your hijab, without fear that your right to wear a visible marker of your faith could be revoked by your employer. After all, the world sees girls taking off their hijabs for fear of violence against them, for fear of being misunderstood in universities and schools where standing out is not always easy, and for their own understanding of faith. But this should always be understood as a personal decision — not one to be forced upon Muslim women by anyone or anything and least of all by a court ruling.
Originally published on www.teenvogue.com