Living with the Hijab


It’s always seemed funny to me that people think of the hijab as anything more than an arbitrary routine that Muslim women go through in their daily lives. Here’s how my routine goes  when I’m about to leave the house:

– get dressed
– put on some make-up
– brush my hair and tie it up
– put on my hijab
– put on socks and shoes
– and off we go!

I’m sure this isn’t vastly different from what anybody else’s routine looks like, so it is strange to think people view wearing the hijab as something so drastic when really, it isn’t.

That being said, life wearing the hijab is drastically different. In many ways, it’s difficult to tell what it is exactly that makes my life different from many of my friends’. Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because of my hijab? Is it because I’m brown? Many people will probably say, nope, you’re just oversensitive. Personally, I’d have to disagree.


Living With Harassment

It’s difficult to live in a world wearing a hijab where more and more people seem to find it easier to dehumanise you. Or to believe the worst in you. In the past year, I have felt the prejudice drastically increase. Right after the Paris attacks, every time I left my house, I could feel dozens of people glaring at me as I passed by. I said to myself, “man, I’m so paranoid!” I figured it must be because my parents had warned me that there had already been attacks on Muslims in Ireland. They didn’t want me to be the next victim of Islamophobic violence. Then there were the attacks in Brussels. The glares continued. When I spoke to my other Muslim friends, they concurred. They had also felt that hostility. It wasn’t just my paranoia.

I can deal with a couple of glares. At least that time I figured, “well, it must be because of my hijab.” Other times it’s more difficult to know. If someone is calling me a “paki bitch” out of their car window as I’m merrily walking down the street, is it because I’m a Muslim? A woman? Brown? All of the above? Which one makes more of an impact? Which one gave them the final push to lean out the window and hurl the insult? I’d love to have them rank it by order of non-preference. Which of my basic tenants of existence pisses people off the most?

I’m the kind of person who likes things to make sense. When I get into an argument with someone, it makes sense that they’re mad at me. It makes sense that they might insult me. I might throw one back at them. It doesn’t make sense that I should have to deal with verbal and physical aggression from strangers simply because of the things that are a part of my identity. Yet, when I tell people that having someone hurl an insult at me out their car window makes me feel unsafe and uncomfortable, they’re quick to tell me that it’s something I should get over because it’s just something that’s going to happen.

Unfortunately, being a victim of physical and verbal aggression from strangers has been a stark reality for me from the age of seven (way before I started wearing the hijab). Still, it’s something that can leave me nervous and uncomfortable on the best of days. I know that I’m far from the only person who has to live with this strange reality that makes no sense. I know that it’s not just because of my hijab, but because of all of the things that seem to make me up as a person. And even though this might be my reality, it’s not something that anyone should be trying to brush under the rug, or accepting with a shrug, as if it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal.


Living With Questions

Often, people ask me questions about my hijab or my religion. Sometimes they apologise and say “I’m sorry if I’m being intrusive” but often they don’t seem to care about prying. It’s tough to find the balance between answering their questions and being a spokesperson for all Muslim women who ever existed. Often, that’s the kind of answers I’m asked to give. When you’re asked, “why do Muslim women wear the hijab?” they don’t want to know why I wear the hijab but the answer of a million Muslim women all over the world. I’m afraid I don’t have that answer. I’m afraid nobody does. Life isn’t quite that simple.


I remember when I was a schoolkid I had to wear a uniform. Our teachers would say to us, “when you wear the uniform, you’re representing this school!” So when you popped out to the shopping centre after school, you were still supposed to be on your best behaviour. For as long as you wore the uniform, you were a representative of the school and its ethos.

That’s how I feel all the time. Ireland isn’t like the UK or America where the Muslim population has a well-established diaspora. Though I see so many more Muslim people now than I did when I was ten and first moved here, the numbers are still pretty flimsy. That means that often when I speak to people, I’m all too aware that I might be the first person of “my kind” that this person has met. Not just a Muslim, but the amalgamation of my identities. So I’m a representative of Muslim women, hijabis. south-asians, and Bangladeshis. That’s a lot of things to represent. And it’s not as easy as simply taking off your school uniform at the end of the day. I can’t exactly shed my skin or my identity.

I try my best to not get offended when people generalise all Muslim women. When acquaintances look at me with wide eyes and say, “hang on, you’re allowed to drive?” or “wait a second, you can shake hands with a man?” I try my best not to roll my eyes and say, “duh!” I can’t even being to explain how vast the differences are between different Muslim women.

The funny thing is that you don’t have to hammer into people that how an Italian person acts isn’t going to be the same as how an Irish person act. Despite the fact that both countries have a Catholic majority and a history of Catholicism, they have vastly different cultures. Yet this idea seems completely lost to most people when it comes to Muslims. I’ve been on this strange mission for half of my life of trying to get others to see Muslim people as human. It shouldn’t be as difficult as it is.


Living Without an Opinion

I can’t tell you what wearing the hijab in a Muslim majority country feels like. But I can tell you that wearing a hijab in a Western country is like living in this weird space where everybody thinks they’re entitled to an opinion about you, but nobody wants you to have an opinion of your own.

When I go back home to Bangladesh, women ask me about the situation with the hijab in Ireland. Last time, I said I wasn’t exactly sure but I thought that Ireland was pretty tolerant, especially compared to a lot of other European countries. After all, other than being harassed a handful times, there had been no major incidences that I had been a victim of. These women scoffed and told me that of course, I wouldn’t understand because I’d probably been brainwashed by the Western government and Western ideologies.

Similarly, when I was in college, I saw a flyer about a debate on the hijab being oppressive towards women. I was with a friend at the time. I said to him that I found the debate about the hijab absolutely unnecessary and arbitrary. He replied that not only did he agree that the hijab was oppressive, but that women who say that they chose to wear it don’t really make the choice. They’ve been raised in a culture that brainwashes them into believing they need to wear it, according to him.

Funnily enough, I don’t remember being brainwashed that many times. Is being brainwashed twice a little bit like a double negative? Does the second brainwash cancel out the second? Or have I been brainwashed into a strange periphery where I’m perhaps the only person capable of independent thought?


Living With Feminism

For me, it’s the age-old tale of misogyny. People don’t want to give women the choices that they truly deserve. It’s simply easier to try and dictate their lives for them. It’s just nicer to do it as some sort of a champion of equality.

While other women might get their male counterparts telling them what to do with their bodies, Muslim women get this dictated to them by other women too. Often, this comes as a form of “feminism.” Yet, this seems to be the same feminism that has told me over and over again that being a Muslim and a feminist is a paradox. It confuses me. If people are so worried about how the hijab is oppressive to women, why aren’t these same women allowed into feminist circles? Why are the same people telling me that my religion doesn’t give me a voice refusing to give me a voice?

In many ways, I’m lucky because despite what the vast majority of people seem to believe, I’m not brainwashed. I’ve grown up in a supportive family that values education and independent thinking. I’ve grown up in multiple cultures with various beliefs and ideologies. I’d like to think that I’ve adapted to a lot of it, that I’m a product of both my ethnicity (Bangladeshi) and my nationality (Irish/Bangladeshi). Being a hijabi is just a part of that. It has never made me feel different from other people. But other people time and again make me feel different for it.

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