A Journey of Self Love, Identity and Learning: A Hijabi Perspective.
As a dreamer, I’d like to believe that I've been many things and lived many lives. Through my books and the stories I’ve made up inside my head. As a kid, it was my own version of a superhero, at some point I wanted to be an artist, a writer, I think maybe even a teacher. Ask me now and I’d tell you I’m not too sure of who I want to be anymore. Somewhere along the way I guess I learnt to trust life’s plan. But one thing that’s different to all those dreams of wanting to be someone is that right now, I may not know what the future holds, but I know who I AM. I won’t deny that there’s still doubt sometimes. Fueled by years of societal expectations and people trying to fit me into all sorts of boxes. In particular there’s one box I was fit into many many times - being a ‘Hijabi”. I’m still not too sure what the box holds despite being a “Hijabi” myself but most people around me had some pretty clear expectations of how I should fit that mould.
At 12 years old, I was excited to wear a hijab because my mom did and I thought she looked great. When I did start wearing it, I didn’t know too much about how politicised wearing one could become in the global context - or the social implications on wearing one in Pakistan (believe me there’s quite a few). But even at that age I was clearly enough of a radical feminist to give a curt “meri marzi, mein ne pehne hai” to a poor unsuspecting boy in my class who tried asking me why I’d suddenly decided to make the jump.
Over the years, my own relationship with my hijab has changed massively. From having no idea about what it meant outside the walls of my home, to grudging acceptance in my teenage years, to finally being able to wholeheartedly love and accept it as a part of me. It’s taught me alot about myself, and how I extended that self to the outside world. It's a journey that’s had its ups and downs and because it’s been so personal, I surprised myself when I decided to put this out there. But here it is.
The first major change I noticed was the obvious loss of my hair as an accessory. While all my friends were experimenting with new hairstyles I no longer had that as an outlet. In a society where a girl’s beauty and femininity is based on her long beautiful hair, I was suddenly left to find alternative ways to be a girl. In many ways I think that’s what pushed me to question traditional ideas of feminine beauty. I was never the kind of person who was too fussed about my appearance anyway - leading me to be considered more of a guy than a girl. While this was a metaphor I may have appreciated at the time, it is one I later began to make an active effort to disassociate with. I’ve learnt over the years that becoming more masculine isn’t and shouldn't be a compliment.
I whole heartedly began to accept my hijab as a representation of my own femininity which is when it brought me to another realisation. In my own exploration of my identity, I found myself becoming more accepting of other expressions regardless of how different they may be. So when I cling on to my hijab as my identity, I don’t do so with the idea that it is the only way to express such because there is none. I do so because I want to do my part in making sure that I never make anyone else feel they cannot identify with whoever they want to be just because their way of expression lies outside the norm.
I’d always thought that it was when I would go away for university that my hijab would become a political statement. It did. But it also became a societal measure in Pakistan - and that was something I wasn’t expecting. Between balancing family and friends, I’ve faced reactions on both ends of the spectrum. There are many who appreciate my Hijab, but I soon realised, that’s all they appreciate. I’ve heard tons of aunties complimenting me on how I was such a lovely girl because I wore a hijab. That’s all. I always remember thinking their sentences felt incomplete, and it became somewhat of a mission to prove I was more than just a piece of cloth on my head because I’d always felt so much more than that. My Hijab felt so much more than that. I wanted to prove - to myself more than anyone else - that I could not be dumbed down to an aspect of my physical appearance because so much of wearing the Hijab isn’t about the physical aspect anyway.
Then came the other side. At some point around my A Levels I started becoming a lot more vocal about my views and opinions. It was here that I was asked another question. “Tum par hijab forced hai?. ” Interestingly enough, these questions that I had expected in my foreign interactions came from people much closer to home. People I considered a kind of home in fact. I realised that the opposite had happened. This time it was my Hijab that people could not match with my personality. They didn’t believe that someone who wore a Hijab could also be outspoken. That someone religious could also be a feminist. For some reason, it took awhile for people to understand that wearing a Hijab did not automatically turn me into a mindless robot that made us all think and speak the same. It does not rid me of the ability to make mistakes and despite what most people would want to believe, it has never been a claim upon being a spokesperson for every other hijabi girl out there.
I realised that every time I challenged the status quo it made a statement. It challenged all those who expected me to be defined by a piece of cloth and let myself be overwhelmed by it. Don’t get me wrong. It DOES define me. But not in the way that such interactions made me think. My hijab has pushed me to constantly challenge the way I’m viewed by the world around me, and in doing so it’s challenged my view of the world. It’s helped me love and be loved. More importantly, it’s made me look for love beyond appearances. That said, I've also been very privileged in having the space and opportunity to challenge such norms. So here I am at 21, unapologetically myself. I can only hope that in sharing my experiences and doing my part, I can play a small part in making this world a safer place for everyone to be themselves without fear. And to think that if I hadn’t made that seemingly small decision almost a decade ago, I wouldn’t be who I am today.