When I first launched altmuslimah.com, which covers a wide range of issues pertinent to gender and the lived experience of Islam, “dehijabization” was a hot topic of discussion. This refers to when Muslim women who wear headscarves decide to stop wearing them. These writers found that while internal community expectations were part of the equation, broader societal bias led many women to take off the headscarf. As one writer explained, many women had grown “exhausted of the ‘out-of-place’ feeling.’”
NPR took an in-depth look at dehijabization. In “Lifting the Veil,” several women said that, in the post-9/11 landscape, wearing the headscarf ostracized them—strangers and colleagues alike treated them suspiciously. This isolation was often coupled with the burden of diplomacy. “When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community. That’s a huge responsibility. And I don’t know if it’s for everyone.”
The burden has grown markedly heavier in the Trump era. Two days after the election, nineteen-year-old Fariha Nizam was accosted on the bus in Queens, New York. “About 10 minutes into the ride, a white couple, somewhere between the range of middle-aged and elderly, got on the bus…[they] started yelling at me, shouting to me to take off my hijab, yelling that it is not allowed anymore.” It was enough to scare her father, who pled with Nizam to cover her hair in a less conspicuous way, such as with a hat or hoodie. His plea was echoed by other parents of young Muslim women: “My mom literally just texted me ‘don’t wear the Hijab please’ and she’s the most religious person in our family,” one woman tweeted on November 9, 2016.
I understand these women’s journeys. In the years after 9/11, I also chose to stop wearing a headscarf. My reasons were rooted in the sense that hijab, with all of its attendant complexities, was hindering my spiritual journey. I understand that hardships largely strengthen faith. But sometimes struggles can take away from spiritual fortitude instead of adding to it. This was my experience with the headscarf.
For years, my public existence was marked with a headscarf. I wore it all through my schooling and at my first job at a white-shoe law firm—where, naturally, my headscarf declared (whether I wanted it to or not): “I am independent, educated, and strong—and I’m Muslim, too!”
Such a simple point, an obvious rebuttal to a tired, old stereotype about Muslim women as oppressed and submissive. But the conversation beneath the headscarf, in my head and my heart, was far more complex.
The constant news post-9/11 about the latest atrocities committed against Muslim women—a prominent image at the time was the Taliban flogging veiled women—hopelessly politicized the headscarf, not just in how others viewed it but also in how I felt when wearing it. The politicization eroded my spirituality because it tied me indelibly to the world and how it saw me. Wearing hijab in public, I was always “on the job.” Even for a quick run to the grocery store, I felt like I was a diplomat for all 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.
Compounding this, I was also deeply concerned with internal community politics in which many Muslims believed that a woman had to wear the scarf regardless of the realities she had to face wherever she lived. Even worse, many in my community held that you can’t have devotion without hijab, and that somehow all women in hijab were de facto devout.
As in every religion, there both external and internal politics. And then there’s the even more raw experience of the social cold shoulder and the constantly lurking threat to physical safety. Try as I might, the headscarf stopped facilitating my relationship with God and instead put barriers in my way.
After years of reflection and prayer, I finally consulted with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah. His religious knowledge and keen insight into the complexities of lived religion are revered by traditional Muslims worldwide. When I was struggling with my headscarf, he explained to me in private, and later in an interview for altmuslimah.com, that rules about hijab cannot be applied in a vacuum. And so, with this aspect of Islamic law on my side, I decided to stop wearing the scarf.
I still wear it in private—in the mosque or at home during prayer, when I wrap myself in a scarf that is so long that it covers not just my head but envelops me fully, down to my toes. I cherish this private communion with God. But I’m also fully cognizant of how insidious politics and the threat of physical violence have relegated this aspect of religious expression to the private space.
In a country with a professed commitment to religious freedom, my religious expression shouldn’t have to be sequestered in this way—it should have a place in the public realm, just like a woman who chooses to wear a cross, plain dress, gelt, or habit.
Excerpt from When Islam is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom by Asma T. Uddin. Published by Pegasus Books. © Asma T. Uddin. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue