Nimo is a 21 year old BA History and Arabic student at SOAS, University of London, who is currently doing her year abroad in Alexandria, Egypt. Born and raised in London with Somali origins, she believes that her headscarf is a sign of her Muslim identity.
Farah is as 23 year old Egyptian with a BA in English Literature and Translation who lives and works in Alexandria. She used to wear a headscarf and took it off after one year.
Nimo: Why do you wear your hijab?
I believe that wearing the hijab is something that God wants me to do as a Muslim woman, so simply put, I wear it to please God.
Growing up, a majority of the women in my family wore the hijab and I saw it as something beautiful. When you are young you tend to look up to strong women around you and aspire to be like them so just like my mother, my aunties and older cousins I wanted to wear it and chose to so I could be like them. It was only when I got older, particularly when I was in secondary school and people started to ask me ‘why do you wear it?’, that I actually paused, questioned my decision and in a way had to think about why I actually wear the hijab and what it means to me. I read into why women wore the hijab in Islam and realised the importance of it. It was at this time around the age of 16 that I decided to wear it full-time (before that I would take it off on occasions such as during weddings). So my reasons for wearing the hijab have changed from when I was younger especially after researching about it for myself.
I guess, however, that wearing the hijab from a young age has made it easier for me now in terms of me feeling comfortable with it, as I’ve grown and developed throughout my teenage years and as a young woman now, the hijab has always been there with me, so in a way it has developed with me and helped to shape my identity. I see it as a symbol of my Muslim faith. Living in London, a Western society, the hijab has for sure become a part of my identity since, not only am I from a Somali background, but I am a Muslim woman too.
Farah: Why did you wear your hijab and why did you take it off?
When I was 18-20 years old I was very religious. I used to go to religion school and memorize the Qur’an and also teach it. In that school, they used to tell us that we have to wear the hijab if we want to be a good Muslima. So this one time in Ramadan, the month of fasting in which Muslims feel especially spiritual, I decided to put it on and from then I wore it for one year. It had been a hasty decision and soon I realized that I didn’t like wearing a veil. It made me look older and I felt heavier because people perceived me as much older, and this is what Hijab does to you; it forces a much morally correct identity on you that maybe sometimes does not really fit what you truly feel. So after trying it for one year I realized that I can still be a good Muslima without it, because in Islam intention is the most important thing and it can’t be measured by wearing a veil. In my opinion, the Qur’an is an interpretation upon interpretation and in 2018, I find it hard to have my life ruled by something that was written such a long time ago, a text that is not keeping track of time. Basically, the hijab forced an image on me that wasn’t really me and neither was it a part of my culture. Egyptian women never used to wear it before our society was influenced by Gulf culture in the 80s and 90s. Nowadays, it has become even more cultural than religious. Whereas for women like Nimo it is a choice and a religious sign, here it is a societal expectation and I disagree with that.
Nimo: How does your hijab empower you?
I think wearing the hijab empowers me in many ways.
Firstly, it forces people to actually engage with me and focus on other aspects of me beyond my physical appearance. It allows me to express myself more in terms of my intelligence and sense of humour and other significant characteristics. Things that make me who I am beyond what first meets the eye. Therefore, by wearing the hijab, it’s a constant reminder for me to look beyond the surface – beyond looks. It reminds me that true beauty is in one’s actions, how they speak and how they treat others. That’s one of the reasons why it is also a constant reminder that looks don’t define people. So wearing the hijab keeps me in check and forces me to question myself, my intentions and regularly reflect on decisions I’ve made with regards to my faith.
Most importantly, it empowers me in knowing that I wake up everyday and choose to wear it rather than blindly accept the decisions of others. This is especially empowering in a Western society where the hijab isn’t a common form of dress or widespread expression of one’s faith.
Farah: When did you feel more/most empowered?
Definitely when I took off my hijab. First I was so scared of what the people who know me would say about me, because I took it off in 2013, a time when no one else did. I felt like I was going against God, I felt guilty and bad the whole time thinking that God sooner or later will punish me, because this is what they spoonfed me after I took it off. But I remember the first time I had the sun and the air again going through my hair, it felt so natural, as if I never took it off, as if I should have never put it on. This feeling convinced me that I had to be doing the right thing. I was being true to myself.
What were people’s reactions to you taking it off?
When I took it off I didn’t consult my family so my mum was mad for two days but truly, she was happy because she had not supported my decision in the first place. My father passed away and if he had been alive, he would have never allowed me to take it off. Honestly, I was mainly scared of the men in my life, each figure, the colleagues, the uncles, the cousins and even the vegetable guy around the corner. Reasoning back to the “Male Gaze” and how it shapes the way we perceive ourselves as women, but that was past now I seriously don’t give a damn about the colleagues, the uncles, the cousins and most importantly the vegetable guy around the corner.
In Egypt, taking off the hijab is associated with “doing all the bad things”. Luckily, I had very supportive friends, but there are also lots of people who stopped talking to me, especially my veiled school friends were judging me severely. I am sure that now people wouldn’t react the same way. They will not judge openly anymore, some will even say congratulations.
Nimo: If you ever took it off, why would you do it and how would it make you feel?
I can’t imagine not wearing the hijab. I’ve been wearing it for so many years now and it is a part of my identity. For me it’s one way in which I can worship God and I feel like a lot of good has come from it – for example, it encourages and reminds me to stick to my principles and the values I hold dear, even in the most challenging situations and difficult times. I feel so comfortable with it on that, to be honest, I think I would actually be more conscious about my appearance if I was to take it off.
What challenges do you face as a hijabi?
As a hijabi there are many challenges you face not only from the Muslim community but also from people who hold other beliefs. Wearing the hijab comes with certain responsibilities and expectations which I have faced more from the Muslim community around me. Once I started wearing it and as I’ve grown older I’ve felt on many occasions people have looked at me in a certain way and expected a certain standard from me. I think they have this idea of ‘she’s wearing a hijab so she must be a good girl that does everything by the book’, when in reality, I make mistakes everyday just like any other human and have my own personal struggles too. Also, wearing the hijab in a Western society comes with many challenges. I think a lot of people have pre-formed misconceptions of Muslim women being shy, quiet and suppressed.
How do you deal with these stereotypes?
I just have to remind my self of why I am wearing it and stay true to that. I am not wearing the hijab for anyone besides God, so people’s opinions don’t sway me one way or the other and people are always going to talk anyway so I shouldn’t worry myself.
Farah: Do you face challenges not wearing a headscarf in a society where most people wear it?
Not really. Nowadays, most Egyptians, at least in my safe bubble in Alexandria, we are pretty chill about it. Except, there are some jobs “for veiled girls only” which is really annoying if I fulfill all other requirements.
Nimo: Do you feel more comfortable in London or Egypt and does the hijab have anything to do with that?
Having been born and raised in London, I feel more comfortable there. I don’t think the hijab has anything to do with that in particular, its just that London is home, it is what I know. During my time here so far however I have certainly seen a lot more girls wearing hijab which in a way has brought about a sense of familiarity in that I am able to recognise and often see something that I identity with. However, the hijab here does come across as more of a cultural symbol and less religious in that culture is so intimately tied to the religion. I feel like in London, the hijab represented me as a Muslim woman, which was so important as there are a number of different faiths there. Wearing it in London, I was conscious at times that I was part of a minority and that you are viewed differently however I still wore and wanted to wear the hijab as it was a symbol of my Islamic faith. In Egypt on the other hand, it is more widespread and normal to see girls wearing the hijab so I am aware that the hijab would have a different meaning for many girls here and therefore I feel like also the societal expectations are different.
I have also been more aware of my darker skin since my time in Egypt but I think because I wear the hijab, which is so normal to see here, it has lessened the attention and questions I get. I think that another dark-skinned black woman, who doesn’t wear the hijab, would definitely have a different experience.
Farah: Would you ever consider wearing it again and if so, under which circumstances?
No. Being a hijabi is a different identity that I left behind and that I don’t want to go back to. Just like hair, headscarf is politics and I don’t want to engage with that.
Many thanks to Nimo and Farah for giving me their time and honest answers!
Interview by Amuna Wagner
Photos of Nimo Mohamed by Hannah Wolny
Photos of Farah Barakat by Amuna Wagner