Reader Question (is this becoming a pattern?) – being yourself when the world doesn’t want you to be

Y’all, I’m not becoming an advice columnist. I swear I’m not. Do you know how bad I would be at that job? I would be terrible at it! But here’s a question I received that I felt particularly moved to answer. The questioner, as always, has asked to remain anonymous. Because she is not a native English speaker, I’ve taken the slight liberty of editing her question.

I’m 19 years old (20 soon) and I grew up in a very, very, very conservative Muslim family. I have worn the hijab since the age of 8 years old, and honestly, I hate it. I feel imprisoned and like a hypocrite. Every single day wearing it is torture, it’s like I’m lying to myself, to God and to the entire world, only for the sake of pleasing my parents, and because I’m scared as hell of my dad might do if I take it off.

I have no self confidence, and it really hurts more and more as I age. I feel like I’m not doing anything in my life, because I’m not even myself, so how can I achieve something?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about taking it off in secret. I feel guilty for those thoughts, but it’s honestly my only escape, what else could I do? My dad is not mean, nor is my mom, and it makes me feel even more bad. If they were bad parents, I would probably have done it without hesitating, but I love them, and those feelings also make it hard.

I really don’t know what to do, and I’ve never felt so lost in my entire life.

Oh, sister.

It’s hard enough to rebel against people we hate, but it’s harder still to rebel against people we love. I’m sure your parents really are wonderful people – most parents are! And I think that’s why you will probably need to have a conversation about this with them eventually.

I used to take off my hijab in secret. I would wear it out of the house, take the bus to university, then take it off the moment I got on campus. I’d fold it neatly, stow it away in my satchel, and not take it out again until it was time to go home. I felt terrible about it, not because I felt like I was lying to Allah (who could see what was in my heart anyway), but because I knew I was living a lie.

My situation was a little different from yours. My mother and I get along just fine, but my father is a very conservative Muslim who is fond of strict punishments for small infractions. I did try talking to him about not wearing the hijab, and he told me that I had no choice because I’d “decided” to start wearing it at age 12 and couldn’t back out now. (I didn’t actually decide – he made that decision for me. Had I had a say, I probably would have refused to begin with. I wear the hijab to pray, but I don’t feel the need to wear it outside.) So I had to lie to him instead, even though I didn’t want to, even though I would much rather have just been honest.

My father and I don’t talk any more, and this is one of the reasons why.

Have you tried talking to your parents about these feelings? You say they’re very conservative, but also that they’re kind people. Maybe they’ll hear you out and maybe they won’t, but isn’t it at least worth trying? If they refuse to listen, then you know you’re not rebelling against people who want you to live your own life – you’re rebelling against people who want to control you, no matter how good their intentions. I think that’s an important distinction. If your parents aren’t violent or abusive, you should at least give them the chance to do the right thing here.

Wearing the hijab is such an intensely personal decision. Nobody but you can make it. If you don’t feel like it’s right for you, you shouldn’t wear it, and nobody should force you to wear it. By the same token, if you wanted to wear it and your parents didn’t want you to for some reason, I would tell you the same thing. Your body is your own, and it is up to you what you choose to hide from society and what you choose to show. Allah did not give control of your body to anybody but you, nor did Allah give anyone else the right to take that control away from you.

Here’s what I think your game plan should be:

  1. If you think you can do so safely, find a good time – when you and your parents are both in a good mood – and sit down and have a conversation about your feelings. Tell them what you told me – that you feel like a hypocrite, that you don’t want to lie to Allah or to anyone else, and that while you’re still a devout Muslim, that wearing the hijab just isn’t the right choice for you.
  2. Let your parents respond. If they’re good people – and you say they are – they should at least be willing to hear you out and have a reasonable conversation.
  3. If they agree with you, great! You can stop wearing the hijab freely and feel better because you’re being honest with yourself.

Of course, there’s a chance – a pretty good one – that even if they understand your reasoning, they won’t agree with it and will want you to keep wearing the hijab. In that case, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Keep wearing it and feel miserable
  2. Take it off in secret (but in the knowledge that you tried your best to work out an accommodation with your parents and they refused)
  3. Take it off in public (knowing that this will probably cause conflict with your parents)

This isn’t an easy decision to make. You’re 19 years old, so I assume you’re either in university or working, if your parents allow you to do either. You’re a young adult and should be allowed to choose how you live your own life. On the other hand, living at home means making certain compromises. Only you can decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’ll refuse to give up.

It might turn out that living at home just isn’t a feasible option if you want to decide how you live your own life. I was your age when my dad kicked me out. He and I simply can’t live together. I’m happier when he’s not around. It might be that your relationship with your parents would be better if you didn’t live with them and had a little independence.

It also might be that you can’t afford to move out, so you have to put up with a few concessions, like wearing the hijab. It all depends. How much is this issue worth to you? You’ve said you feel like you’re living a lie and you can’t achieve anything because you can’t be your authentic self. It sounds like something’s got to give. You just have to decide what it will be, and what kind of price you’re willing to pay.

Talk to your parents if you think it’s safe to do so. See how they react. Make your choices from there. Remember that safety always comes first. And no matter what, don’t forget that Allah gave your body and your life to you only, and that you are the only one with the right to decide how you live it.

Allah bless you and guide you, wherever your path may lead.

Virtue, and other non-existent commodities

It’s a funny thing, a woman’s virtue. If she clings tightly to it, she’s frigid and a prude. If she doesn’t care to preserve it, she’s a whore.  If she thinks the concept is outdated, she’s dangerous. A woman cannot decide for herself whether or not she is virtuous – whatever her actions, her virtue will ultimately be judged by men. A woman’s virtue is kept for men, not for herself – without it, she is worthless not to herself, but to men who might wish to sleep with her or take ownership of her.

Every culture has their own ideas about how to preserve a woman’s virtue – segregate schools by gender, force women into separate communities where they are restricted contact from men, place restrictions on the amount of sex a woman can have, and with whom she can have it. In the culture in which I grew up, the method of choice – amongst others – was the hijab.

I started covering my hair when I was twelve years old. I did not want to do it, but I wanted to please my parents. I had no conception of sexual desire or sex appeal. I did not think of myself as a sexual object, nor did I think of other people as sexual objects. But I covered my hair because people thought it made me – a twelve-year-old girl – virtuous. I wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts that hid my figure. I didn’t have male friends. All of this was meant to preserve me so that one day, another man might find me worth owning.

Many girls younger than me cover their hair, or even their entire bodies. Why a child needs to be dressed in a way that is meant to render them non-sexual objects is beyond me. In which situation would a child of eight or nine need to cover herself so as to deflect the attention of men?

I do not have anything against women who choose to cover their hair. In fact, I do not even have a problem with them deciding to do so because they wish to preserve their virtue (whatever that means) – as long as it’s their choice. We all make choices about what we’ll show to the world and what we wish to hide. There are things we don’t tell strangers, to it makes sense that there might be things we choose not to show strangers. I take no issue with this.

But it has to be a choice – and to me, not covering my hair does not make me any less virtuous or worthy than a woman who does. And even if it did, I wouldn’t care, because my worth as a woman is not based on whether or not a man thinks I’m pure enough to make his wife.

That’s the problem with the idea of protecting our virtue – we’re being asked to safeguard something only men value. We are not devalued by choosing to show hair or skin, nor by engaging in sexual activity – it is men who have decided for us that these things lower us, devalue us, debase us. It is men who have decided that we need to cover up, be meek and quiet and non-threatening so that they might contradictorily find us more desirable.

I do not care whether or not men find me desirable based on how much of my skin they can see. I do not care whether they see my uncovered hair and judge me not Muslim enough, because my faith is between God and me and God can see into my heart no matter what I try to cover. Before God, I am utterly exposed. Why, then, would God care about my clothing? And I do not believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to safeguard something only men find valuable.

If men want women not to be ogled, not to be used as sexual objects, to be treated with dignity and respect, then the onus on them is to do so. A woman who covers her hair is not making herself less of a sexual being – she is simply making a choice not to show a part of herself to the world. Men will still look at her and objectify her, not because of how she dresses, but because they think they have that right. She could be swathed in cloth from head to toe and they would still objectify her as much as they would if she were walking down the street stark naked. Objectification is an act removed from a woman’s state of dress – it is a choice a man makes, and if he wishes so fervently to preserve a woman’s virtue, it is up to him not to make it.

Personally, I don’t give a damn whether or not men consider me virtuous, but I do not wish to be seen as an object, regardless of how I dress. I was seen as one when I covered my hair and I am seen as one now. This is not because of the way I dress, but because there are men who believe they have the right to decide my body’s value as though it is a commodity. This is their doing, not mine. They believe that I exist for them, and that as such, I must preserve myself in a condition they find suitable. But as I have said time and time again, my existence is not for them. So to hell with their ideas of virtue. I am not any more of an object because I choose not to cover my hair. I am human, and my value is self-determined, not calculated based on what I wear or how many people I’ve slept with. I should not need to wear a hijab in order to broadcast to the world that there is more to me than what a man thinks I’m worth.

Virtue is a false commodity, created by men to control and judge women. By whatever standards it is judged, by whomever it is judged, it is meaningless and worthless, because no woman is merely an object onto which male desire can be projected. Wear what you like. Cover your hair or don’t. But do it because you are choosing for yourself what you wish to show the world, not because you think you need to preserve something that doesn’t exist. You are worth more than what your sex life and your clothing choices say you are. You are worth what you say you are. You do not need to prove that to anyone.