The hijab (head covering framing the face) and more specifically the niqab (full head and face covering except for the eyes in some cases) have received a lot of attention from the western world. Some view it as symbolism of women oppression, conformity and terror. In some parts of the UK and some countries e.g. France the niqab is banned from being worn in public areas. However, we don’t hear much debate around the tichel (orthodox Jewish head covering required to be worn by married women) or African head scarves worn by some women. So why the hijab? What does it symbolise? Why do some immediately diminish a woman’s identity because of what she wears on her head? Why is what a woman puts on her head or how she wears her hair so important and why is something so seemingly trivial assumed to be a microcosm of her entire being?
As I usually do when I enter a class, I pick out the faces with whom I am friendly with and have small talk before the lecturer arrives to begin the lesson for the day. On this particular Tuesday morning, I took my seat and turned around and looked out for my friend Wala’a but I couldn’t see her. Faced the front, turned around again and realised she was right behind me all along. I didn’t recognise her because she was not wearing her hijab. I had seen her before without her hijab within the security of her dorm room but never in the presence of males. Now here she was, sans hijab, in a co-ed class. I thought to myself, I must interview her because I had personally never met any young Muslim woman who decided to remove her hijab, I’ve only known those who decide to start wearing one.
Wala’a is young Syrian woman, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where it is a requirement that all women wear a hijab or some form of head covering. She completed her undergraduate degree in her home country Syria. She moved to Scotland to pursue her master’s degree and this is the first time she has lived outside a predominantly Muslim country. Our interview took place at a quaint patisserie in the heart of Edinburgh.
Nswana: I’m sure it sounds really strange to you or really funny that I would want to interview you, but the reason why I wanted to find out why you decided to remove your hijab is because there’s so much controversy about the hijab with some countries banning the niqab, not so much the hijab, and it’s become a point of contention and there are so many opinions and misconceptions. So I thought hey, here’s Wala’a I know her and the first time I met her she was covered up for the whole semester (laughs) and the next thing she wasn’t and in walks this girl and she’s brand new. What was the defining moment in which you decided to remove your hijab? Was there a defining moment?
Wala’a: Actually no, I was thinking about it for a long time. The first time I wore the hijab I was 13 or 14 years old. I was living in Saudi Arabia so at that time and still now, we have to wear Abaya over our heads and we have to cover our faces until we get into school and then we can remove it and we just wear our uniform. So once you finish your fourth level (10 years old) at school you have to start wearing the Abaya. After the 6th level you have to cover your face when going to school. And I was always tall so when people looked at me they thought I was 13 or 14 (when she was actually 10) even after school when we to shop my mother made me wear the Abaya so I wouldn’t get too much attention. There is something called the religious police, and they follow uncovered women and talk to them and sometimes send them to jail and your father or husband would have to come and get you and you will get a fine or something. So to avoid these things I decided to wear the Abaya. Then my close friend decided to wear the hijab. Hijab is compulsory once we are adults (puberty) but when I started wearing the hijab I wasn’t yet an adult but my friend decided to wear the hijab so I decided to. It never was a problem because I was living in Saudi so we have our places to party to gather, not a big deal. And when I went to Syria it wasn’t a big problem because it’s your own choice whether to wear one or not. But I was like, I am a real Muslim I am a real follower so I will wear it. But after I graduated I thought that I am not really enjoying life, I have to be aware of how I am sitting how I am talking, I can’t be talking loudly laughing loudly I have to respect the hijab. I can’t go to some places because I must respect hijab otherwise I shouldn’t wear it. The other thing is, hijab is not just about covering hair so when I am wearing the hijab I shouldn’t be wearing pants or tight pants it should be loose clothes. This is the point of hijab to protect yourself so I thought am I ready to wear this? Either I wear it correctly or not wear it because here (UK) people don’t understand the point of hijab.
So I was like, you either start wearing it properly or you remove your hijab. I had been thinking about for a few months. I was trying to convince myself on the importance of it from the religious point of view, but then I had a battle inside me between what I want and desire and what I should do. And I was thinking of others reaction, my family and I always wanted to defend the hijab that if you want to do it then do it properly. So I was like, you either do it or not, it’s white or black. You can’t find your way in between. So I remove hijab. Actually I talked to my sister, my brother and my friend. I kind of expected their reaction, you know, maybe because you are living outside Saudi Arabia. But I said, maybe it’s because I live in Saudi Arabia that I put it on. If I was born here (UK) maybe I wouldn’t have worn it, at least at that age. My mother wore hijab when she got married and travelled to Saudi Arabia, she was like 26/25 and it was her own choice. But maybe because I was living in Saudi and the whole thing makes you do it I mean what the point of not doing it if you believe it and the country makes you do it?
Nswana: Ok that’s a fair point. So would you say that it’s not necessarily that you now live outside of Saudi that this has come about?
Wala’a: No, it’s because I lived and was born in Saudi that I wore the hijab when I did.
Nswana: But when you go back to Saudi Arabia, will you not have to wear the hijab?
Wala’a: No, it was law. We can’t go out without hijab otherwise the religious police will come and some are nice but some insult you. Now things are a bit better, you still have to wear the Abaya but there is this hijab where you don’t have to cover fully. Now when they pass by (religious police) they will talk to you but they are not as harsh as before. It’s a bit better now, a good number of Saudi’s are not wearing the hijab they just wear the looser covering and when they travel they just remove it.
Nswana: Can you please describe the Abaya?
Wala’a: It’s a black covering dress, long one. Before, you were not allowed to have it decorated just black, now some shops make them beautiful with glitter but those religious police don’t allow it so the shop keepers hide them. Other places are fine, in Jeddah they wear black, blue and grey but in Riyadh only black. Things are changing in Saudi but they are people who are against this liberalism movement and they insult the supporters and say they are trying to bring western ideas in the country and so on. There was one time I was in a mall and an old woman was sitting beside me. I was wearing the hijab but my face was not covered, she had covered her face and we were talking about the Arab Spring. She said those things are not happening in Saudi Arabia, because we pray and we fear God and we cover our faces…(laughs). She was kind of advising me in a nice way. In my religion if you see something bad, we advise you but in a nice way. Others can be mean to you and say you are converted.
Nswana: What has the reaction been to you not wearing the hijab, from the non-Muslim community?
Wala’a: I was trying to avoid your eyes (referring to me, Nswana haha) because you were so surprised! Then Cece (our Chinese classmate) congratulated me! She asked, “have you given up your religion?” No I am still a Muslim I still pray. It’s just the style or way of living I either do it right or not at all. Sometimes we see girls with short skirts or short sleeves but wear hijab, it’s not right. It’s not about your hair. When I was in university (Undergraduate in Damascus Syria) I used to wear long jean skirts but not very tight and I thought it was fine, as long as I am not really shaping my body. And I was talking about girls, wearing tight clothes. And when I look at myself I am now like those girls I was talking about. So mostly I see surprising eyes. And some I’ve noticed are now proud of me because I did that (removed hijab). I don’t get it. I wasn’t forced to wear it so now I am brave to take it off, no. I did it but I wasn’t mature when I made my choice initially. I see strange eyes, I see proud eyes. It makes me feel strange a bit. Chris (our German classmate) asked me how does it feel and I told him that I feel naked. I keep checking how I sit. I like the way my hair is moving in the wind, it’s a nice feeling but inside I still feel guilty. Because I know it’s something not to be negotiated, we know it’s a rule or regulation but as I told you it’s my desire right now. Someone else asked me, is it just for today or forever? It’s neither! I might change my mind next month. I can’t really say. And after all its not people who should judge you its God. I haven’t changed my Facebook photo until I know that I am ready and it’s what I want. I don’t know, it’s not easy, it’s not easy…
Nswana: Would you say the general reaction from non-Muslims has been positive?
Wala’a: No negative reactions. They mostly supported me to do this. I think they see I was wrong for wearing the hijab or what’s the point of wearing the hijab? Because they don’t understand the reason behind this and even if they do they ask why? It’s not about covering your hair it’s also your behaviour.
Nswana: So what would you say the hijab symbolises?
Wala’a: The purpose is to protect the women from being looked at or touched by men. By the way hijab means “cover”. Men shouldn’t look at women (in an inappropriate way) but they always blame the women anyway. And sometimes I used to ask myself, why my brothers don’t wear a hijab? (laughs)
Nswana: What would you say to people who look at you with pride after you have removed the hijab and see it as a symbol of oppression?
Wala’a: Yes, my neighbour in halls, said to me that she knows that fathers and brothers force women to wear the hijab and she was referring that I was forced to wear the hijab. And it’s not always true, there are some families who do this but not all. There are some girls who wear it around their families and when they go out they remove it. So what’s the point? If you don’t feel it and understand that God is the one who sees you and not your family…I don’t really have an answer, things with religion, you can’t ask why it’s just the way it is. I see it as a protection, I look at the way it is here (UK) you can wear almost anything you want and no one will touch or look at you but in our country if you wear short clothing ALL the people will look at you. It must be because of the way they see women, those women who force their sisters or wives to wear a hijab will not miss a chance to look at naked women. If you respect women you will respect her regardless of what she is wearing.
Nswana: Wow you’ve answered a lot of the questions I was going to ask anyway! In terms of your culture, you are Syrian but born in Saudi but from what I understand Syria is more liberal?
Wala’a: It depends there are some parts of Syria where they are really really strict about those things, you can see women with covered faces. Maybe because of the family’s and city’s thinking. In Syria, there are non-believers, Christians etc but in Saudi there are no Christians.
Nswana: Wow really?
Wala’a: Yes it’s very very rare, you can perhaps find someone who is atheist but its very rare.
Nswana: Wow I didn’t know that!
Wala’a: In Syria you have Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
Nswana: This is your first experience living outside of Saudi and Syria?
Nswana: How do you feel living in Scotland has changed you knowing you will go back to Saudi? Here you are free to do a lot more than you are allowed to in Saudi, how are you going to adjust?
Wala’a: I don’t like this idea of going back. But I have my family there. I had this problem first when I went to Syria to do my undergraduate then I had to return to Saudi to renew my visa so I said to myself please please please I don’t want this visa I don’t want to go back (to Saudi). I just wish things were better in Syria so I could go back. Living here (UK) is difficult because I need to find a decent job…it’s not easy going back to Saudi but I have no choice? Everywhere I go I need a visa even Dubai. Europeans can easily come to UAE but it’s not easy for me. I really wish my family could move to the UK. It’s just unfair, how life is harsh and cruel and unfair.
Nswana: I feel the same with family visits. It’s so far, it’s expensive, and visas…it’s crazy. Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview, it’s really been an insight.
Wala’a: You’re welcome
Have you ever judged a person on their religious appearance? Is your hijab a part of your identity? Has this interview given you more clarity on the reasons behind wearing the hijab and why some choose to wear it or remove it? Are you in a similar situation where you are now living in a more western society and perhaps dread the thought of returning to the country of your rearing?
Share your thoughts and comments below.