This article first appeared in Magdalene.co, an Indonesia-based feminist web magazine, and is reposted with permission.
An increasing number of women have approached me to talk about their hijab-wearing decision lately. One person told me that she has been having thoughts about taking off her hijab as she felt that she has grown increasingly “naughty” and “bad,” because she doesn’t pray as frequently and has started drinking alcoholic beverages. When she told me this, I thought, so you think people without hijab are naughty or bad?
More than a year ago I decided to take off my hijab, which I had worn for about a decade. It was a huge decision, especially coming from the predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where I grew and lived. But there was a process before I made this decision and now I want to share this process in the hope that I could enlighten some confused hearts and minds.
I moved to Sweden in the fall of 2014 to study. A couple of months after that, a friend said that every time he saw a woman wearing hijab, he assumed that she was conservative, close-minded and unapproachable. These assumptions bothered me because I felt that those three traits did not apply to me.
I asked my classmates whether those were the same things that popped in their minds when they saw me. They were some of the most progressive and open-minded people I had ever met, but all of them said they thought of at least one of the three characteristics. I then started thinking: Why does it bother me? If that is not who I am, then who am I? Would I feel better without the hijab? Would it be different if I didn’t wear it?
So I decided to experiment with not wearing hijab for a full month to see how it felt. I felt better and more like myself. At the time, I felt that it was a “privacy” issue, like a gay person who doesn’t want to wear a t-shirt declaring he is gay. Although he may not be ashamed of being gay, he just doesn’t want to share this personal part of him to strangers. It was the same with me. I was not ashamed of the fact that I am a Muslim, but I did not want to share this personal thing with strangers.
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When I was going back to Indonesia for the summer, I thought reluctantly that I had to wear the hijab again, like when kids are forced by their parents to do something they don’t want to do. But then I thought if wearing the hijab was the right thing to do, then why was I not happy and why did I feel forced to wear it? I thought if I wore it again just because I was visiting Indonesia then I wasn’t standing on my own principle. I knew that if it was the right thing to do, I should always stick to it no matter where I was, instead of altering my values according to the people surrounding me.
That made me question myself further: why did I wear hijab in the first place? After digging deep into my memory, I realized that the reason I decided to wear hijab when I was 15 was because I wanted to hide myself. I thought that I was an ugly and an awful human being.
My breasts and my bum are noticeably large and thus made me an object of unwanted attention and comments. Instead of feeling sexy, I thought those noticeable parts of my body was making me unattractive and I was uncomfortable with how I looked. Adding to that, my teeth were uneven. So uncomfortable I was in my own skin, I started to develop self-loathing of my body. I did not want anyone to have any sexual thoughts of me. I wanted to be as asexual as I could.
Where I am from, wearing hijab is the norm to show you are a good Muslim woman and a good person. So the hijab seemed like the best solution as it enabled me to hide my ugly self and it made me look like a good person. A false solution to my self-hatred.
I felt as if I had tricked myself and others into believing that I was a good person because of my hijab. I had not done any research about the hijab, which I now regret. I did not know why it was commanded by my religion back then. I just knew that wearing it is better than not wearing it.
Ten years had passed since then and I still hated myself – even more. I felt like I was a hypocrite. People, as did I, thought that because I wore the hijab, I was a good person. I did not need to do more, it was enough. I hated myself as it enabled me to get away with not improving my devotion. If I did something bad or I didn’t do something good enough religiously, I could appease myself of the fact that at least I wore the hijab. For some this might motivate them to be a better Moslem, but for me it had the opposite effect.
I have lived my whole life in a communal society where others have stronger power in defining who I am. I was too busy with life that I had never even asked myself who I thought I was. The standards I set on myself were society’s standard – that a good Muslim woman should wear the hijab, so I followed it mindlessly.
Based on the contextual history of the hijab that I read, women had to wear it to protect themselves, assuming the identity of a noble woman. Back then, amidst wars and slavery, noble women with a fine piece of clothes over them had better protection from sexual aggression than others. Today, humans are generally more equal, at least officially on paper, so the hijab as a method of protection is less relevant.
Some argue that the hijab is stillrelevant as a means of protection because it makes women less attractive and sexually desirable. But it is indisputably true that what people think as attractive varies. Covering up your hair doesn’t necessarily make you less attractive, especially with the increasing diversity of the hijab culture, including fashion. Some women actually look more beautiful with hijab, others less so. Some men may be more aroused seeing women covered up because they think it’s more mysterious.
In Islam there are basically two main regulations, one that covers human-to-human relationship (habluminanas) and the other human-to-Allah SWT relationship (habluminallah). I think that hijab is more heavily laid upon the relation among humans (habluminanas). Therefore, I do not think wearing is to “satisfy” Allah SWT, as it is not really a habluminallah (relation to God). I believe that there are many other and better things I can do to keep my relation to other humans well. My faith and spirituality would not be something I would like strangers to identify me with.
At the age of 25, probably late compared to others, I started the process of finding out who I was. When you live in a society, you become society and society becomes you. Wearing hijab means that having society’s definition, standards and values placed on me. There are too many social stigmas embedded in hijab of that I do not like. I wanted to see who I was apart from the society that nurtured me. I took the hijab off because I wanted to get to know myself without society’s values etched in me. The hijab convoluted my value and my view. I wanted to stop hiding myself. I wanted to stop others from defining me.
I thought I was ugly and the only way to compensate that was to do well in other fields, like academically. That was why I was ambitious in school. In a way that thought brought me to where I am, but obviously it has proven to be an unsustainable fuel for my soul. I hid my body because I hated it. I wanted to start accepting the body that God has given me by not hiding it. After that, I shall start loving myself.
It was a purely personal reason that I decided not to wear the hijab anymore. I do not think that God will think less of me because of what I wear. It is what I do and what my intention is that define me in the eyes of God. I do not think that not wearing a hijab makes me less of a Muslim and I do not think wearing one made me a better one either. I do not think wearing a hijab has anything to do with my devotion. It was just purely a piece of clothes for me.
Before I officially decided to take it off, I talked to people who are closest to me. It was exhausting both physically and emotionally. Some turned out to be less open-minded than I expected. Although most of my friends somewhat accepted my reasons, I know that some think I have gone astray. I can’t blame them because it is a very personal journey that is hard to understand, if you have never been in a similar one.
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I became the object of some gossip, which was expected. Some people think I took it off because of Sweden’s influence or Westernization. I can’t say it’s entirely wrong, although it is not the main reason. Sweden’s tranquility gave me the opportunity to look into myself and to question my decisions in a way that I had never done before. For me, it is harder to figure out yourself in a communal society
Yet I have never regretted it as getting to know, accepting and loving myself were my most pivotal priorities. If I keep wearing hijab, I might be able to save face but ultimately lost my “soul” as I would value others more than myself. Now I have started to know, accept and love myself more. I am able to love myself and, consequently, I am able to love others truly.
I took off my hijab not because I wanted to do more “naughty” things that would be forbidden if I were wearing the hijab. I still do the same things I did when I wore the hijab. People should not base their actions and responsibility solely on the hijab. When one takes it off, it is not the fault of the hijab – it has not failed its tasks.
I am not against wearing the hijab. I am against doing things mindlessly without the knowledge of the full context and meaning of it, as I did more than ten years ago. That is like taking a shortcut. This is the conclusion of many long and complicated discussions between myself and other wonderful friends and strangers to whom I am thankful. If you wear hijab because you are fully aware of all the aspects and you are comfortable with it in every aspect of your life, then do it. If there are discomforts, then question it and read more about it.
Arlita Rachmawati Rahman is a liberal Muslim who tries to find the logical explanation of religion versus rationality. She is trying to do the cliché job of saving the world from climate change by questioning socially affected human behavior.
[Featured Image: An individual with glasses wearing a very dark green hijab is pictured smiling, with their hands near their face. Flickr.com]