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. One person told me she has been having thoughts about taking off her hijab because she felt she has grown increasingly “naughty” and “bad.” Her reason for this was that 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?
A few years ago I decided to take off my hijab, which I had worn for about a decade. It was a huge decision, especially coming from predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where I lived and grew up. But there was a process before I made this decision. I want to share this process in the hope that I can enlighten some confused hearts and minds.
I moved to Sweden in fall 2014 to study. A couple of months after that, a friend said that every time he saw a woman wearing hijab, he assumed she was conservative, close-minded, and unapproachable. These assumptions bothered me because I felt those three traits did not apply to me.
I asked my classmates whether those were the same things that popped into 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 at least one of those three characteristics.
I then started thinking, why does it bother me? If that isn’t 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 came to realize I felt better and more like myself. At the time, I felt it was a “privacy” issue, like a gay person who doesn’t want to wear a t-shirt declaring he’s gay. Although he may not be ashamed of being gay, he just doesn’t want to share this personal part of him with strangers. It was the same with me. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I’m a Muslim, but I didn’t 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, why wasn’t I 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 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 were making me unattractive. I was uncomfortable with how I looked. My teeth were also uneven. Uncomfortable as I was, I started to develop self-loathing for my body.
I didn’t want anyone to have any sexual thoughts of me. I wanted to be as asexual as I could.
Where I’m from, wearing hijab is the norm to show you’e 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 while also making me look like a good person. It turned out that this was a false solution to my self-hatred.
I felt as if I had tricked myself and others into believing I was a good person because of my hijab. I had not done any research about the hijab, which I now regret. I didn’t know why it was commanded by my religion back then. I just knew that wearing it was considered better than not wearing it.
Ten years passed, and I still hated myself – even more so. I felt like I was a hypocrite. People thought, as did I, that because I wore the hijab, I was a good person. I didn’t need to do more; that was enough. I hated myself since I knew wearing the hijab 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 with the fact that at least I wore the hijab. For some this might motivate them to be a better Muslim, but for me it had the opposite effect.
I have lived my whole life in a communal society where others have held more power in defining who I am. I was so busy with daily life that I’d never even asked myself who I thought I was. The standards I set for myself were society’s standards: that a good Muslim woman should wear the hijab.
Based on what I’ve read about the history of the hijab, women once had to wear it to protect themselves by assuming the identity of a noblewoman. Amidst wars and slavery, noblewomen with a fine piece of clothing covering them were better protected from sexual aggression than were 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 the hijab is still relevant as a means of protection because it makes women less attractive and sexually desirable. But it is indisputably true that what people think of as attractive varies. Covering up your hair doesn’t necessarily make you less attractive, especially with the increasing diversity of hijabi 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: Photo of a woman sitting outside a house in Mandau Talawang, Indonesia in a beige chair with her legs crossed. She is wearing a below-the-knee yellow dress with a cream, patterned silk scarf tied loosely around her neck. She looks at the camera with a self-assured look as she rests her left hand under her chin. Behind her are plants, wooden plank siding, and a slatted fence. Source: Aldo Picaso for Pexels]