My friends and I started wearing the hijab at various points in 3rd and 4th grade. One day, we just came to school wearing pieces of square cloths our mothers had to tie onto our heads for the first few years. My school’s uniform only permitted white, black and navy blue scarves. Do you know how many variations of one thing you can find? My mom found deep black silk scarves and sea blue polyester ones, off-white and eggshell, scarves with fringing, sequins, fake brand names imprinted on them and, my favorite, light, transparent ones that felt like nothing on your head. At the time, to me, each day was a choose-your-own-adventure, and my headscarf was a daily part of my life after the age of 8.
In high school, this changed. I only wore one: a long piece of rectangular cotton black with beige beading on its edges. My mom found this scarf in Fabindia while visiting family in Kochi, and since I had liked it so much, proceeded to buy two more. She was eager that I enjoyed wearing the hijab, as though the material of the cloth was the problem. This was the only scarf I wore, and it would come off whenever I had the chance to let it.
Breaking routine switched from what headscarf I wore everyday to when and how often I’d wear it. At first, it would come off at friends’ houses, where we would accumulate after school and on weekends. I’d leave it on the side, a black shadow draped over a chair or at the foot of a bed, then haphazardly tie it around my head again. Haphazard because, even then, I’d use no pins and tuck nothing in. If the material stayed on my head then so be it. I was never willing to put in the extra effort to make it.
Then, it made less of an appearance at parties and school trips, where it was just my high school friends, anyway. I liked the look on peoples’ faces when they saw my hair for the first time. I liked that I was thought of as impressive and cool in a way that was so easy, so natural, to me. I liked feeling air on my neck and on my ears, I liked the way I didn’t feel it was wrong for me to be anywhere or that I was being stared at. But, most of all, I liked not wearing it more than wearing it.
I was asked, at this point, why. It was a question I had been expecting, but dreading nonetheless. Why take it off, if this is something you have been doing since age 8?
To be honest, there was never a real answer I could offer to this. I don’t know. I have never known what my relationship with hijab is, spiritually, just that I wore it for 10 years and now I don’t. In today’s world, a Muslim woman’s decision to wear or not wear the hijab makes her a walking target wherever she is. When Muslim women are being attacked in the US and Europe, staying indoors on 9/11 and wearing hoodies to cover their scarves at night, my decision to take off the hijab felt like a betrayal to my community. And hijab can be political, I believe that there is merit in that interpretation for wearing it. It just isn’t enough for me when I am surrounded by women in my life who wear it for spiritual reasons, too.
The last break in routine hijab brought me was whom I told about my choice to take it off, and whom I hid it from. When I dyed my hair blue, then green, then purple and red in college, I had to learn how to explain that to my parents in a way that was dismissive but believable. I became a great liar, something I am both ashamed and proud of. While some of my friends from home knew, I kept the news off social media (by creating new accounts for most of my platforms). I led the double life only CIA agents measured up to. All for a piece of cloth.
So why did I go through so much effort to take off the hijab when I felt indifferent toward it? I didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it either. If I was forced to, I could wear it for the rest of my life. The problem, of course, is that the choice to wear the hijab cannot be borne of indifference. At 8, I just wanted to look like my friends. I wanted to be a part of my community, to grow up and be like my mom. At 8, I didn’t know what it would mean for me, to have to wear this for the rest of my life. By the time I got to 18, those reasons hadn’t evolved. The one consistency, ironically, in my wearing the hijab was that it would never have reached me spiritually for the ten years during which I wore it.
There is a part of the verse 2:256 in the Qur’an that says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” It’s a handy verse to know when people harp on about women’s oppression in Islam, to defend our religion to others. We claim that Islam forces no woman to wear the hijab should she choose not to, but I spent ten years trying to convince myself to wear it without complaining about it. The compulsion I placed didn’t really come from my religion, but my determination to stay true to it and my community, even my family. In the end, “there is no compulsion in religion” isn’t just a reassurance, but a fact. You can’t compulsively force yourself to adhere to a part of a certain Islam because it weakens the rest of you. I didn’t want to be indifferent my whole life, I wanted to be absolutely and unapologetically Muslim.