The Hijab and I are Friends-with-Benefits.

A modern story of the Hijab, fashion and faith.

And, like any friends-with-benefits, it comes with its own set of complications and judgements. Sometimes it feels like an easy-breezy, win-win situation, and other times it feels convoluted and difficult to navigate. It’s an on-and-off type of thing. It’s hard to prescribe any clear-cut rules. Every situation is different, every woman’s ‘Hijab story’ is different. And, the reasons for entering into this commitment varies and tends to last for different time periods.

You might realize that after a ‘trial’ period or a ‘no strings attached’ phase, you are prepared to be committed and dedicated to the Hijab. Or, you realize it is more difficult than you thought and decide to end the little rendezvous. Nevertheless, you may find yourself in the same situation a few months or years later, and so the journey begins again. 

I, for one, am extremely familiar with that journey–and no story I’ve read has ever resonated with my own Hijab story. And so, here I am, writing it.

Fashionable Faith

For the past four years, I have been a ‘part-time’ Hijabi, if you will. I dabble with the idea of fully committing myself to the Hijab, get caught up, and then lose interest. This is where I’d like to make an important distinction: although I can’t really pin at what point I lose interest in the Hijab itself, it is not to say that it is the equivalent to losing interest in my faith. Infact, my faith is one of the most joyous things in my life. It keeps me grounded, grateful and accepting of all the different tribulations and blessings I experience.

“I don’t believe that the Hijab should earn me fame or be socially palatable.”

In all honesty, one of the main reasons I lose interest is because I become lazy. The Hijab generally becomes a focal point for someone wearing it, and there comes days when I simply want to put on jeans and a t-shirt without thinking about how I’m going to curate the perfect Hijabi outfit. You see, modern Hijabi culture has come to revolve around clothes and make-up. We’re told that no one looks good in a Hijab if they aren’t wearing a couple layers of makeup with a fashionable outfit. Modesty doesn’t have to mean ‘boring’, they say. Many Hijabi’s have followed this rule and pride themselves in wearing clothes that aren’t tight-fitted, yet are still stylish. There has been an increase in Hijabi influencers over the past few years, worldwide, all invested in modest fashion.

“The headscarf [is] a familiar participant in South Africa’s history.”

The problem I have with this is that it projects the impression that Hijabi’s — a niche of women who are already the target of special sexist, Islamophobic remarks — must be stylish, made-up, and generally ‘likeable’ to be accepted as a woman who is dedicated to her faith.

‘Modesty’ in relation to the Hijab is often misconstrued as simply covering one’s body. This is false. Modesty also refers to the way Muslims should hold ourselves, the care with which we speak to other people or the understanding and acceptance with which we approach life. I, as I imagine many other women who wear the Hijab agree, do not see myself in the type of ‘influencers’ that are, evidently, rewriting narratives of the Hijab. I don’t believe that the Hijab should earn me fame or be socially palatable in order for me to wear it.

A History of the Hijab in SA

Now, if you are waiting for a turning point in which you hear my Hijab sob story or where I explain the Islamophobia I face for wearing the Hijab, that is, thankfully, not about to happen. The freedom I’ve experienced with my religion is because I don’t have to fear for my life or fear being judged for being Muslim. In fact, that is one of the beauties of growing up in South Africa.

“The Hijab should be a zero-pressure realm.”

Muslims arrived in the Cape as early as 1652, and therefore we have always been a part of South African history. Your average South African is very much aware of the Islamic faith, its practices and identity as the Muslim identity has always been strong in Cape Town. Therefore, I do not primarily wear my Hijab as an assertion of my Muslim identity. I believe that our collective and my individual Muslim identity can be seen in many ways beyond the head scarf: Through our Arabic or Malay names, the beacons of light that stretch to the skies which amplify the Call to Prayer, our hearty meals and our characteristics of generosity, compassion and willingness to be at service to our different communities. 

” I am reminded of and connected to the strong women who came before me.”

Even the headscarf itself has been a familiar participant in South Africa’s visual history. If you look at archival drawings or images of life in the Cape, many women would wear head coverings, or the doek. This remains true from as early as slavery in the Cape, throughout the Apartheid struggle, and continues to be visible today. 

Friends-With-Benefits

It’s these things that encompass the ‘benefits’ side of my friend-with-benefits situation. First and foremost, wearing the Hijab is a form of worship. So, when I wear the Hijab, I am pleasing Allah, my Creator.

Secondly, there is a type of confidence I feel when I wear the Turban. It’s something unique that I get to experiment with. I enjoy mixing and matching different colours and textures and creating simple but bold looks that match my style. I feel proud in it and the clothes I chose to wear.

“It acts as a reminder to myself to be proud of my heritage.”

Thirdly, and maybe the most interesting benefit, is that through the wearing of the Turban or doek, I am always reminded of and connected to the strong women who came before me. The women who endured all types of struggles in their lives, in order to better life as South African women in this country. It acts as a reminder to myself to be proud of my heritage, helps me to endure any major or minor tribulations I face, or to be a helping hand for my sisters who need it. 

It’s complicated

With all of this, I always have to remind myself that I am fortunate enough to be allowed to explore the Hijab with as much freedom and ease as I need, until I feel satisfied. I have the comfort of its availability, whenever I need it. And like the first time you brave any waters, you need to ease yourself into it. 

Although at times it doesn’t feel like it, the Hijab should be a zero-pressure realm, where women are able to explore what they feel comfortable with and should make decisions based on their true feelings — not according to what is expected of them, usually imposed by other women and what is considered the ‘norm’.

Evidently, wearing the Hijab has benefits that I love. But it’s not free of certain struggles and complications. Just like that situationship with Mr John Doe. 

Words:  Alia Choudry

Images: provided

Feature image: edited photo by Alia Choudry

Alia is a Curator in Cape Town, challenging representations and perceptions of the Hijab. Being able to see yourself in mainstream narratives is important in normalizing different walks of life — this is why her faceless images point to an idea more than the person in them. This is for the unheard Hijabi woman and those who look upon her.