It was World Hijab Day earlier this month. You probably missed it, but you can imagine the idea: ‘global citizens’ of all faiths and backgrounds were asked to cover their heads for a day ‘in solidarity with Muslim women worldwide’. It is done in ‘recognition of millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and live a life of modesty’.
Wearing a hijab is not such an abstract cause for me: I used to wear one a few years ago when I was at school in Iran. And in the spirit of solidarity, I’d like to tell you a bit more about the world I left behind when I moved to Britain in 2011 when I was nine years old.
I was six when I was first made to wear the hijab to school. When I was eight, I was forced to wear the hijab while walking around Arak, my hometown in north–western Iran. I did so in fear of the ‘modesty’ police, who patrolled the streets looking for anyone who dared to remove their hijab.
For one year we had a nice teacher who on rare occasions allowed us to take our hijabs off in class, provided the door was closed, the windows shut and the blinds completely pulled. Why? There was a male janitor who used to sweep the playground, and Allah forbade that he should lay his eyes on an underage girl’s hair. She could go to hell for that.
My teachers deemed it appropriate to shove their hands into my hijab and push my hair back to prevent a single strand of hair being on show. The intrusion didn’t stop there. Each week, we had physical checks of our hair and nails — and also, in case we were tempted to try jewellery, our ears, chests and wrists. Wearing large hairclips wasn’t allowed, despite the fact that they were hidden by our hijabs. To this day I haven’t figured out why a flower-shaped clip is provocative. Underneath the hijab, our hair had to be either short or in a firm ponytail, so that the style of hair didn’t accentuate certain areas of the fabric.
Schoolteachers weren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on us. Iran’s modesty police were a constant and stressful presence in our lives. I’d learned, out of habit, to avoid them as much as possible, though that certainly became difficult when they didn’t want to avoid you. They used to park tactically in the road where the hair and makeup salons were ready to arrest anyone who they deemed ‘immodest’. They even arrested someone I know who was at the airport about to board a flight to Australia, because her manteau (a loose jacket that is mandatory in Iran for modesty reasons) was ‘too short’. And no, this wasn’t another era: it was just a few years ago.
I was taught that the hijab was intended to keep a girl pure and away from the eyes of men. This is why the hijab represents a form of victim-blaming. The premise is that men are expected to act like predators, and that girls should feel they are to blame should anything untoward happen.
If the janitor were to think impure thoughts about one of the girls in my class, that would have been her fault. If a married man thinks about a woman inappropriately, it is deemed to be her fault. Then again, he could always take her as his second wife (a practice still common in Iran).
Some argue that the hijab is liberating for women. Having come from the inside, I can tell you: the hijab, and the kind of rule I lived under, isn’t about feminism. It isn’t an empowering rejection of being judged by your appearance. It is a form of submission: the chaining up of women to the mullahs who promulgate this nonsense. For women who have been forced to wear a hijab, World Hijab Day is an insult. It’s an open attempt to portray oppressors as victims, and to overlook the feelings of women who have been taught to believe throughout their lives that they are second-class beings.
I have found my life in Britain to be a liberation, but it staggers me to see so much nonsense spoken about the hijab and the regime I escaped. There are brave women imprisoned in Iran for various infractions of the modesty code; there are women who have been treated appallingly for wearing a hijab that is too loose or transparent. More recently, there have been women punished for not wearing a hijab. And yet the hijab is now celebrated in the West. ‘It’s OK to be modest,’ say the hijab’s apologists. Well of course, but there is nothing modest about brushing over the suffering of the women and girls of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
I have tended to keep quiet about the fact that I used to wear a hijab. I was so wounded by the horrors of Islam that I wanted to pretend it never existed. But in Britain I realise I now have a voice, and that I am not a second-class citizen who should be scared of talking out of turn. I have also realised that I don’t deserve to be scolded by religious women for ditching the hijab. In Britain, it is acceptable to be a free woman. You don’t have to obey the restrictive demands of your father, husband or government.
I have changed a lot since I was six. I’m now 16, and while I can’t say I have better hair, I have something even better: freedom. I now try to see World Hijab Day as a day to celebrate being free of the hijab. Women like me who have escaped the veil can use this day to rejoice in our newfound liberty.