Wearing my hijab in London is easier than at home in Pakistan

1 month ago 17

‘When did you start wearing your hijab?’ an older aunty once asked me at a wedding in my native Pakistan. ‘I hope my daughter wears one like you.’  

She meant it as a sweet comment, and also as a conversation starter. After all, there’s not much common ground between me and someone my mother’s age who I only see yearly at weddings

The conversation that followed involved a lot of head nodding from my end and her saying how great it was that I had started wearing a hijab at such a young age – I must have been 15 or 16 at the time. 

I felt quite uncomfortable – even though I wanted to take what she said as a compliment, the constant focus on my hijab didn’t sit right. 

I was used to this feeling though, as conversations like these had become familiar. 

I always found it a bit weird that my hijab was such a common topic for people to bring up, and odd that it was seemingly the only part of me that anyone noticed. But because the sentiment was always positive, I thought I was just overthinking it and that people were simply being nice.

It wasn’t until I moved to London for university and found some distance from my identity as the ‘hijabi girl’ that I began to realise how exhausting it had been to be pigeonholed like that. 

I was 12 when I first started wearing a hijab – I did it because I believed it was a good thing to do as a Muslim girl. Just one of my friends started around the same time as me, but that only lasted a few months.

So, until I was around 15 and a friend also began wearing one, I was the only girl in my school who wore a hijab. 

I remember feeling quite proud of my choice. Even at that young age, I was quick to tell a questioning classmate that he had no right to lecture me on my decisions. 

It was an act of worship, the way I saw it, and as I’ve grown older I firmly believe it to be no more and no less than that. 

But the Pakistani society I grew up in saw my hijab as a part of my personality. I think part of this is because Pakistan has had a contentious relationship with hijabs, what with the politicisation of religious clothing under former president Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and the 1980s, and the balancing of Middle Eastern influences with our history from the Mughal times and pre-partition India.

Most of society still associates hijabs and burqas with the working class. This is an attitude that’s added to by media portrayals of hijabs as well. Popular TV dramas such as Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Humsafar consistently show working class women covering their heads, only to eventually marry a rich guy and suddenly become more comfortable with makeup and leaving their hair open without dupattas. This is a damaging narrative. 

The fact that I started wearing a hijab at such a young age, and that it was so uncommon amongst young girls in my social circle, added to it being seen as a much bigger part of my personality than I would have wanted. 

In London, however, my head covering didn’t seem to determine how people saw me. 

It’s funny, because when I was preparing to leave, most of the advice I got was to be careful of racist attacks – there had been a lot of noise around occurrences like this in the news. A distant relative also asked me if I was worried about wearing my hijab there because it would naturally make me stand out as a Muslim woman. 

I was lucky, though, to never have to deal with any harassment or discrimination due to my religion for the entire three years I lived in London. In fact, instead of becoming a more prominent factor of my identity, my hijab simply blended into it. 

The fact that I was attending such a diverse university with a large international student body played a major role in how easily I seemed to slip into the crowd. I remember being at a departmental welcome event and finding it so easy to talk to the people who would become my closest friends – I don’t think they’ve ever brought my hijab up in our three-year friendship. 

Neither they nor anyone else in my classes questioned how I balanced my hijab with my beliefs. 

And maybe, in a city as diverse as London, people are used to there being differences between them, while back home everyone’s so accustomed to being exactly the same that it feels odd when one person chooses to act differently. 

Regardless of the reasons, I finally felt free to make mistakes and use those to figure out the version of myself I was most comfortable with. I realised that I had been the ‘hijabi girl’ for so long back home that I had forgotten to find out who I really was, outside of that expectation. 

For instance, when I had switched to a different school in Karachi for my A-levels, I remember being excited at being able to explore a new side of myself because no one there knew me. But one of my very first conversations showed just how hard that would be. 

While talking with my new classmates about women’s rights and activism – a topic I was and always will be very outspoken in – I noticed they seemed very surprised. Then one of them asked me if I was forced to wear a hijab or if I wore it by choice. 

Their confusion increased when I said it was a choice I had made on my own. When I asked what was so surprising, I was told, ‘usually hijabis don’t think and talk like that.’ 

Women who choose to wear a hijab are often generalised like this in Pakistan – they’re assumed to be less outspoken, not so put together and generally have lesser value. An expectation is pushed on us to be a certain way – an expectation that we never asked for and don’t deserve. 

I find it interesting that when I moved to a place where I was supposed to stand out more because of the way I dressed, I gained a sense of freedom and invisibility that I had never been familiar with. 

I suddenly had the space to express my ideas without being confronted by a surprised face and a comment about my hijab.

Of course, not everyone who follows Islam will have the same experience of London as I did – I know most people feel more comfortable practising the religion in Muslim-majority countries. 

I’m back in Pakistan now, but the experience of living for three years without these social pressures and assumptions about my personality has forever changed the way I perceive my own identity in context to my decision to cover my head. 

I no longer let other people’s reactions to me shape how I see myself, because I know I exist outside of their expectations.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jessica.carter@metro.co.uk.

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