American Muslim Women Say Wearing the Hijab Should Be a Personal Choice

Then, when Zanial was in college, Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, were murdered in their Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home. Both women wore the hijab. “I just remember me and so many of my friends in college, it felt like we lost family members,” she says. “And we know it’s largely attributed to the fact that they were visibly Muslim.”

Instead of deterring her from wearing the hijab, violence like the Chapel Hill shooting reinforced to Zanial what it means to be visibly Muslim, visibly othered. “If I didn’t wear the hijab, I would very easily pass as white,” she says matter-of-factly.

Saleeban, Hadi, Mumin, and Zanial agree that wearing the hijab is a two-part struggle: There’s internal pressure to fit in by not wearing it, and then there’s dealing with external harassment. Adding to these woes are world leaders proposing laws that police the hijab.

“I believe that any laws controlling a woman’s right to choose, regardless of what it is, are draconian,” Zanial says, comparing the hijab laws to overturning Roe v Wade. “It’s rooted in patriarchy, whether it’s the right to wear or not wear hijab, whether it’s like choosing to have an abortion or not having an abortion.”

In addition to being patriarchal, attitudes toward the hijab, Saleeban and Mumin say, are created through the gaze of Western notions of feminism. “Things that are being pushed today in regards to feminism is, you take off your clothes, you’re more empowered,” Mumin says.

Saleeban uses the example of the Iran protests to demonstrate the point. International media organizations, she says, have covered the uprisings in depth, with many women in America standing in solidarity with them. Yet smaller protests in India by women pushing for the right to wear the hijab have received little attention.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have people like us making these laws,” says Zahra Abbas, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who runs a community organization, Ahlul-Bayt Collective. She does not wear the hijab, saying her relationship with religion is “imperfect.” The right to wear the hijab is a personal choice, which Abbas says has been co-opted by the societal “need to control women’s bodies and the perceptions of what people think women’s bodies should be.”

Abbas is also a Shia Muslim, a sect that accounts for 10-13% of the global Muslim population, and decries the laws that force women to wear the hijab or ban hijab as painting all Muslim women with one brush as a monolith. “As a Shia Muslim, I feel like we are constantly left out of these [intra-Muslim] conversations and the people are very, very dismissive of our thoughts and opinions,” she explains. “Especially in Iran, which is a majority Shia-run country, with what’s happening politically, people have more incentive to be anti-Shia.”

Abbas says it’s crucial to acknowledge intersectional identities in the discourse surrounding Muslim women. These sentiments resonate with Saleeban, who chose to attend an HBCU to be accepted for being Black and Muslim. She says, “I don’t have to explain why I wear the hijab because no one’s asking me why I wear the hijab.” 

If there is one misconception about the hijab that she could change, Saleeban would have people accept that it should be a personal choice, and those that choose to wear it, like her, are not oppressed. She says simply, “We’re more than what the eye meets.” 

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