Not only has she stepped out alone to volunteer abroad but she has also made the decision to remove her headscarf.
Ayesha (not her real name) is a 22-year-old Palestinian woman spending a year volunteering in France. We had the honour of asking her a few questions about her decision in the hope that others hear her story.
Disclaimer: This is a Palestinian experience and we are not claiming it relates to women’s experience of the hijab across the globe.
“I chose to remove my hijab two years ago after years of feeling that it did not represent my true identity nor Islam. This put me in the distinct minority, I can literally count on my fingers and toes the number of women who do not cover their hair back home. My decision proved life-changing: affecting my social circles and potential future marital options.
“For years I felt like I was not myself. In fact, from the first time I started wearing a head covering, it seemed I followed a social norm rather than expressing who I was. As I was considering my options, I talked with my family and close friends about my thoughts – there was a lot of back-and-forth.
“My father worried about what society would say, my mother, worried it would be against Islam, but close friends were supportive and some are considering joining me one day too.
“Eventually, I had had enough – every morning I covered my head, painstakingly tidying away any loose hairs – one morning I woke up and simply did not put my hijab on.
“At that time, I was studying in a place that is considerably more liberal than my hometown, so it seemed a safer place for me to spend that first day hijab-less. My mum did not say a thing, probably thinking it was merely a phase that would just last the day. My dad was anxious, he reiterated his concerns, over what people would say about me and my honour. I somehow knew my parents would react like that – What I did not expect was the response I got from my classmates.
“My classmates at university, educated and somewhat liberal thinkers shunned me. No-one talked to me, no-one wanted to be around me. Behind my back they were calling me a slut, atheist and crazy. This went one for a whole two weeks.
“Eventually, some started engaging with me, there were two distinct groups:
- Some used religious debate around why I had chosen to remove my hijab to convince me I had acted wrongly. They used extremely narrow-minded interpretations of Islam that I vehemently disagreed with. Ironically, they told me I was not an imam so I could not decide on these things – none of them were imams!
- Some of the girls approached me with their wishes to remove their hijab. I realised jealousy was partly to blame for their previous attacks on me:
“Many women are desperate for change but too fearful to push for it and therefore are jealous of the changemakers.
“Interestingly my grandmother used to walk around in a short skirt, which was the norm pre-1980s. After the first Intifada in 1987 an Islamist movement from Egypt pressed into Palestine. Initially, women covered up because they felt physically threatened but gradually over time the belief and practice embedded itself in the community.’
[You can read more about what changed for women in Palestine from 1987 in Rateeba`s account here.]
“The increased instability and hopelessness had people drawn to more extreme interpretations of faith which perpetuated the shift towards Islamist practices. It’s funny to think that even in Egypt there was a time when the people laughed at the idea their women would wear the hijab:
“Over time the attacks became less nasty, less frequent, but still, I get girls telling me: ‘You are beautiful, no one should see that.’ and ‘Men will think badly of you.’. Everything revolves around what men think and getting a good match for marriage.
Modesty is the new sexy
“I had suddenly lost all my appeal to what they considered to be ‘good’ marital options. I used to even get told I was more beautiful in the hijab so I would respond with: ‘If I am more beautiful in the hijab I will just keep that for my man and show my hair to the world.’
“Now if this were the reactions I got at university, imagine what it was like when I returned home: People did not recognise me, I passed as a foreigner which made the repercussions my decision had incited a lot easier to deal with.
“I know what my decision means I cannot marry into certain families and I have limited the social circles I can belong to. I know that many who do not know me will view me as a slut, a disbeliever and westernised. However those who do know me know that I maintain my faith, I stand by the hijab not being a mandatory practice according to the Quran and I support those women who believe the same and want to do the same.
“I would like to acknowledge, this is not a small decision to make. It leads to a complete change in identity and comes with harsh limits like being shunned, attacked and deemed unworthy. No woman should make this decision lightly and must do it only if it reflects her own beliefs and wants.”
Thank you, Ayesha.