Maria Khan no longer wears the Muslim scarf and her story has nothing to do with the aftermath of 9/11 or religious discrimination.
“No hijab, no expectations. Plus I felt young and beautiful again.”
Her decision to abandon it was influenced by present-day ideas of conduct, beauty and femininity within her own community and while this discussion remains hush-hush, it is hardly an anomaly.
She was 18 years old when she first decided to wear the head scarf. Although she grew up in the Middle East, she is of Pakistani origin, where hijab is not as common and Khan’s decision was hardly inveigled by cultural influences.
Her mother wore it but had never suggested her daughter do so, and besides local Arabs, no one in her clique did. She wanted to cover her hair as a duty and to display her religious affiliation.
“It came very naturally to me,” she says. She moved to California in the late 90s to study at Stanford University and was wholly accepted by the student body as well as the faculty. She lived on campus and, if anything, felt “a little distinctive.”
Moreover, she was proud that her hijab clearly reflected her identity. And it was hardly a life-changing decision.
“I still loved fashion, I rode my bike everywhere, went to the gym and school parties, she said. “But it definitely protected me when I was younger … It guided me at a time when I was surrounded my temptations and served as a reminder of who I was and what I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” she laughs.
Hijab is not only being modest in dress but also in one’s actions and is also a source of spiritual enrichment. She loved displaying her religious affiliation but suddenly, after years of wearing it, she started disliking it. That is, when she graduated. Khan did not face any obstacles building a career; she had no trouble during the interview process or in landing jobs but when she began mingling with the Muslim community in the Bay Area she began feeling uncomfortable wearing it.
“They made me feel like I was giving hijabis a bad name.” she said. “I was constantly being judged because of the clothes I wore; if my sleeves were slightly short or a part of my neck was visible, people would just stare at me as if I was this bad girl. It was also the way I spoke or the kind of friends I had … had I not been wearing a scarf, I would probably have the best reputation.”
There are certain expectations from women wearing the Muslim head covering because they also represent Muslim thought. The majority of Muslim men from the Indian subcontinent living in the Bay Area agreed that the Islamic head covering is not just a piece of cloth but, to an extent, a moral pledge.
A Muslim-American of Indian ethnicity who wishes to remain anonymous said: “ … wearing a hijab does give her a higher responsibility to be mindful of her actions, particularly among non-Muslims. You then become a representative of your religion and even though we all have a duty to try and uphold the best values, in the case of wearing a hijab, or kufi, it becomes even more incumbent upon you to try and display the best of our religion, because you are invariably being judged and your actions are shaping people's opinions about our religion.”
Jahan Hamid, of Pakistani descent and living in California, is friends with several girls who wear the hijab and does not find it odd that they indulge in regular activities such as going to hookah lounges or befriending the opposite sex.
But he admits that, “from a slight different point of view, however, it does represent a more modest point of view and behavior. There is obviously a reason a person decides to wear it and with that action comes a perceived message of more religiosity.”
While it is reasonably established that hijab is considered a reflection of Muslim etiquette by a majority of American Muslims, at times the expectations become unrealistic and impractical, which is one of the reasons Khan, and a number of girls living here, have chosen not to wear it.
Apart from the accountability factor, comments from friends such as, “you’d look so much better without your scarf,” and “you look older than you are in that,” instigated in Khan feelings of diminished femininity and a growing desire to dress like other girls around he
The idea of beauty is not generally affiliated with your hair being bunched up in a piece of cloth and this holds true for many members in the Muslim-American community, and, other parts of the world, who view it as unattractive. Living in a society that gives so much beef to looking good, it is a tough decision.
And when the people one associates with constantly remind you how much prettier you would look minus the scarf, it becomes tougher. “I remember how many compliments I got when I attended a Pakistani wedding without it … My Muslim friends were very encouraging and supportive of my decision to keep it off,” Khan said.
Even when it comes to marriage, there are a lot of Muslim men who do not want to marry a girl in a headscarf. Some men, from Pakistan and India, even force their wives to discontinue wearing hijab after marriage. About fifty to sixty percent of Pakistani and Indian men responded with ‘perhaps’ when asked if they found it unattractive and openly commented that they found it “too extreme.” Some Pakistani couples living in the Bay Area casually refer to women in hijab as ‘the fundoos,’ or fundamentalists. Likewise, Khan said, “Most guys, at least the ones I socialize with, just don’t want to be with a girl in a scarf.”
While there are a lot of women who have stopped wearing their hijab because of reasons other than religious discrimination, they are reluctant to talk freely about it. Some feel guilty about taking it off, some do not, and very few are willing to be a ‘part-time’ hijabi. “I wish I could wear it whenever I wanted to but there is no such thing as a part-time hijabi here,” Khan said. “And I still believe in it, I just don’t have the strength to do it anymore.”
*The names have been changed to maintain anonymity of persons interviewed.