Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taking off my Hijab

I have finally done it.

This wasn't an easy decision. I had been struggling with it on a daily basis for the last five years. During the final years of my undergraduate degree, I was constantly reminded of how much my personal beliefs clashed with those of the Islamic orthodoxy. It's hard to reconcile my mix of libertarian, socialist and humanist values with the conservative ideals of the orthodox Muslim community that I inadvertently become a part of as a Hijabi.

At the same time, as the only visible Muslim in my undergraduate program (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) I became the de facto representative of all one billion or so Muslims to my classmates. I was always conflicted between expressing traditional/orthodox Muslim beliefs and my own.

Do I support gay marriage? Yes. Does (traditional/orthodox) Islam? No.

During my first stint in graduate school, I became somewhat of a novelty. Here I was, a brown female visibly Muslim scientist working in a white, male dominated field. I organized academic journal clubs, hosted international researchers and attended conferences both at home and abroad. I was the only Hijabi in my field and I'd like to believe to think that I challenged commonly held stereotypes about Muslim women. There were some advantages to wearing the Hijab in this situation. I was "exotic".  My research got a lot more attention than it normally would. People remembered me. I enjoyed the surprise on people's faces when they realized that I was the fisheries scientist that they were meeting with. But this attention wasn't always positive. When I was interviewing for PhD positions, I was almost always asked why someone from my background was pursuing research in aquatic ecology.

On a personal level, I no longer hold the same religious perspectives that I did when I started wearing the Hijab a decade or so ago. During my undergraduate studies, I took Islamic history classes and was surprised to find out that the practice of veiling in the Arabian peninsula predates Islam and was used as a class identifier. Women belonging to the families at the upper levels of clan and tribal hierarchies wore veils. Furthermore, the two verses in the Quran that are interpreted as an injunction for women to veil themselves, only call for women to dress modestly and do not specifically mention hair. The more I read, the less convinced I became.

 So I've decided to take it off for now. It feels dishonest to represent myself as an orthodox conservative Muslim, when I'm not. I'm tired of representing all Muslims, Islam and dealing with assumptions of both the Muslim community and the general public about who I am and who I should be. For once, I just want to represent myself. My religious belief is not my defining identity, but it is an important one for me. I'm unsure of how to feel Muslim without the Hijab. (How do all the non-Hijabis and Muslim men do it?????).

I don't know what is going to happen. I might put the Hijab on again. I might take it off permanently. For now, I just want to see what life is like without it.