first person

My Hijab Has Always Been My Choice

Photo: Courtesy of Amani al-Khatahtbeh

When I started wearing a hijab at 14, my parents had no part of the decision. In my teenage rebellion, I wanted to make it known that my hijab was my choice and nobody’s business but my own, even if my mother didn’t wear one. In the hypersexualized and anti-Muslim climate of post-9/11 America, in which it became more socially acceptable to objectify women’s bodies than for a Muslim woman to cover in public, my hijab became a tool for self-empowerment.

I’m reminded of how significant it was for me as a teenage girl to make that choice when I think about the most recent attempt to ban the hijab in France. In a controversial move, the French Senate passed a bill earlier this month outlawing girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public, and their veiled mothers from accompanying them on school trips. French Muslim women and girls have been targets of institutionalized attacks on their identity through Islamophobic legislation for decades: France has had an existing ban on hijabs in public schools since 2003; municipalities across the country began infamously banning the burkini in 2016, leading police to literally force women to strip off their clothes on beaches; and niqabs, or face veils, were banned in 2010, supposedly to enable “living together” in French society. Ten years later, the government began mandating face masks during the pandemic while still prohibiting face coverings for religious reasons.

Stanford researchers have found that France’s 2004 “secularist” law disproportionately impacted Muslim girls and women, who reported higher levels of discrimination in school and found it harder to complete their studies. Not only that, but it also inspired them to be even prouder of their religious identity in the face of such adversity, the opposite of the law’s supposed objective. Even my 14-year-old self could’ve told you that would happen.

I’m a born and raised Jersey girl. But after 9/11 happened, when I was 9 years old, growing up miles away from ground zero became a fight to survive extreme bullying and constant assaults on my identity exacerbated by racist headlines. As a child, the systemic hatred of my religion made me feel like I was an outsider in the only country I had ever known. One of the only things that revealed to me there were other Muslim girls out there, feeling the same way I did, was the 2004 story of Cennet Doganay, the 15-year-old French schoolgirl that shaved her head in protest of France’s ban on hijabs in public schools.

A few years later, when I was 13, my father uprooted our family from the only home we’d ever known in New Jersey and moved us to Jordan, his home country, to escape the Islamophobia we endured in the U.S. It was my first visit to the country, after a formative childhood filled with Islamophobia that made me feel distant and detached from my Arab Muslim background. For several months, I saw an Arabic tutor every day, a hardworking mom who juggled her newborn infant in one arm while translating to me the history of Islam with the other, and who never left the house without donning a sophisticated black veil and robe. I was inspired not only by the rich lessons she taught me about Islamic traditions and their humanitarian significance, but also by the example she set as a multifaceted woman who could live her life while also staying true to her identity. I was becoming reacquainted with my roots, not through the lens of Western propaganda but directly from the people who lived and practiced this beautiful and misunderstood faith.

That was the first time I ever had the freedom to feel overwhelming pride in my background. I decided to start wearing a headscarf as a way to reclaim my identity from a society trying to rob me of it. When we had to return to the U.S. due to my mother’s health, I still wore my hijab when my plane touched down back home and continued to wear it for the rest of my teenage years.

French conservatives claim that hijab bans somehow support women and girls’ freedom by assuming that all those who wear the hijab are forced to do so. But it’s these systemic attacks on our autonomy that are bigger threats to our freedom and feel like an attack on our religion. Throughout history, it has been these moments that often encourage us to hold onto pieces of our identity even more as symbols that are bigger than ourselves. That’s the heart of the hijab ban’s purpose — not to secularize, but to rip away another choice from Muslim girls under the guise of giving them one.

The reason why I started my blog Muslim Girl in high school was because I felt like so many talking heads on the news and in politics were speaking on our behalf without allowing us to speak for ourselves. It made way for real laws and horrible policies to be created based on stereotypes, misinformation, and reckless Islamophobia that placed our lives in danger. While the world was saying that Muslim girls were voiceless and needed to be rescued, we were screaming into the void and being silenced. So I set out to establish one demand: that we can’t have conversations about Muslim women that aren’t led by Muslim women.

This latest bill was passed by the French Senate and still has to go through the National Assembly to become law, but the social-media outrage in response to it should be warning enough about where the next generation draws the line. When I returned to the States donning a hijab, I faced even more discrimination, lost a lot of friends in school, and my own relatives sat me down to convince me to take it off, fearing for my safety in a world that demanded my compliance. That only made me want to wear my hijab even more.

If that’s any indication of what happens when you try to tell Muslim teenage girls how to dress, then France has surely underestimated them.

My Hijab Has Always Been My Choice