In this episode of The Cut, producer Noor Bouzidi reflects on her decision to stop wearing hijab, and why such a personal choice ended up feeling so public. Though Noor opted to wear a hijab for eight years, she explains how her identity felt molded by friends, family, and other hijabis. She also speaks with her friend Sarah Qari, a producer at Radiolab, about hijabi fashion and her own process of removing hers, as well as Instagram influencer Maryam Jones about the intense scrutiny she faced after publicly posting without a head covering.
To hear more about modern hijabi culture, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
PARKER: Hi Noor.
NOOR BOUZIDI: Hello Parker. So…
PARKER: What do you wanna show me?
NOOR: Okay. I’m going to text these pictures to you. There we go.
PARKER: Oh, my gosh, who is this bad bitch?
NOOR: A couple weeks ago, I showed Parker a photo of myself that I took in my second year of college. I think about this picture all the time.
PARKER: Oh, you look so cool. Like, so chill. We’ve got like some like kind of cutoff, anklet jeans and a black blouse and some cool hoop earrings and then we have… oh, what is this? A headscarf?
NOOR: In the photo, I’m wearing a green turban, and it completely pulls the look together. It’s so quintessentially hijabi chic.
PARKER: You look so free and chill. You’re standing on top of a fountain. Do you remember how you felt while like standing up there in that outfit?
NOOR: I felt like a badass. I felt commanding in that outfit. It’s one of those outfits where I always look back on these pictures, where I’m like, Damn, I looked so good. I get jealous of myself.
In this picture with the green turban, I’m smiling ear to ear. I’m smiling because I felt so good. In that outfit, I felt like myself. And I say that I’m jealous of the me in those photos because I feel like I can’t wear that green turban–or any headscarf–anymore. At least, not without all the baggage that came with it.
I wore hijab for 8 years, starting when I was 11. But, over the years, there was something about it that started to make me itch. I started to see this choice to wear hijab, this personal decision… as anything but personal. I think that has a lot to do with the rise of hijabi influencers.
SARAH QARI: I remember just going on YouTube and like following all of these, emerging hijabi YouTubers, and watching all these tutorials on different hijab styles.
NOOR: That’s Sarah Qari, a podcast producer from the show Radiolab. Sarah also wore hijab for a while, around the same time as me.
SARAH: I was a huge fan of Dina Tokio.
CLIP FROM A DINA TOKIO VIDEO: Hi Guys!!! Okay so today’s video I’m going to do the tutorial that I asked you guys, if you wanted to see, and you guys all came back and said, “yes, Dina, we want to see it.”
SARAH: Oh, were you too?
NOOR: I idolized her for years. I started dressing like that and my sisters would tell me–
SARAH: Because of her, same!
NOOR: “You look like Dina, like you dress like Dina.”
SARAH: Dina is such an interesting person to me because she was the OG. She brought up this industry of hijabi fashion around her.
NOOR: Dina Tokio is a British-Egyptian fashion blogger who came on the scene in 2011 and she was pretty much the first ever Hijabi influencer. On her YouTube channel, she would post modest clothing hauls and tutorials on different ways to wrap your headscarf. By the mid-2010s, her channel exploded in popularity. Before Dina Tokio, I don’t even remember ever hearing the phrase “hijab fashion.” But after Dina, #hijabfashion was all over Instagram with photos of not just Dina, but of more and more of these influencers showing off their style. Like seriously, her impact.
SARAH: Oh yeah. I bought the giant scrunchie.
NOOR: Oh my God.
CLIP FROM A DINA TOKIO VIDEO: Basically have my hair up in a half ponytail and then wrapped around my half ponytail. I have something a little bit like this scrunchie.
SARAH: I would literally wear that every day. I still have it somewhere. It has all these, like, tassels. I don’t even know how to describe it. They’re just like dangling off of it but then gives you a nice shape.
SARAH: Yeah, voluminous!
NOOR: It was like hair volume, but for hijab.
Okay so this is the time to say this: hijab is complicated. It’s not like any other religious symbol that I can think of. In some places, some people think you’ll be punished by God if you don’t wear it. But there’s also some super orthodox Muslim women who don’t wear hijab, and other women wear it for non-religious reasons–like cultural significance, or style. Basically, all that is to say what [wearing a] hijab could mean is really personal to the person wearing it. Something interesting happened in the early 2010s, when influencers like Dina Tokio created this aspirational image of the “modern hijabi.”
It’s this image of an easy, breezy, covered girl, who has it all figured out. She’s a fashion-forward, free-thinking woman, who does the honorable thing of representing the community and being visibly Muslim in an Islamophobic country. She crushes misogynists and racists, and she does it all in a cute and modest outfit, not a pin on her chiffon scarf out of place. Suddenly, so many of us wanted to be just like Dina.
SARAH: Yeah millions and millions of people, whose primary relationship is that you give them things to look at and they look at you, you know what I mean?
NOOR: But, for these hijabi influencers and the girls like Sarah and me who looked up to them, this kind of visibility had a dark side.
I want to confess something…
MARYAM JONES: Yeah.
NOOR: Half of my saved posts on Instagram are your posts.
MARYAM: Stop no–
NOOR: Like your ‘fits feel like a warm cup of coffee for my fashion soul.
MARYAM: Stop. I literally–no stop. That’s like best compliment I’ve ever received for my outfits
NOOR: This is my friend Maryam Jones. She’s a former hijabi influencer. Right now, her Instagram is focused on fashion and sustainability.
Maryam’s story with hijab started when she was in high school, when she was having a pretty tough time with her mental health. At some point, her therapist basically said: “If you’re interested in it, some people find meaning in religion.” Skeptical at first, she did some reading anyway. And one thing led to another, and Maryam discovered Islam.
MARYAM: I put on the hijab November 7, and I took Shahada November 4, 2014.
NOOR: Oh, wow.
MARYAM: It was super quick. While I fully believed in Islam, I still didn’t know exactly what all hijab encompassed. It was a very big jolt and change. My whole wardrobe had to change because before I’m wearing fishnets as pants. Then, I’m a hijabi. I was seeing Dina Tokio online and I was seeing these other girls on Tumblr specifically at that moment, and on YouTube. They were so beautiful. I so desperately wanted to be part of the community.
NOOR: This is when I first met Maryam online. On Tumblr, about six years ago. There was actually this whole niche of girls on the site–where we’d hype each other up in our cute outfits and openly share feminist takes on religion. Maryam became enchanted by that.
MARYAM: I remember that time being so whirlwind for me. Probably for the fact that I wanted to be that so bad. I wanted to be the biggest, most carefree, baddest bitch hijabi there was. To see women doing that, I could be like, Wow. It was a representation of what I could strive for.
NOOR: Then in about 2016, that social circle she’d met originally on Tumblr, started migrating to Instagram. It was there that Maryam started regularly uploading her cute hijabi outfits. They picked up steam real quick. Her page was the place that I went to for good thrifting tips.
CLIP FROM MARYAM’S INSTAGRAM: “So number one tip is to know your measurements, your actual measurements, not the size”
NOOR: By 2018, she had around 30,000 followers.
MARYAM: And I just am happy that I get to share my outfits.
CLIP FROM MARYAM’S INSTAGRAM:“You want to see my outfit? Here she is in any way. I complained all today about how hot it was. So I’m of course fully covered, in Doc Martens.”
MARYAM: That was what I did. I loved it and it made me feel so good.
NOOR: It was fun, but being a hijabi influencer, with her faith and fashion intersecting as part of her growing brand, got complicated fast.
MARYAM: Being on Instagram made me confront a lot of things because people were looking to me to answer questions for them that I could never answer.
NOOR: What kinds of questions?
MARYAM: How to be happy with hijab. I don’t feel like that’s an answer anyone ever has. Like, only you can answer that question.
NOOR: These types of questions from her followers, “How can I be happy with hijab?” started to trigger something in her.
MARYAM: People were looking to me for answers and for help that I could never give.
NOOR: Like for one thing, Why are people coming to me? These kinds of questions– matters of iman–are things you should be asking a faith leader. But here you are entrusting your religious guidance with a 22-year-old fashion blogger. No pressure.
MARYAM: I’d get these DMs, like professing their love for me. These paragraphs of text about people telling me that I bring them so much hope and love and they get through the day because I posted, and it’s like… if I fail, this person is telling me that they’re going to go through a massive emotional low.
NOOR: But more importantly, Maryam realized that she hadn’t yet developed answers to the hard questions for herself. She realized that she’d gotten so caught up in being a hijabi, that she never fully understood what hijab served for her personally. That started a period of intense self reflection for Maryam.
MARYAM: There was never going to be any happiness unless I worked to understand myself more. That was the very beginning of when I realized that I had used hijab to cover my trauma.
NOOR: I wanna stop here and say that Maryam doesn’t want to talk about the details of that trauma. We’re not going to get into them here. What you need to know is that Maryam realized that wearing hijab was linked in her mind with some experiences she was trying very hard to move past, and because of that she needed to figure out her relationship with hijab all over again. But, with tens of thousands of people watching, it wasn’t that simple.
MARYAM: And I didn’t want to mention it to everyone. Because at that point, admitting that I was so unhappy with it, meant a failure.
MARYAM: It meant failure. Not just to me and to my friends, but to 50,000 plus, or at that point of time, over 60,000 people. And who I knew were predominantly Muslim.
MARYAM: Who I knew were so many other hijabi girls who looked at me and saw that hope, that love, that affection, that joy. I knew that was going to be ripped. I tried to keep it under wraps and people would all the time though, they’d be like, “How do you find happiness in hijab?” I remember one time someone asked me that in a Q&A I was doing on [Instagram] stories. I just threw my phone and started to scream. Because I was like, I don’t! I don’t love it! Like, I’m not the person for you. And I couldn’t handle it. I was like, This is not me, I can’t do it!
I took multiple days and I was like, I have to make a decision and then I finally did– I can’t continue this. I had to make the decision, Am I going to tell Instagram that I took my hijab off? Like there was a point in time where I was like, Do I lie? Do I take it off in person first? And then, still continue to post on Instagram? But I knew I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t keep up that lie. And so then I was like, I’m going to just post on my story. So, I did. Oh God, was it horrible.
NOOR: I remember when this happened. The moment Maryam’s first selfie where she wasn’t wearing hijab, showed up on my feed, my breath caught because I knew what was about to happen. And scrolling through her comments, I saw one person say–with a bunch of sad face emojis “I am so sad, I have lost my inspiring hijabi icon.” And 12 likes on that comment. I felt my heart sink, because this is just how it was with Dina.
CLIP FROM A DINA TOKIO VIDEO: “I hate women like Dina, they are messed up and they make Islam look bad. She took her hijab off to be in hell with her sister and mom.”
NOOR: So, a year before Maryam did this, Dina Tokio– that original influencer who inspired me, Maryam, Sarah, and her millions of followers to be fashionable hijabis – also stopped wearing hijab. And the fallout from that, was horrifying to watch.
Did you watch that hour long video? And it’s Dina Tokio, it’s called, “The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly.” It’s just Dina reading comments of that people would leave on her page. I think before and after she took off of the hijab, the kinds of things that people would say about her and her husband and her family, the things that they would wish upon her, it is just– it’s vile.
CLIP FROM A DINA TOKIO VIDEO: “Sold her iman to Shaytan for more money, She might as well just get naked and show us your boobs and ass, why not? It’s part of the unveiling, right? Lol, no dignity. I swear. When is the secret lingerie line coming out? Can’t wait to see them on that bod of hers.”
MARYAM: I saw myself a lot in her because I would get continuously similar comments and DMs. It was constant questioning and it’s constant dehumanization. They’re telling you to go kill yourself or that you’re horrible person, or that they hope you get hunted down and raped, dragged through the street, and then stoned.
NOOR: That’s what some of the worst of the comments were like–violent. Most of the other bad ones were insults about her character or expressing disappointment that Maryam strayed from the right path. In the first three days after posting the photo, she lost 2,000 followers. She lost sponsorships and her management dropped her. In a lot of ways, it was a huge blow. But…
MARYAM: I remember going to sleep that night and I didn’t remember having any dreams that night. I didn’t wake up. I slept nine hours. That was the first time I had slept nine hours in three months.
MARYAM: That was the first time. And I was like, Okay. I made the right decision.
NOOR: Do you regret it?
MARYAM: Not at all.
NOOR: So normal people, non-influencers, like Sarah and me watched as our role models made this very personal decision and then got torn apart for it.
After the break, how do we deal when we’re faced with making a similar decision for ourselves.
NOOR: Watching what happened to Dina, and to Maryam, and other influencers who at one point took off hijab– it’s pretty fucking demoralizing. But even before Dina ever took off her scarf, I’d see comments on her videos that were like, How could you show your ankles, that’s not true hijab or You talk too loud in public, that’s immodest.
Any woman who wears hijab learns pretty quickly that the world has a lot of opinions about Muslim womens’ choice to cover.
For Sarah, that realization started when she graduated college and started working somewhere that was very, very white.
SARAH: I just kept having this feeling like… Wow, this is really the first thing that people see about me. That had never struck me before, but then all of a sudden, I think I was just starting to have a lot of interactions where it was just hitting me that like, Oh, people see this before they see anything else.I’d have these like sort of micro aggressive interactions with people. Like I kept getting these questions about like what my parents thought of everything that I did? Like, “Oh, you’re moving to New York? What do your parents think of that?” Like, “Oh, you’re doing this, what do your parents think of that?” And I’m like, You literally wouldn’t be asking me this if I wasn’t a hijabi. It’s so funny. I would just walk around New York being like, I wish I could be more anonymous than I was. I just found myself craving anonymity in a way where I just wanted to blend in. I want to be able to decide at will–who it is that I’m going to be that day.
NOOR: Decide who you’re going to be that day. I know exactly what she means here. For instance, for me– if I smoked and drank, most Muslims would obviously be offended by that. But the truly blasphemous thing for them would be doing that stuff while wearing hijab. And then if I did those things in front of my non-Muslim friends, they would have this voyeuristic, almost satisfied attitude. Like I was carrying around my morals in the bun of my hijab for them to poke and prod at. There’s. No. Winning. Sarah and I found it almost impossible to code switch in our identities as hijabis. Literally, being perceived became exhausting.
SARAH: Yeah. Being perceived, man. It’s too much work!
NOOR: That’s when Sarah decided to stop wearing hijab.
But even then… the idea of removing hijab, and then having to go back to work…. was almost equally exhausting.
NOOR: The last thing I want is for me to walk into work and for someone to be like, Good for you! The idea of that just made me so mad. I was just like, Fuck that! Like, I do not want that! Because then it’s like, What did you think of me this whole time? Do you think I’m more empowered now that I’m taking it off? Am I feeding into some fantasy that you have of how hijabis’ lives are supposed to go?
And I mean, that is a valid fear. I was working in fashion retail when I stopped wearing hijab and my coworkers had the exact horrifying reaction to me that Sarah feared would happen to her.
NOOR: They put their fingers in my hair. Um.
SARAH: Oh nooo.
NOOR: A lot of smiling faces. They were just excited for me. Out of all the reactions that you can get, that’s not the worst one, but also I was like, I don’t even want you to be excited for me. I don’t want you to feel anything.
SARAH: Yeah, exactly!
NOOR: Like you’re too excited.
SARAH: Exactly! Like what does your excitement say?
NOOR: Sarah’s plan was totally different from what I did – showed up to work without warning any of my coworkers and proceeded to have my curls stroked. Sarah tried to manage their reactions. By preparing them.
SARAH: I wrote them an email, and sent it the night before. I sent this on Sunday, November 5, 2017, 3:14 p.m.
“Hi, friends. I just wanted to share that I’m not covering my hair anymore. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long while, for various reasons, spiritual, political, and otherwise. Hijab is something that I still have a great deal of respect for, but doesn’t feel right for me at the moment. For now, I’m kind of taking it day by day. Thanks for always being your kind and supportive selves. SQ.”
Weirdly, that really worked. I went to work and everyone was just like, “Hey, good morning.” That was it! It was such a relief to have that experience. To not experience any sort of like shock or intrusive questions. I felt so seen and understood. That was really nice.
NOOR: What I can’t get over here, is that Sarah felt compelled to do that in the first place. It can really feel like no matter how personal the decision to wear a hijab or not feels like to you– it’s also everyone else’s business. With all the projections and expectations of being a hijabi, it can change how hijab is serving you to begin with.
So one thing that I have started to realize over not wearing it for the few years that I haven’t been wearing it, is that I have those moments where I miss it.
NOOR: I have moments where I really resent the fact that I have to miss it.
SARAH: Ohh yeah.
NOOR: Sometimes I feel like I want to go back to wearing it, which is crazy because I like fought so hard to not.
NOOR: I fought so hard internally, I think.
SARAH: Mm right, yeah. What is it that makes you want to start wearing it again?
NOOR: Sometimes I just like it. There’s also times where I’m feeling more in tune with this part of myself that enjoyed wearing it so much. It just means that I feel connected to it sometimes. That feeling doesn’t go away.
NOOR: Sometimes I do just want to throw on a turban to the grocery store, but then I have to like sit down and have a conversation with my partner, or I feel like I have to have a conversation with my partner and his family, or like my siblings and like, just the people who are going to be witnessing that decision.
Have you ever thought about that option? If you could incorporate hijab into your life again and not be defined by it, not have people identify you by it. If it were as trivial as putting on blue jeans– would you wanna do it?
SARAH: Personally, no. Like I wouldn’t change my decision at all, at least right now. But at the same time, I do have these moments when I’m moving through the world where there are certain things that I miss. For example, it used to be that I used to get on the subway and see another hijabi and we’d like, see each other. We’d lock eyes for half a second and, and just be aware of each other. I would just feel a connection to this person that had nothing to do with me, just because of the small thing that we had in common. I noticed that when I stopped wearing it, I would look at hijabis on the subway and catch myself lowkey staring at them, but it would be because I’d be like, Do you see me? Do you see that like, we’re the same? You know? But then, I’d catch myself being like, You’re literally staring at this girl and probably making her super uncomfortable because this is exactly the thing that she doesn’t want.
I felt a loss in that sense. I felt like, Oh, we used to be able to recognize each other and now you don’t. Now, I don’t get to have that. I think maybe that speaks to a way in which I have, for the time being, decided that I’m outside of a thing. That I am no longer part of the club. I’m not a hijabi. It’s objectively, visually true. But then, there’s also the degree to which I miss the club that I used to be a part of. It shows that I decided that I left at some point.
NOOR: So I am going to the grocery store right now and I’m wearing an outfit that I first wore a few years ago. It’s that outfit with the green turban. I’m so much more self-conscious.
Thanks so much! I appreciate your help, you too.
I got my keys, I have everything.
Okay. So that wasn’t so bad. Honestly, other than old white people staring. I just caught my reflection in the door and I think I look really cute. I feel good. I feel really good!