Halima Aden recently spoke out on her Instagram story about the pressure to conform as a hijabi in fashion, the problematic shoots she’s appeared in due to a lack of hijabi fashion stylists and the difficulties of being “a minority within a minority within a minority” as a hijab-wearing Black Muslim woman. Through a series of Instagram posts, Aden walked us through her hijab journey, reflecting on regretful styling choices that compromised her modesty, and recalling conversations with her “hooyo” (mother), Rukia Ahmed Aden, who she believed had the “purest intentions” for her when she urged her daughter to quit modelling. Rukia advised her daughter to place deen (religion) over dunya (the temporal world), a phrase used by Muslims to remind one another that this life is an examination for ākhira (everlasting life after death).
Aden’s role as a figurehead for Muslim women in the media means so many young girls look up to her. Her recent post sharing stories of childhood bullies, a closely-knit community and a family that brings her back to her culture, will be relatable to so many Muslims growing up in non-Muslim countries. Not only is Aden a role model in the fashion world as the first hijabi to cover Vogue, in sharing such a personal journey and refusing to compromise her image as a modest Muslim woman in the media, she is also representing pride in faith that so many of us share.
I began wearing a hijab “full-time” at the age of 6. Age 11, I was upset by school teachers asking if I understood why I was wearing it - I didn’t, I just knew I wanted to be like my mother. Age 15, I began to resent not being able to show off my hair or dress the way I wanted to (the soft grunge hashtag on Tumblr did a number on me) so I started taking it off in secret. This carried on for 5 years, by which point I had almost completely stopped wearing hijab. It’s only in the last year that I was able to put it back on, this time with full agency and understanding of why I was wearing it.
As what some might call a “part-time hijabi” I know all too well how someone might find themselves in Aden’s position of compromising their religious beliefs to assimilate. We are turned into memes and compared to Hannah Montana for wanting to have the “best of both worlds” as Aden rightly put it. I understand perfectly the pressures of balancing perceptions from people inside and outside of your community as well as an internal religious battle. Stresses such as pleasing my family and partaking in western fashion trends have both factored in my own hijab journey. Questioning what I can and cannot wear with my hijab or what images I can and can’t share online for fear of being mocked for my inconsistency are constant causes for concern. I’m still struggling to wear it full time, but I still want to be like my mother. Like Aden, I know she has my purest intentions at heart.
I was inspired by - and even shed a tear over - Aden’s strong show of faith. I began to wonder, where was my own show of faith? What had become of the girl who sat through 13 years of Islamic studies classes, the child who stayed up transcribing the word of God into phonetic English to commit it to memory more easily, the teenager who protested enforced improper wear of the hijab at her high school and penned impassioned letters to the headteacher quoting from the Quran: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their sexuality, and to display of their adornment only what is apparent and to draw their head coverings over their bosoms” (24:30). This was not a girl who would compromise her hijab, so how did this girl get here? The days my prayers lacked and my sins were stacked, I felt unworthy of my hijab. Mass media reports of increased Islamophobic attacks convinced me a head covering wasn’t worth the risk. And while I don’t miss instinctively pressing up against the wall of a platform for fear of being pushed in front of a train, I sincerely miss hearing “Assalamualaykum” (peace be with you) from strangers who share my deen and wish me well.
When I told my mother I didn’t want to wear my hijab anymore she told me that my hijab was my identity, the distinguishing factor between me and the non-Muslims who pass me in the street. She was wrong. Visibility in the deen isn’t just how a woman dresses. My Islamic identity is present in my speech, my deeds, and my intentions. It’s in my following up all my ambitions with “Inshallah” when I’m designing my dream world with my girls. In taking the time to comfort my mother when I’m in need myself because I know paradise is under her feet. It's in my forgiveness of friends who have done me dirty because I must forgive their wrongdoings if I want Allah to forgive mine.
Yet, Muslim women’s dress is scrutinised as if it were the ultimate reflection of our character. We are judged based on perceptions of our visibility as Muslims and our personas are painted in accordance. We are either pious women or sinful whores. Alas, identity is not so binary.
I hope Halima Aden’s story will help the Muslim community understand that Muslim women are complex beings just like anyone else. Not only is the hijab a disclosure of a Muslim woman’s identity, it is also a visual representation of one’s Imaan (faith). Naturally, our Imaan fluctuates. This isn’t wrong and it certainly doesn’t make us ‘bad’ Muslims, but it is the nature of Imaan to increase and decrease. Like wearing the hijab, spirituality is a lifelong journey we all struggle with. We can increase our Imaan by praying salah, reading Quran and doing good deeds. The ripple effect of Halima Aden sharing her struggle on such a public platform is a good deed on her behalf. Muslim women everywhere will be inspired not to compromise on their Islamic identity or values for the sake of society, but to place deen over dunya. She warned her audience to learn from her mistakes, encouraging them instead to strive for homeownership, education, equal opportunities and their Imaan.
Credit photo: GettyImages
Written by Muna Ahmed