My name is Afreen and this is my story…
I started wearing Hijab at the age of 9, and just like other children I didn’t completely understand why I needed to wear it. I remember my mum and elder sister wearing the Hijab, and I remember my family telling me the basics, but I was still confused, in fact I had so many questions that the best option I had was to resort to reading more Islamic content, and that is when I understood the purpose and responsibilities that come with Hijab. I realised just how beautiful it is to wear something that symbolises such a great religion; and till today I remember reading something online many years later that stated:
“The Hijab you wear today, is not just a cloth on your head, it is the same Hijab that was worn by the Daughter of the Prophet of Islam, so cherish it, do not feel burdened by it.”
After reading that, something just made feel so empowered, and there were genuinely no words to describe how honoured I felt to be a young Muslim living in a non-Muslim country – yet here I am wearing something that is universally recognised as being one of the main symbols of Islam.
“Say to the believing women that: they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste)…” – (Surah 24:30)
As I grew up, I started recognising how I was being treated in many different ways. Some people would compliment my hijab, others would look annoyed, some would be so intrigued that they would ask me multiple questions in a space of a minute (including the typical questions: “Do you shower and sleep with that on…?”) and others would bluntly tell me its “oppressive” – and this is something that made me feel rather perplexed, because when I would ask “how is it oppressive?” I would always be met with the same response: “You’re being forced to wear something that you don’t want to wear”, and although at times it was frustrating to explain the same thing multiple times, I always highlighted that Hijab was not oppressive, but rather a requirement ordained in our Holy Quran to protect us, not harm us. I also found it rather ironic that this society that prides itself on “freedom” – takes the freedom away from those who wish to do things differently. It often felt as if Muslim women were being oppressed by the very people who claim that the Hijab and the religion of Islam as a whole is oppressive. It made me realise that there is no such thing as freedom in the West, well, not for everyone anyway. There are some on the right side of the spectrum that spew hate and feel validated because of “freedom” – and others have their freedom snatched away from them and are left to feel demonised just because they hold a different opinion, or live differently.
Friday 8th July 2005
I remember one morning my mum was speaking to her friend as we were walking to school and highlighted she was being looked at constantly by those around her, and I recall her friend mentioning “it’s going to be tough” – but I didn’t actually realise what that even meant, until I got into school and was informed of an “emergency assembly in the hall”. We sat down in our rows, and were told to be completely silent. The teacher turned on the projector, turned on BBC News, and there we watched footage of the bombing, followed by images appearing on the screen of the terrorists – and that’s when I understood what my mum and her friend meant this morning. It was the day after the 7/7 bombings. The day before was one of the darkest days for Londoners, terrorists had detonated bombs across the city, killing over 50 and injuring hundreds. But you see, Muslims would categorically now be the “bad guys” and somehow we would all be blamed for what happened. I remember looking around at the teachers, and then one teacher raised her voice and said “THIS happened in YOUR city yesterday!” – and now that I think back at this, I think this was probably the most condescending thing a teacher could say to a bunch of kids who were confused, upset, and shocked. Instilling fear is definitely not the best thing to do in these situations…
This same teacher looked me in the eye later and tutted, and never had I felt so victimised. It made me question, is it because I looked like a typical Muslim that made her treat me differently? or was it the colour of my skin? Either way, I acknowledged how hard it would be for many Muslims out there, for we would all be tarred with the same brush. I saw the headlines with the bold capital letters, I saw how Asian parents were being stared at by white parents in the school playground, I heard the racial slurs that were being relentlessly thrown, and lastly I saw the tears in the eyes of others. It was after this day I realised just how important it was to show the true image of Islam. I was frightened, but i was also motivated. And till today, I remain motivated and inspired by the personalities we are blessed to know and learn from. I remain motivated because I know that the Islam I follow does not advocate for violence and the murder of innocent people. I remain motivated because the family that raised me taught me to use the power of my tongue and the power of my pen when I need to defend myself.
Today, I can proudly call myself a political activist and the Hijab I wear on my head only empowers me further, purely because Hijab is not just a physical aspect, it is much much more. When I speak out against oppression as a Muslim woman, I signify to the world that those who have appropriated my religion do not represent me; and despite the fact secular governments are persistently trying to abolish the rights for Muslims and minorities – we will continue to resist.
Embrace the struggle…
The eloquence of Lady Fatima (s) and the valour of Lady Zainab (s) is enough for me to remember that there is beauty in the struggle. Living in the West Muslims are faced with many adversities, this isn’t to say that our struggles outweigh the difficulties faced by those in the East, not at all, but the struggle does exist. Muslim men and women are constantly attacked and abused – verbally and physically, but that does not mean we should hide from our problems, rather it is an opportunity to rise up and continue being the ambassadors of such a magnificent religion. Whilst right-wing extremists continue to attack Muslims we shouldn’t feel afraid, sisters shouldn’t feel the need to remove their Hijab, brothers shouldn’t feel the need to shave off their beards – because the enemy wants us to be scared. It is vital we support one another, and trust in God – for no individual, group, or political party is greater than our creator. Wear your Hijab with pride, and rely on God when you are faced with trials and tribulations. Lady Zainab and Lady Fatima (s) are two individuals who I remember when I am faced with a trial, and with the Islamophobic attacks on the rise, I cant help but think of the struggles faced by the family of the Prophet – making me realise that we have the power to endure the struggles; and in the end, as it says in the Quran: “Verily with hardship comes ease.” (94:5)
So to conclude, this is a message to my fellow Muslims brothers and sisters, never feel pressured to compromise what you believe in. Hold your head up high and be a proud ambassador of Islam, and raise your children to do the same.
By Afreen Rizvi