Long before the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini sparked a nationwide protest and global outrage against the Islamic republic’s strict and mandatory dress code, women across the Middle East have been quietly leading their own rebellions at home: they want the right to take off – or put on – their hijab.
“Taking my hijab off was really a taboo thing, and a big ‘no’ – not only in our family, but in our entire culture… It was like converting from Islam,” a 39-year-old Arab resident of Dubai tells me on condition of anonymity. She put on her hijab aged 14, and removed it aged 32.
She tells me she wants to remain anonymous because, “I don’t want people to think that I am pushing girls to remove their hijab… but it should be a personal choice…,” she says.
The tech executive was pressured by family and society to put on the hijab at an early age. She explains: “We started seeing all the younger girls [in our society and family] putting on their hijab and celebrating it. My parents felt it was a little awkward that the others are wearing it and that my sisters and I weren’t. So, they asked us, ‘Are you going to wear it at any point?’ And it was kind of a tell, that it’s time to wear the hijab and be conservative.
“I had literally no clothes suitable for the hijab, so I just took a hijab from my mom’s closet and put it on with a short-sleeved top,” she says, giggling, “I didn’t know at the time… [that I had to wear it with long sleeves] and I went out,” she adds.
The hijab is meant to be worn with long sleeves that fully cover the arms, as well as trousers that cover the legs all the way to the ankle.
She adds: “I remember that we went to the park that day, and everyone started celebrating, and they were happy that I put it. But I wasn’t really happy with it… It was a part of the culture. So, I thought it was a one-way ticket, that there’s no way I can take it off,” she says.
But it’s been 7 years since she made the choice to remove her hijab. Nevertheless, it wasn’t an easy one.
“What encouraged me is when my sisters got married, their husbands were kind of open minded, and during the honeymoon, they weren’t wearing the hijab, and they continued not wearing it. And their husbands were fine. They said, ‘It’s your choice if you want to keep it or remove it’.
“So I started opening the topic [with my family] that I’m not comfortable [wearing the hijab]… There was a blast at home when I opened the topic. Even my brothers said, ‘No, as long as you are home, we are responsible for you. I said, ‘No, I’m an adult. I was around 32 years old at the time,” she says, “It caused a lot of problems back then”.
But the male figures in her life would turn out to be more supportive than she ever would have thought, she says. To her surprise, “I ended up having an entire troop that supported me,” she says, referring to her brother and father.
“When I first opened the topic with my dad, he was more understanding of the situation. At first he was like, are you sure? It’s part of our religion and tradition… But I told him I’m not comfortable, and I don’t feel I’m respecting the hijab… I’m not putting it for God… I’m putting it for society…
“Surprisingly, he said, ‘It’s up to you’. But I think my mom’s influence was always the bigger one. It was always her influence. My dad was more lenient, saying that I can take his advice or not, and that it was my choice. At first, he was the only one who was understanding. And that gave me the power and courage to remove it,” she tells me.
“One of my brothers, in the beginning, he was rejecting the idea. But then I started introducing him to my group in sports and fitness, who were open minded, non-hijabi, but still conservative… it shifted his mindset and led him to respect my decision, that it’s not the end of the world, that he saw non-hijabi girls who were the most amazing girls.
“That gave him the trust that I’m not taking it off because I want to do something wrong. That’s what people think. So, when he saw that, his mindset shifted that… hijab, it doesn’t define a person. The good inside you is the most important thing. I found support from him, and he told everyone to leave me alone. And also, because my sisters got married and removed their hijab, I had a support and a troop backing me up,” she says, giggling.
Hijab in the GCC
While there are various opposing arguments as to whether the hijab is mandatory according to the Holy Islamic book of Quran, it is society across the Middle East that seems to dictate the rules.
“People who take off their hijab and get criticized by society in something I hate,” says hijabi PR executive Yara Nimer. “It doesn’t encourage people to become hijabis… You’d be shocked and surprised how some people, men and families enforce the hijab on their girls. It’s something very social more than it is religious.
“I was out in Jordan with a group of girls in a family setting, and they all wore head veils. Then I went out with them the next night, and I get in the car, I recognize all the girls, except for one girl, who had her hair out… It made me sad that she felt she had to do this behind her parent’s back. I asked her, why do wear the hijab? She said it’s part of our society that everyone puts the hijab on after they graduate from school,” she says.
“They said Yara, you live in Dubai. Here in Jordan, society is different. They said their parents didn’t force them to wear the hijab, but that it’s part of their society,” Nimer says.
In addition to her day job, the soon-to-be mother of two runs an Instagram account with over 8K followers on Instagram, which she dedicates to ‘redefining the life of a modern day hijabi & inspiring girls along the way,’ her bio reads.
‘The culture of hijab is changing in the GCC’
While the hijab remains compulsory by law in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, which recently relaxed rules around its strict dress code, have become more lenient. Women in the GCC wear a traditional abaya – an open gown worn over clothes – and a loose headscarf known as a sheila, but are not required to wear a hijab which fully covers their hair.
In the UAE, Hend Al Otaiba, the country’s ambassador to France and Monaco, is often pictured in conservative clothing, including a sheila, as opposed to a hijab. The same goes for Kuwait’s Sheikha Intisar Al Sabah of the country’s ruling family, while Saudi’s very own Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Kingdom’s ambassador to the US, is often pictured with her hair peeking out of her sheila.
One Emirati businessman tells me on condition of anonymity that the culture of hijab in the Gulf is changing.
“Even in Saudi society, you see the girls wearing their sheila, but half of their hair is showing. So, the culture of hijab is changing into a more civilised hijab… A lot of women from the Gulf’s royal families are religiously responsible, but they don’t wear the hijab… A Muslim woman enforces her respect to the world, with or without a headscarf,” he says.
“It all starts from the house. It’s not the aunt or the uncle’s right to tell you what to do. I urge fathers to help their daughters, because mothers can get scared, because it’s their responsibility to raise the children, and if anything goes wrong, they don’t want the fathers to blame them,” he adds.
Male support in the fight for women’s rights
Another Arab businessman tells me he prefers to remain anonymous for the purpose of this article, “because you know how the culture is. It can backfire,” he says.
“I don’t want people to come at me and say, ‘Oh, look at him, he’s encouraging girls not to wear the hijab,” he says.
“I know many girls don’t wear hijab who are very conservative… people have different interpretations of religion. Just do you and what’s convenient for you… everyone has their own circumstances. Most of my friends wouldn’t care much about it but there are few who would react…” he says.
He adds that women are more judgemental about hijab, with most of his conservative relatives expressing passive aggressive comments towards his non-hijabi sisters.
“The women are nastier, I would say, at least in our society, from what I have noticed…
One of the challenges we face, especially mothers, is saying, ‘What will people say? You’re going to embarrass us.’ People need to understand that one person’s choice doesn’t have to impact the entire family,” he says.
“I used to argue with my sisters about how they dress… but I decided a few years ago that I’m not going to be the brother who [dictates] to his sisters what they can or cannot do… Someone taking off the hijab might be doing charity and be very pure hearted, and someone hijabi might be very mean… appearances can be deceiving,” he says.
No turning back
PR executive Yara Nimer had a different experience when it came to the male figures in her life.
“My dad was always similar to my mom in encouraging the idea. When I told him I want to be covered, he sat me down… and he said… if you want to put it on, you need to be convinced of it. There’s no turning back,” she says.
“But now looking back, I don’t agree with the whole, ‘there’s no turning back’ thing… Sometimes I tell my husband I don’t feel like wearing my hijab today… And when I look really good at home, he tells me, ‘I’m so happy you wear the hijab, because if you weren’t wearing it, we would have a lot of problems… He said I’m really happy you’re hijabi, because I wouldn’t have been able to be okay with it [if you weren’t],” she says.
Yet she remains convinced in her decision to keep her hijab on. When asked about her views on women who take of their hijab, she says she feels “sad for them”.
“…because they probably had issues expressing themselves,” she says.
“Women today feel they need to look like something specific to express themselves… Why would you take off the hijab? What do you want to do differently if you take it off?” she says.
“Maybe I say I don’t judge, but I do subconsciously judge… I believe people trying to take off their hijab simply don’t want to put it on, because they love life. And I love life. Why would anyone love covering their hair? When you leave the hair salon, how many times do you look at yourself in the mirror? It’s human nature,” adds Nimer.
Contrary to Nimer’s views, the 39-year-old tech executive who spoke to us on condition of anonymity says, “There are lots of girls who wear hijab and they do the worst things. They use it as an excuse to give themselves the green pass, because people think the best of them…
“I knew a lot of girls who were very wild, but wore the hijab. Wearing the hijab doesn’t mean you’re good or bad. Education and ignorance plays a huge role… Islam comes from the word peace. It’s not about hate or violence or anger,” she says.
Nimer, who strongly stands by her decision to put and keep her hijab on, admits that she’s thought about removing it.
“When you go out with your friends and you see them dressed amazingly and they have their beautiful hair out and I look like an old lady… I feel like, I want to look good… I’m very open about this because it’s normal [to feel this way]. No girl will ever love covering her hair.
“It crossed my mind that oh, imagine Yara, if you got the chance to repeat life and not wear the hijab, or leave this country and start a new life. The practical answer would be, I’d do it uncovered. But in my heart, I know I’d be doing the wrong thing,” she says.
“It’s a decision you need to make every single day. There are days you have reasons to believe [in keeping it on] and there are days when you have to find reasons,” Nimer says.
Perhaps the lesson we can all learn from the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini is that the hijab is, indeed, part of our Muslim culture. But having the choice to wear or not wear it is what matters the most.