Dear Aliyah, I was watching some of your videos and wanted your help. I have worn hijab for a few years and now I don’t want to wear it anymore. I am afraid to tell my family, I don’t want them to think I want to flirt with men or be disappointed in me. If you have any advice, please let me know,
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I understand that this can be a very confusing and difficult time for you. You seem conflicted about what you want to do and what your family or community will think of you.
The first thing I noticed was that you said that you don’t want anyone to think that you want to flirt with men. I remember when I said I wanted to stop wearing hijab; one of the first things that was said to me was, ‘Aliyah, you just want a boyfriend’. This made me to feel so ashamed and upset. It made me curl up into a little ball that anyone would think I would remove hijab because I wanted men to flirt with me.
In order to move forward I would say that you should come to terms with the fact that this might be said to you or that your family might be disappointed.
You might want to remove your hijab for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with men. It is important to remember that even if you do want to look attractive to men that you like, it doesn’t make you a bad person or shameful. It is very natural. It also implies that a woman who is wearing hijab can’t look beautiful or that men won’t flirt with her. Any woman who has worn hijab knows that it doesn’t stop the looks, flirting, wolf whistles and so forth.
If you strip it all down, hijab is only a piece of cloth and it means so many different things to different people. It is used as a badge of honour for families but your body belongs to you. Your hair is only yours to do whatever you want with it. Whether you want to hide it, or cut it, or dye it bright pink, nobody should tell you what to do with it. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world so people will tell us what they think we should with our lives and bodies.
Try and see the hijab for what it is: a piece of cloth – imagine a red T-shirt.
Nobody would cry if you decided that you didn’t want to not wear a red T-shirt anymore. Every time someone makes you feel guilty about removing hijab, just imagine them speaking about a simple red T-Shirt:
“Your father will be so angry that don’t want to wear the red T-shirt”
“You’re so shameless for not wearing the red T-shirt; I’m ashamed to call you my daughter”
“I totally get that you don’t want to wear the red T-shirt, but what if you go to hell?”
If you break it down, for some people hair is as sexually provocative as breasts and this explains why the reactions to removing hijab can be so emotionally charged. If you are at a place where you want to remove your hijab, you probably do not agree with this. Your family interact with women who don’t wear hijab all the time – their doctors, nurses, teachers and shop keepers — so in some ways they have already shown you that they can interact with you with respect even if you don’t wear it. They just need to come to terms with the idea that you are just as worthy of respect as the other women in their lives who they interact with who do not wear hijab.
Making the decision to show your hair after so many years and knowing that some people will not like it is an incredibly brave decision and you are not alone. So many women of Muslim heritage have been on this journey, come out stronger, and there are so many out there going through this right now. It is a sad reality that this does cause a lot of pain for women when their families and communities don’t respect their decision.
A lot of harsh and demeaning things are said to women who want to remove their hijab as a way to make a woman feel shame so that she keeps wearing it. It is not always the intention of people saying these harsh things to upset you, whether that is your mother or your father, but it does not make it any less painful to hear it.
Some people may never be happy with your choice to remove hijab but the more you stand up for yourself, the more time goes on, the upset and anger will also lessen. Nobody ever mentions hijab to me anymore and I wore it for almost ten years. Time is a great healer and by standing up for yourself, you teach others who you are and how you expect to be treated.
I am not saying it will be easy, but you will come out on the other side a stronger woman who isn’t wearing it anymore. If your family is very strict about hijab, then it may take some time before they can accept it but the first person who has to come to terms with fact that it is your choice to remove hijab is you.
We can get so consumed and scared by what people might say or do, that we can spend a long time taking our time to finally take it off. You can go years going backwards and forwards, not liking wearing hijab and then feeling guilty for wanting to remove it.
You cannot predict what will happen and you might find some people who you thought would take it badly, but who might surprise you. You won’t be the first woman that your family have ever come across who has taken her hijab off. They might act like they have never heard of anyone doing this before or make emotional threats, that they will become ill or that it causes them pain but really they are causing themselves this stress, not you. It is their choice to get so worked up and upset, not yours.
Firstly, if there is any history of violence in your family, towards you or anyone else who has broken religious or cultural rules, I would suggest speaking to someone about it first whether that is a trusted friend, a colleague or a teacher. It is best to not be isolated during this period so reach out to people that you can trust and be honest with.
If you are afraid that you might face violence, I would advise that you hold off removing your hijab until you are somewhere safer. If this is the case, then you are living in a place where you are not safe to be yourself. This may mean trying to save money if you can work, moving out to study or seeking shelter by contacting your local authority or getting into contact with a local women’s organisation.
If you do not think that you will face violence and believe that it is safe to tell your family about your decision then I would plan the conversation as you should for anything in life. Plan what you are going to say and be firm. You could also just wake up one day and walk out without hijab without explaining but this is going to lead to a conversation anyway when you get home. You could do this over messenger or text but again eventually you will end up having a conversation.
Your family may react as though they are victims of your actions but they aren’t. They might genuinely feel like they are victims because of their culture and their understanding of what it means to be a good parent. They might believe they have to make you feel guilty to bring you back to the right way. It is important to understand that they choose how it affects them and if they feel embarrassed.
During the conversation you might be made to feel like you are doing a horrible thing to your family but you are not doing anything wrong. You are not being selfish or abusive. Choosing to not wear a hijab is not an abusive or horrible act. It is your choice what you do with your body.
Tell them how you feel, cry if you need to, tell them you want to be accepted, tell them it is your choice.
Every family responds differently. The first time you tell them, they might not listen. You might be convinced to keep wearing it. You might need to start the process again in a few months.
If you feel upset, speak to someone, don’t keep it all to yourself otherwise you might feel really guilty and ashamed on your own.
Keep going until they get the message and one day you will look back at this time with fondness for how brave you were.
Wishing you the best of luck,
Aliyah Saleem is an ex-Muslim atheist, a secular education campaigner and a co-founder of Faith to Faithless. She attended religious boarding schools for six years in Britain and Pakistan before leaving Islam. View her blog here. Follow her on Twitter.