I started wearing my hijab five years ago, the summer I turned 12. To be honest, there really wasn’t one specific reason why, but I was feeling spiritual, and on the day before Ramadan I decided to start wearing one. I knew that my decision wouldn't necessarily be a lifelong bond, but, to me, it was a significant commitment. Until then, I used to wear it once in a while — when I was at the mosque, or during prayers, or occasionally just because I felt like it. But I knew that this was different: I was going to wear it all the time, in public and at school, and I was mildly conscious of the fact that it was going to become one of my main identifiers.
The hijab is essentially nothing more than a scarf wrapped around the hair. It’s worn mainly by Muslim women, although occasionally non-Muslim women don one for their own personal reasons. Wearing it is absolutely not an indication of the strength of one’s faith or the depth of one’s piety. Often, women who wear one also choose to cover their arms, legs, and other body parts, but to some, the hijab alone is a personal interpretation and indication of modesty. That is what it means to me.
Let me be very clear: I was not forced to wear my headscarf. I did it of my own accord and of my own free will. I went to the bathroom and put it on, then went downstairs and announced to my aunt and uncle, whom my sibling and I were staying with over the summer while my parents were overseas, that this was something I would now be doing. They were both pretty supportive, and my uncle even took a bunch of pictures of me in it. He sent them to my parents, and my mom emailed to say that she was proud of me.
In hindsight, I realize that 12 is a pretty young age to make a choice like that; most kids that age really don’t think much about the consequences of their decisions. At 12, most kids jump into things wholeheartedly, without overthinking, simply because they feel the impulse to do them. At least I did.
A few years later, at 15, my thought process became a little different. The momentum I'd had at 12 had faded, and I'd become a bit reluctant about the hijab. It made me stand out like a sore thumb, and I was hyper-aware of all the wary and circumspect looks I got. These interactions were often subtle: A cashier would be friendly to the customer ahead of me in line but stiffen when my turn came and ignore my cheerful "Good morning!" Other times, things were more overt, like when a man in a baseball cap muttered "Terrorists!" as he passed by my family and me on a busy downtown Chicago street, or when the TSA at the O’Hare and SFO airports kept “randomly” choosing me for extra screening. Getting TSA PreCheck on my boarding pass was a hugely triumphant moment, because it saved me from feeling humiliated and belittled.
My biggest issue was realizing how much others judged me not based on the content of my character, but on their perceptions of hijabs more generally. For example, plenty of people seem taken aback when I say that I’m a feminist or that I support LGBTQ rights. Some friends at school were shocked when I told them it was my own decision to wear the headscarf, having assumed that my parents had forced me to do it. My hijab spoke for me before I even opened my mouth. If people already had a negative perception about headscarves, so, too, would they negatively perceive me.
I am sick of conclusions being drawn about me based on nothing more than a piece of cloth I wear, and how wearing it has made it difficult to present and convey myself in the way I want to. My hijab makes me feel empowered and, in many ways, it is a symbol of my feminism. It not only allows me to identify as unapologetically Muslim, but it enables me to express my desire for others to judge me based on my intelligence and personality as opposed to my looks. Practicing modesty does not mean I am ashamed of my body — I love my body! My hijab allows me to keep the beautiful, wonderful parts of me that I want to keep to myself private — a privilege I also acknowledge that some Muslim women have been stripped of.
Lately, the hijab has become a prevalent symbol of oppression. Too often, the Western media spoon-feeds the masses a prescribed narrative about women who wear the hijab: that we’re submissive and subservient, that we don’t have voices, that we’re powerless, that we’re oppressed. Just recently, in France, armed police officers forced a Muslim woman to take off her burkini in the name of freedom and secularity, which sparked outrage all over the world. It seems that a woman is only free when her concept of freedom corresponds with the way Western values define it. Following that incident, the French Prime Minister said that "the burkini is a symbol of the enslavement of women" — a starkly Islamophobic, misogynist statement. But politicians around the world continue to belittle Muslim women's personal choices, perpetuating a specific narrative about us and politicizing a piece of fabric that we have personally chosen to put on our heads.
Despite this treatment, there is an emerging group of Muslim women who fearlessly wear the hijab, who are making waves even in their own communities. These women are blatantly defying stereotypes, demonstrating that Muslim women who wear the hijab are strong, powerful — a force to be reckoned with. Seeing amazing women such as Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad, singer Yuna, and social activist Linda Sarsour proudly wear their hijabs gives me hope that maybe one day American society will view Muslim women who don these garments not as caricatures but as human beings who are multilayered, complex, and brilliant.
Now, at 17, after careful reevaluation, I, too, have chosen to stick with my hijab. I realized that what should matter the most is the way that wearing it makes me feel, not how it makes anybody else feel about me. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice part of my identity just because there are those who feel uncomfortable with it. At the end of the day, my hijab is just a piece of fabric, but it’s a piece of fabric that serves as a significant, powerful reminder to me to stay strong, inspiring me to constantly work on improving myself. Wearing it is the way I visibly signal to others that I’m Muslim, which I believe is especially important in our current climate of Islamophobia due to hateful, ignorant rhetoric. When you can get assaulted or even killed simply because you look visibly Muslim, donning the hijab is a fearless and courageous act.
I unconditionally acknowledge, accept, and respect that many women feel liberated without the hijab. Ultimately, any woman's decision about whether or not to wear one is totally valid, because it means she is choosing to do what she feels most comfortable doing, and it is up to all of us to respect women's choices. But this is my personal interpretation of my hijab and how it relates to my feminism: I feel liberated and strong while wearing it, and I am unapologetically proud of my decision to do so.
So stop trying to tell my story for me. Listen to me tell it myself.
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