Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words

NPR: Lifting the Veil

It’s always so powerful and inspiring for me to hear people tell their own stories in their own words. Included in the multimedia presentation for this NPR story are 12 Muslim women explaining their choice to unveil. So many of the themes of doubt and questioning and negotiating recounted in their stories resonate with me even as I choose to continue wearing hijab.

Kim Joseph, a convert to Islam, remembers that before she even took her shahada, the phrase which one utters to enter into the faith of Islam, the Muslim women around her put a hijab on her head. She wasn’t even Muslim! It seems the priorities were mixed up. And Joseph now says without hijab, she is able to “develop her faith from the inside out rather from the outside in.” I don’t think there needs to be dichotomy between the external and internal parts of faith, yet when the internal meshes with the external, they seem to reinforce each other. Before I converted to Islam, when I was simply delving into learning about the faith, I test drove several mostly unorthodox hijab styles. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to wear hijab were I to convert to Islam.

Sana Javed looked familiar to me, she attended the University of Maryland and was involved with the on-campus Muslim events so I’ve probably have seen her around. She expresses a sentiment that is felt by many, that as long as you look the part of the ideal muslimah, hijab and demeanor, it’s all good but once you challenge those stereotypes, you can expect a wave of negativity directed at you to force back into the orthy box. Hijab inย  that sense, is seen as a “litmus test” for one’s piety. Which brings up the issue of the assumptions and expectations that go along with wearing hijab.

Hijab is a religious, political, and social statement. It means different things to different people but no doubt those many statements, assumptions, and expectations come to the fore. People, both Muslim and non-Muslim often see the hijab before the woman. For some, this is preferable and desirable and for others it becomes a burden, a hindrance, and brings much unwanted attention. And for some of us, hijab is a little bit of both. Samia Naseem mentions how she actually feared for her safety while wearing hijab in this sometimes hostile environment post 9-11. And I think it’s important not to diminish these voices, a garment that is supposed to offer a form of protection does also quite visibly at times put women at risk of physical harm and abuse. Despite her own choice, Naseem doesn’t want her unveiling to be used as support or encouragement for other Muslim women to unveil. The choice, which every woman should be free to make is deeply personal.

For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, wearing hijab is akin to being forced to be a public and visible representative of the Muslim community at all times, which is not a role every woman wants to assume for herself. It’s remarkable how easily many Muslim men can blend in and are even encouraged to blend into society, to not stick out, and live public lives nearly indistinguishable from the non-Muslims around them. For Muslim women, one of the only ways to do that is by choosing not to wear hijab.

Nadia Shoeb expressed that she felt naked the first time she went outside without her hijab as if she had gone shirtless. I think this is something many of us can relate to, either being asked to remove our hijab in public or having a man unexpectedly walk in on us without our hijab. Such an experience can be deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Shoeb also noted something interesting, that the experience of these Muslim women chronicled in the story is “distinctly American.”

America is a religious nation but one where faith is shaped and negotiated by the cultural nuances of the land. Islam in this time is so exciting for me because we see everyday how our faith and its practice, often imported from overseas, is being shaped and melded into something new and uniquely American and it’s hard to predict where this journey will take us as individuals and as an American Muslim community.

Asma Uddin, a lawyer and founder of the blog altmuslimah, says hijab was a hindrance to her spiritual growth. She wore hijab, as many of us do, wanting to please God and out of a fear of doing something displeasing to God. This is one of the most common reasons given for wearing hijab. Yet, hijab, as Uddin notes, has obvious “political and social overtones,” which affect the woman wearing it. She becomes a symbol, sometimes a playmaker and sometimes a pawn in a “political game” that she may not always agree with or even know about.

I’m reading Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America and the author has some very insightful commentary, which I hope to elaborate on in a future post, insha’Allah.

One thing, which strikes me in listening to the various stories of why Muslim women choose to veil or unveil or re-veil is how important faith is to many of them. Many but not all, regardless of veil status, will describe themselves as devout and committed to their faith in Islam even as they question and negotiate and seek to more fully understand their faith. They continue to search for an understanding of Islam that resonates with authenticity for themselves. Just as we wish to move away from the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed because of their dress, I think it’s important to move away from that other oppressive stereotype that those who choose not to veil are less than or weak in faith or impious.

Education is also another common thread running through these stories. As women continue to become more highly educated in whichever field they choose, they will be empowered to question and think critically and challenge interpretations and reasoning, which do not accord with them. And these empowered women with their diverse educational, career, and life pursuits will continue to chart a course for themselves, with or without the veil.


  1. That was a comprehensive and beautifully worded summary you gave of the feature! I’ve been emailing the NPR piece to family and friends who knew me as a hijabi to give them a little taste of what I was going through when I decided to remove the scarf. I identified a little bit with a lot of what these women shared. For me, as not-exactly-a-revert, wearing khimar came to be a really socially isolating experience compounded with my near-invisibility at my school’s MSA…and that’s not how we’re supposed to be. But I could go on, suffice it to say…I enjoyed the piece.

    1. Chinyere, one thing I loved about the NPR piece was that it didn’t sugarcoat some of the realities experienced by women who wear hijab or those who dejab. So often, we only one side of the story from those telling us it is obligatory and all of the supposed benefits or from those who say its oppressive. The reality for many of us may be somewhere in between.

  2. I do not understand how one can claim that they are devout or that Islam is important to them when they are choosing to disobey a very clear commandment of Allah and the Prophet (saw). It is definitely an indication of weak faith. As Allah says in the Quran we have to enter into the Deen completely, we can not pick and choose what we want to practice based on our desires. Eemaan is nothing but action. I do not see the Hijab as a political statement, no body will say that a Nun wearing her scarf is making a political statement, why then the Hijab? Just like the christian Nuns are expressing their devoutness through their clothes so are we as Muslim women. If a sister feels that she is judged negatively and isolated socially, the only option is not to assimilate and choose to compromise your deen. There is a reason why we read Surah Al Kahf every Friday. There is another choice, Hijrah.

    1. Amal, I’ve missed you, hope you and your family are well.

      I believe hijab is very much a political statement. If we look at the history of unveiling in Muslim majority countries, it was often associated with an imitation of the “progress” of European powers. The reveiling is in some ways a rejection of that worldview and also particularly post 9-11, an assertion of our political right to dress as we choose. Religiously, hijab is a visible marker of one’s Islam and yes, it can be a sign of religiosity but is not necessarily so as the irreligious also wear hijab.

      As I wrote on someone’s facebook wall who expressed similar sentiments questioning the faith of those simply because they do not wear hijab: Humility is key for all of us, no? We may have been blessed to be able to carry out one form of public ibadah but how many do we fail to do both in public and private? None of us should feel secure from this, we weren’t born with hijabs on our heads and may not die with them either.

    2. You should not judge other people because you dont know what they are going through. Allah SWT gave us all the important commandments in the Quran. There is no mention about covering head or hair. Allah is Great and it is stated in the Quran that every important thing is said to the people what to do and what not to. Hadith are imortant and can teach us alot but Hadith is like a Bible. You dont know if it is actualy the truth. Quran has everything. I wore hijab for nine years and it became a struggle for me. I took it off for two days and I felt bad. I suddenly remembered why I wore it. I felt much more beautifull and special with hijab on. I understood how much hijab thought me – how to be humble espessiely. I am a convert so I wore reveling very sexy clothes before. when I took of hijab I understood I am not the same person any more. Hijab is my identity my uniform – and I like this. When I am home I can be private and it feels good. And fear of Alah was there too even though the comandment isnt clear. But hijab really makes sense for me. I felt for some time that I am stucked, hijab felt like a big STOP for me to blend in. But it doesnt anymore. Anyway this is MY personal feeling. Other women may feel different. and it doesnt make them worse kind of Muslims. I work from home I leave in Norway that is quite peaceful and I dont fell oppressed here. But some other woman in other places may be opresed abused and draw alot of attention and this is not what Allah wants for us. I think. Allah doesnt like when we judge others no matter what. Allah is the inly one who can judge and accepting this is a part of being humble before Him. So dont judge anyone of you want to be a good Muslim.

    3. Then this means your opinion of me is that i have weak faith , so pray for me ๐Ÿ˜‰ only Allah will judge me and i know he sees my heart and my actions so i am thankful for that , what other human beings see in me will not benefit me , if i cared that much i would have worn the veil believe ot or not, i thank you for your reply.

  3. I was reading some of your early comments about Hijab and I liked the one below.

    Muslim Apple permalink 11 October 2006 06:06:

    Allah subhanahu wa ta ala has not promised us a life with no struggles in this world. I read a survey a long time ago that in America the majority of Muslim women do not observe hijab. Hijab is much more than a head scarf, itโ€™s a way of being.

    Among my companions that wear hijab, it is more beloved to us than any discomfort we may experience from the weather or from the people. And we will fight and struggle against anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim who tries to decide for us that we should not wear it. Our position is simple, if a person doesnโ€™t want to observe hijab no one is going to force them and if a person wants to observe it no one can deny them this right.

    Living here in America, I can tell you from my own experience that hijab has just as many if not more benefits than you seem to perceive the negatives.

  4. Assalamu Alaykum Ify, I missed you too! let me know if you are coming to Ottawa and we can meet up insha Allah.

    Ify I must say I disagree with you that the Hijab is a political statement. Some people may label it that way, but the reason that Allah and his Prophet has given has nothing to do with the politics of the day. The Hijab was ordained by Allah and his Prophet (saw) 1400 years ago. If Muslims become weak in their religion and immitate Europeans or others, it is not because they are making a political statement, it is that they have weakened in their religion. It is possible that some women wear it to make a political statement but this is a total misguidance and the wrong intention of doing the right thing.

  5. Assalamu alaikum, I’m actually working on a post about this, because I had some pretty strong reactions to what some of the women said, and not so much because I think hijab is obligatory. But I seemed to be hearing a lot of “what will people think if I put it on/take it off”, “what will society think of me as a Muslim woman”, etc., and it just reminded me too much of the kinds of things I hear some blind peole say like “I don’t wanna use a cane because I’ll look weird” or whatever. I do believe hijab is for many a political statement, whether you’re removing it to “show progress” or putting it on to “rail against the West”, however, as Amal pointed out, it’s the wrong reason for either doing the right thing, or not doing it. I do believe that hijab is obligatory, however, just like pryaing or fasting, etc., one has to make a personal choice whether or not to do it, and in any case, I do my best not to judge anyone else’s choices. I guess to me when you do something because of what “others may think” or what “society thinks” then IMHO, it’s not a “personal” choice anymore. Because then you’re letting what “others” may think or feel dictate your own choices. And for me, I think that was why I had such a strong reaction. It kinda reminds me of when I was trying to decide whether or not to get a second dog guide, I at first thought of not doing it, because of “what some Muslims would think of me”, and then I stopped myself and asked myself, what do I want to do? Is getting a dog for the purposes of helping me travel indepdently permissible in Islam, and once I found out that it was, then my next thought was “who cares what others think?”

    It’s one thing if a woman does the research and comes to the conclusion that hijab is not obligatory, and then she decides to take it off, however, if she’s either putting it on or taking it off because of outside pressure, i.e., “what will others thing of me”, then IMHO, it’s not solely a “personal choice” anymore.

    1. Hi, I have to disagree with you because praying and fasting are TWO of the pillars of Islam ,while wearing a headscarf isn’t, it’s as if you are saying if one doesn’t wear Hijab he is not Muslim while this is not correct , a modest woman who chooses not to wear the veil is not affected as a Muslim or not the same degree of not praying of fasting on purpose nor it can be compared to a person who is a liar because this act destroys the soul but the head scarf…not even close …I hope you understand

  6. Indeed beautiful post.. Choice of hijab or niqab is from a woman then she knows better to mean what she say while starting Hijab. by force or by taunt when some one begin it they will never value the importance and security provided through niqab/Hijab.

  7. My husband and I moved to egypt with our two children about 3 years ago.

    I look back now at many of my muslim freinds/acquaintances and find it intersting how their views on things that are not topics of contention between fuqaha are now moving under the heading of ‘personal choice’ ‘not obligatory’ or ‘recommended’ etc.
    That’s a little bit how I saw this post.

    Allah knows if I am right or not but this is a personal feeling. I believe the climate in the US is extremely difficult for muslims. As much as we can bash muslim countries for their backwardness, bad manners, bad traffic, bad whatever(and i personally do that from time to time), I can say with absolute 100% surety given my background of being raised in the US , that I think this decision to move overseas to a muslim populated country was perhaps THE best decision of my life after choosing(or rather Allah guiding me) to practice Islam.

    This problem I feel is acutely felt by those of us who are into reading. I know a very practicing very close friend of mine who is a hafiz who used to give duroos and who has a bachelors in islamic studies and a masters in education..not someone dumb..and i can tell and she admitted in so many words how her iman has changed and alhamdulilah that they realized it and they are trying to move overseas to a muslim country. After some talking from what she said i realized it mainly goes back to reading and feeling that PRESSURE.

    Anyway one thing i do want to say that relates to the article directly =) is that when some women felt they couldn’t take the ‘isolation’…I think its kind of complex. One is that sure yur dressing sooo different from everyone..u may experience yur different. But how that feeling then effects you is going to largely depend on your iman and level of knowledge. I remember feeling so empowered because of hijab because it came as a result of knowledge, iman and certainty.

    The problem in my opinion and i see this rampent here in egypt is that ppl do religious outwardly things with emotion, lacking DEEP knowledge and certainty. So when the pressure builds up, they have no internal conviction. That outside pressure breaks them.

    And this is more with other acts outside of hijab as well, not just hijab obviously.

    If someone does not know the actual references, their interpretation, their application, the importance of the sunnah without a shread of doubt..how can they be expected to keep hijab on?

    And let’s be real…islam is not a bunch of actions we do on the outside, pray , fast, give zakah , wear hijab bla bla. If yur not doing MAJOR ibadah, serious effort in improving your relationship with God (and spending all your time figuring out how you can change islam to fit your current lifestyle..i mean yuv got ppl that when they become practicing, the ONLY thing that might change is prayer and a headscarf/ beard…? how far is that gona get u ? either you gota take control of your islam or your outside society who is constantly making dawah to u whether u realize it or not is gona overtake u ) yur not gona get anywhere.

    I CAN BET YOU A MILLION BUCKS not ONE person who has strange unhead of arguments not based on sunnah gets up in the middle of the night before fajr prayer to pray to Allah and does not make adhkar morning and night. These are simple acts but im willing to bet aLOT (i know its haram dont worry im just using the expression..ahtough perhaps i should find one more benefitiing..heh) that these ppl with these arguments are not able to do them.

    Hijab or no hijab…these acts will not be easy for the person who is not God fearing and pious.

    And I think its SO incredibly important to take our islam from a person who does these basic actions as well as being knowledgeable. not one without the other.

    Now how can we find that person to learn from who has both..i got no answers buddy…but i know one being. Allah. if we ask Him, He will guide us.

  8. Its so politically correct in the climate of today to insinuate that a person who doesnt do x or y action in Islam is not pious ENOUGH or has low iman.

    We need to take these very basic notions not from our culture though. Our thought process needs to come from the Quran and how it was applied by the Prophet.

    Its not wisdom to apply current wisdom to divine revelation. We must apply divine revelation to current wisdom to see if it comes up to the mark.

  9. Salaam alaykum N, you should consider blogging seems you’ve written a post.

    I think it’s a normal progression of life that the views one holds do not remain static as we mature and adapt to our ever changing environment. I think we can find pros and cons wherever we choose to live. I’ve heard a number of people who’ve left the US and moved to Muslim countries make the same point you’ve made about it being good for their faith and family and I’ve heard the same argument in reverse from those whose faith deepened here in the U.S.

    I think the argument about reading is flawed. It suggests that ignorance is bliss but Islam counsels us to seek knowledge and there’s the ayah in the Quran about praising the people of knowledge as being the only ones who truly fear Allah. Therefore, the issue seems to be more about one’s own iman and practice than about “reading.” Someone once said that the looking at the world increases the faith of the believer and increases the atheism for the atheist. And I see this in my own experience with reading, whether it be the Quran, a textbook or the newspaper or a novel or a book on Islam, this increases my faith and certainty. But the foundation must be firm and must be rejuvenated with our regular worship and other actions. Without this, one’s faith is a hollow shell, ready to be filled with anything and easily blown this way or that.

    I don’t like to make assumptions about one’s piety or acts of worship. Everyone has stories of those outwardly religious lacking in acts of worship and those inwardly pious who may have reached a much higher level than others. There’s the narration about that among the first to enter the hellfire will be the alim, mujahid, and the generous person.

    1. The prophet sought refuge from knowledge that does not benefit. This is what i was referring to. Gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Reading for the sake of reading. That simply isn’t the goal of a Muslim with a vision for jannah.

  10. It hurts me to say this, but the theoretical logic behind the hijab is less relevant now than the social climate against which women wear/don’t wear it. I say this is relation to the idea that it is a political statement-I don’t believe it’s an intentional one though. When you consider the terrible actions of some “Muslims” and Islam becomes associated with that and veiled women being confronting representatives of Islam, then (dumb) logic means that these girls are, by extension, viewed as violent by virtue of their (obvious) membership to this religion. Of course people’s thoughts and opinions shouldn’t matter, but they do when they pose a danger to a women’s safety, confidence and sense of security. you can’t expect women to don the veil without reservation when the rest of the Muslim world (the men) are not doing their part. Also, as a muslim woman,I find it offensive that the emphasis is on the veil while the far more common indiscretions of men are skimmed over or excused. A girl without the veil isn’t the greatest sin, nor the greates problem facing Islam. I believe people make it a bigger deal than it by conflating their cultural views with religion- hence the issue with our religion is not the religion itself, but the severe crisis of the community. Until that’s corrected no one should blame a Muslim woman for choosing not to veil. Islam recognises and honors women as strong, intellegent, highly sophisticated and capable beings- “Muslims” should too and they should do this by not speaking about the veil as the be all and end all of a woman’s faith, and they
    Need to stop treating women like robots who are “wrong” if they think twice about the personal and emotional impact of wearing the veil in a western society. Isn’t it bad enough that biologically the human race is dependant on us, and we have to deal with more pain, physical change and delicate physiology than males could possibly imagine. I think that alone will inspire great mercy and forgiveness from Allah, we shouldn’t have to thrust ourselves into potential danger for no reason but to satisfy one brief statement about our clothing . Of course we should dress modestly, but hijab isn’t the only way to do that.

    1. Mary,

      Yes, I agree that the decision to wear hijab while being a very personal decision must be looked at in light of the social and historical climate. We do not live our faith in a vacuum. And certainly, our relationship to our faith is more meaningful and complex than our clothing choices.

  11. I have just finished a very long discussion with my cousins who are both veiled, who believe as far as I understood that choosing not to wear a head scarf would lead me straight to hell because I would be disobeying Allah’s commands , while I personally believe that modesty is an order by Allah a head scarf is not compulsory atleast that is what I have reached so far because Islam is much greater than a piece of cloth on my head, i have been stereotyped by many veiled friends as someone who has no knowledge about Islam and gave me that look ” hopefully oneday she will be guided” ๐Ÿ™‚ it broke my heart because i have such a strong bond with Allah and the Quran and i was looked down on by the people i thought would be good company , i’m trying to tell them that there are women who are devout Muslims yet choose not to wear a head scarf ,I really appreciate your post , it gave me hope that there are people willing to see a bigger picture ๐Ÿ™‚ God bless you

  12. Really glad to have found your blog post, as a non-hijab wearer its been really amazing to read and watch this post. In solidarity. S

  13. I know this post has been a while, but seeing this and all the comments gives me a lot of hope, thank you and god bless you all!

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