What the hijab means to me

This essay was originally published on Medium and was republished on Brown Girls Only with the permission of the author.

Nardine, serving looks

I started wearing the hijab the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I still remember how in love I was with the idea that I would look the way I felt: different from the crowd.

I often think back about that summer when I made this decision. It was my choice to wear the hijab. I had done my research on why Muslim women wear it to make sure it was the right decision for me.

Hello, Fall. FINALLY.

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I asked Muslim hijabies all my questions, I read blogs by Muslim women who had taken it off, and I reflected a lot. Eventually, it came down to how I felt: I had this constant, deep feeling that I really, really wanted to wear the hijab out in public for the rest of my life.

Sometimes, when I have a really hard day, I have to remind myself of why I wear the hijab. I think this reflection is important not just as a reminder to myself, but so that more people understand why an American girl like me would choose to make this decision. Despite the fact that the hijab has been written about a lot recently, and more Muslim women have been in the media, I still feel like people I meet day-to-day still have questions.

The first thing to remember is that the hijab is not supposed to be about men. (Note: Not everything is about or for or because of men). The hijab does encourage modesty, for sure. It is often meant to prevent your body from being sexually attractive to other people. But for me, it is foremost a reminder of who I really am.

When I say I feel different, I mean that I prioritize certain things in life that don’t fall in line with what’s popular in Western culture. In America, we emphasize sex and beauty and popularity over everything else.

Growing up, I felt pressured to change myself to be like other people. I hated my height because “perfect” girls were supposed to be shorter than boys. I hated my hair because “pretty” girls had straight hair. Everywhere I looked, there was someone labeled “beautiful” and “desirable” and they sure as hell didn’t look like me.

I kept coming home with the same question: will I ever feel like I’m enough?

When I put on the hijab, it was a constant, physical reminder to be unapologetically myself and not to change for others.

If I dare tried to be someone different than me — like showing off my body just to impress a guy or getting wasted to impress my friends — the hijab was that thing that caused a moment of pause for me. It made me say: “Hold up. If it wasn’t for them, is this what I would want to be doing?”

I’m not going to lie about the daily cost of wearing the hijab, though. It is a challenge. There are times when I don’t want to be associated with Islam because of the stereotypes lots of people hold about Muslims. There are times when I want to be invisible — to walk through a crowded restaurant and not be stared at by parents and their children. And there are a lot of moments when guys I like hesitate around me and I think, just for a moment, that life would have been easier if I wasn’t wearing the scarf.

There are a bunch of what if’s in my life because of the hijab, but there are also a lot of moments when I am so freaking grateful for the reminder to be myself and be okay with it. Every day I find a new reason why the hijab has made my life better, and made me stronger.

The hijab is only one of many ways to stay true to who you are.

Some people get tattoos with their favorite quotes, words, or images. Some people wear rings or bracelets that have some type of memory or thought attached to it. Don’t be fooled by the physical aspect of such reminders  —  these things are never about how we look.

It’s about how we feel.

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