By the time I reached seventeen, I had had enough. I took off my headscarf. I was fed up with the racism and hated having to represent Islam wherever I went. Whilst arguing in a philosophy class that not all Muslims were homophobic, I realized I didn’t want the burden of representation any more.
Wearing the headscarf that labelled me as Muslim didn’t allow me an opinion of my own; to others, my opinion was Islam. And apparently everyone knew what Islam was. For the two years that I removed my headscarf, I felt a little freer. Free from Islam, free from representation, and free from having to act in certain ways. I felt as if I could finally be who I wanted to be. Or, at least have the freedom to find out who I was separate from Islam. My religion fell away, only coming into play on dark nights when I cried for the Lord to end it all. Those were the times my head hit the prayer mat, in tears and dreaming of death.
I couldn’t be a proper Muslim, and I couldn’t be properly gay. I couldn’t even kill myself properly.
During those nights, I felt that I had failed at everything. I couldn’t be a proper Muslim, and I couldn’t be properly gay. I couldn’t even kill myself properly. University was my attempt at running away from my problems. Unlike other ‘good’ Muslim girls, I had decided to leave Manchester and go to London to study.
My mother and father let me go on one condition: I had to wear a headscarf. For eighteen years, my parents had never once asked me to wear it, but now that I was leaving home, it was their only stipulation. ‘It’s not that we don’t trust you, we don’t trust other people,’ my father said. My mother just nodded. ‘The hijab will protect you,’ he said, and my mother packed me some head scarves.
So off I went to university, wearing a headscarf. I instantly regretted it. Navigating freshers’ week and living in student accommodation as a hijabi was incredibly difficult. Part of me wanted to go out and ‘find myself’, and the other part knew my hijab had its limitations.
The moment I arrived, I was faced with people making assumptions about what I believed and how I would behave, and of course, my mother’s ‘good Muslim’ rules continued to echo in my mind. While all my new friends were going out, giving themselves alcohol poisoning, and having the night of their lives with someone whose name they’d forget the next day, I stayed in my room, being that ‘good Muslim’, hoping to find solace in online gay forums.
For most people, the queer scene (and by that, I mean the clubbing scene, because until recently a sober queer scene wasn’t a thing) was accepting and open. But for a kinda Muslim, fat, South Asian hijabi, it just wasn’t.
For most people, the queer scene was accepting and open. But for a kinda Muslim, fat, South Asian hijabi, it just wasn’t.
My hijab covered my sexuality. I found myself being ignored in queer spaces, having to be overtly queer to be noticed – dropping hints in conversation and wearing anything rainbow coloured because otherwise people assumed I was in the wrong room. I was constantly told I didn’t look queer enough and that I couldn’t possibly be queer. I stopped wearing heels and dresses and started wearing military boots and leather jackets, a dress codeI thought would allow me to be accepted. The only thing was, my skin colour and religion didn’t allow forthat. I didn’t fit the stereotypes of what a queer woman looked like. I had to drop my use of alhamdullilah and mashallah and inshallah from my speech, exchanging those words for partial lies, introducing myself as ‘culturally Muslim’. I was playing into the narrative that I was an oppressed Muslim girl who just wanted to come out and leave her religion behind.
Slowly, things began to change. Through gay forums I came across a group of women I liked and we started going out for drinks. I wore my military boots and a leather jacket, but this time no headscarf. I went by Ash. Not Afshan. I became someone else when I was with them. And for some time, I enjoyed that person.
But by the morning, my headscarf would be back on and I’d be Afshan again, just in time for my lectures. My depression returned (in hindsight it hadn’t really left) and I turned to anything to help medicate. My daytime hijabi and nighttime ‘Ash’ nametag, along with sleeping pills, alcohol and whatever antidepressant the NHS had me on, helped me get through the first two years of university.
I’ve had to justify my own existence to myself for too long. I’m not doing it any more.
After two years I made the decision to fully remove my headscarf. I told my parents. I didn’t ask them. I spouted something about racism and racist attacks in London, which wasn’t a complete lie. But I made it out to be worse than it was. I convinced them that removing my hijab had nothing to do with identity and everything to do with safety and survival. I spent my final year at university as a non- hijabi. At least now I could be ‘properly’ queer – whatever that meant.
I graduated, just, and got a job almost straight away. Late nights were exchanged for early mornings and I found myself back where I started: in Manchester, living with my parents. When I returned home, my head scarves were still packed in suitcases, alongside expensive books that I would never touch again.
And now, as I prepare to move out of my parents’ home, I have dragged those same suitcases out from under my bed, and the scarves lie melting over boxes around me. I see my transition with the different scarves and styles of hijabs I have worn running parallel to my personal journey. I went from wearing a white scarf with my neck showing, to nothing, to a black scarf with my neck hidden, to a longer thicker black scarf held with many pins, to nothing, to multi- coloured scarves and flower bobbles to give me volume, to nothing. Scarves with holes in from where safety pins have pulled the threads beside dupattas with necklaces attached. Scarves and materials of different lengths and colours and weights surround me.
Hijab has served me well. At times, it has covered my scars, allowing me to wear long- sleeved tops without anyone questioning what was hidden underneath. Other times, it has served to cover my earphones while I avoided listening to teachers drone on in class.
Some times, very rarely, it has kept my head warm during cold winters.
What they saw was a hijab binary that didn’t allow for complex, contradictory people to exist.
My hijab gave me a way to act, a code of conduct: smile courteously at strangers, open doors for people, help the elderly carry their shopping, and politely decline drugs/alcohol/male interaction as they are ‘not allowed in Islam’. My hijab was my armour, something for me to fiddle with when people asked me uncomfortable questions.
It would allow me to look down and cover the acne growing on my forehead when someone attractive walked by. At times when I was tired or frustrated, I would untie and retie my hijab. Now, I do so with my hair. It’s not the same.
The periods of wearing hijab and not wearing hijab didn’t exist in isolation. I didn’t just wake up one day and become a non- hijabi. There were transition phases. I tried my best not to confuse people, but the sighs of disapproval I received upon removing my headscarf got stronger each time I took it off. At each stage, people who had no business judging my choices had something to say. Wearing it means telling people you are religious and not wearing it means you are not religious any more, they’d say. What they saw was a hijab binary that didn’t allow for complex, contradictory people to exist. I was a walking contradiction: a queer Muslim.
I say ‘was’ rather than ‘am’ because I no longer see Islam and queerness as oppositions. Islam is peaceful and I have to constantly remind myself that just because people don’t accept me, doesn’t mean that Islam or Allah won’t. I’m not going to supply you with quotes from the Quran or the hadith to justify my own existence. You can google those yourself. I’ve had to justify my own existence to myself for too long. I’m not doing it any more.
I'm done engaging in conversation with people who don't understand that human beings are complex.
Reclaiming Islam as a queer woman has been hard. Islamist terror attacks across the globe mean people shrink when they see brown skin. Attacks in queer spaces and against women mean people wonder what reason I have to wear a hijab now. Why, after all these years of Islamophobic attacks, assaults and racism would I own a religion and culture that seemingly hates who I am? Making my faith mine has been a journey and a half, and I’m still not there yet. All I know is that if I don’t own it, then I’m broadcasting a message of fear.
I’ve lived in fear most of my life: fear when I see a group of white boys throwing fireworks into the middle of the street and wondering if the next one will be aimed at my face, fear of coming home to my mum after a brilliant performance at a queer festival and wondering if she will shout at me, fear of going to hell after waking up from a failed suicide attempt, and fear of not being good enough.
I’m done being scared. If I don’t take ownership of my body, my religion, my headscarf and my sexuality, then I’m telling the bigots they have won. I’m done giving power to racists and White Feminists who want to dictate how Muslim women should dress. I'm done engaging in conversation with people who don't understand that human beings are complex. That I can be queer and Muslim. That I can exist.
This is an edited extract from the It's Not About the Burqa anthology, edited by Mariam Khan (Picador) available now.