Any Arab Muslim girl will be familiar with the old, “Shou hay olou elnass?”, meaning, “What will the people say?”. I grew up being presented with this question time and time again. Until I decided I was not going to allow myself to be defined by community expectations and I took off my hijab at the age of 30.
I remember being berated, when I was as young as eight or nine years old, for the way I was dressed. Rocking up to Ghido’s house on Eid in a black singlet with a see-through jacket on top and being told that I should never wear these items of clothing again by my conservative uncle Haitham*. He was the eldest of my father’s 10 siblings and unlike my sisters and I; his daughters all wore the hijab from a young age. My dad wanted us to choose when to wear the hijab.
Another time, I recall Ghido coming to visit my home in Bankstown and when he saw me wearing a purple three-quarter-length cardigan with a black singlet underneath he yanked my jacket as a way to admonish me for the way I was dressed. Not too long after, I jigged school with my friend, Samah. We caught the train from Bankstown to Lakemba station where we walked to a few modest clothing stores and picked up a couple of hijabs, caps and pins. Samah helped me wear hijab for the first time. She was already wearing it at the time and I looked up to her because she had chosen to wear the hijab even before her mother and in spite of her parents initially being against the idea. We picked a navy-blue hijab to match my uniform at Bankstown Girls’ High School. The act of jigging taught me how to wear hijab. It was my way of taking ownership for my decision to veil rather than being told by older relatives how to dress modestly.
I am the youngest girl in my family but I was the first after my mother to wear the hijab.
I am the youngest girl in my family but I was the first after my mother to wear the hijab. I was 16 years old. My older sisters, Najah and Sarah wore the hijab several years after me, when they felt ready. My oldest sister Najah struggled with the idea of wearing hijab and it her a long time to decide as she was the kind of girl who would get her hair done every week and was the most stylish one of all us. I had practised wearing the hijab on and off for a few weeks before Samah and I finally decided to take the initiative for me to wear it, much to Mamma and Babba’s surprise. They did not expect me to wear it first as I played soccer, loved dancing and was not an overly religious girl.
For most of the 14 years while I wore the hijab, I was proud to be visibly Muslim.
For most of the 14 years while I wore the hijab, I was proud to be visibly Muslim. But I began to have doubts about why I was wearing it for about two years before I made the decision to remove my hijab in April 2018. My reservations centred on my actual intention behind my wearing it. I could no longer identify a strong reason in my heart beyond family and community expectations. By 2018, I was seeking a more meaningful and genuine relationship with God and myself. I wanted to be free from any of my perceived cultural and religious shackles to find out who I really was, without the pressure of having to represent an entire community at all times. I was also sick of being treated differently. Catching the train to work and university and being constantly quizzed about the Qur’an became exhausting.
Despite my choice to dejab, meaning to remove my hijab permanently for the foreseeable future, I am a strong proponent of upholding the rights of women, especially Muslim women, to dress how they please. I respect women who wear hijab in Australia irrespective of the daily challenges and discrimination they face. For me, taking off the hijab was an affront to the rhetorical question I was asked as a girl, “Shou hay olou elnass?” It was a decision coming from a place of exploring my relationship with God in my own way. It is a spiritual relationship I love but one I am still trying to work out. Dejabbing also taught me about the importance of family love and support in difficult decisions. It took me six months to tell my older brother, Mahamad about taking off the hijab because I was afraid of what he would say. I remember feeling nervous about telling him. I was shaky and my heart was beating rapidly when I asked to speak to him privately. As soon as I told him, I felt relieved, my breathing slowed down and I felt lighter because of his response. He did not judge me or accuse me of being lost. Nor did he shame me. He asked me why I took it off and he listened to my response. He then hugged me and told me we are all facing our individual struggles and assured me that things will get easier as long as I put God first.
Rayann Bekdache is a second-generation Australian Muslim woman of Lebanese heritage from Bankstown. She is a former journalist and sub-editor and is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
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