“Hijab Is Liberating” Or Maybe Not?

Assalamu alaikum, I’d been all fresh outta writing/blogging ideas until I heard the NPR story, which Ify Okoye also blogs about, regarding women and (why they don’t wear/took off their) hijab while riding in the car on the way to work a few weeks ago. And I had an (admittedly) negative reaction to some of the women’s comments. Reflecting on that, perhaps I was a bit too judgmental, however, I’ve often said that being blind, and thus learning to be a blind person navigating in a sighted world, really did do a lot to prepare me for becoming a Muslim and thus living and working in a (usually) non-Muslim environment.

So hearing women say things like “when I put on hijab I’m representing all Muslims) (not really the exact words but that’s the gist/message I got), or hearing women talk about “what others may think” etc., just got my hackles up. Because all I could think was “hey that’s just like the blind person who refuses to use a cane because they’re afraid to “look blind”, or the school of thought among some blind people that “when we go out there into the world, we are representing all blind people so we have to “act right””, which means, you can’t be in a bad mood, you always have to be polite, you have to “educate” people because if you act rude toward someone, etc., then they might be left with a bad impression of all blind people.

The thing is for me, I really don’t care what anyone thinks of me. I’m blind, and unless Allah allows for something different, I’ll be blind for the rest of my life. I use a cane or a dog because that’s how I choose to get around, if I “look blind”, i.e., weird, “retarded” (sorry for that word), or I otherwise stand out like a sore thumb and make sighted people uncomfortable, I really could care less. Because they’re not going to be the ones falling down the stairs because I was too ashamed to use a cane or harness up my dog guide to go out. I actually have known blind people who would refuse to use any kind of mobility aid, even those with little or no sight, because either their sighted family members didn’t want them to “look weird” or “look blind”, or they themselves didn’t want to “look wierd” or “look blind”, etc., and I knew one guy who actually twisted his knee and injured it quite badly because of this kinda thinking/mindset.

And not that lack of hijab is going to cause bodily injury in the same way as not using a cane, etc., might, however, I have never reacted well to the “what will others think of me” line. If women choose to wear hijab or not, it is a very personal choice, however, hearing someone say things like “they’ll think something different about me if I take it on/take it off”, to me doesn’t sound like a “personal” choice at all, because you’re IMHO not doing it because of what you feel is best for yourself, but you’re doing it because of what “others” may say/think.

Same with this whole thing if “I don’t wanna wear hijab because then I’m (to others) representing Islam and Muslims and I don’t wanna be put in that position”. I actually can relate to this, and I realize that if I wear hijab then for many, I’m projecting a “certain” image or stereotype, same as when I say walk with a cane, or use a dog guide, or wear dark glasses. However, again, what bothers me is the seeming reason for taking off hijab, again, it seems to be going back to what you think others think of you, and not what you necessarily may want for yourself.

And again, I heard the “hijab is stifling”, “I can’t do x, y, and z with hijab”, and all I could think of was how “liberating” hijab was for me. And admittedly, it wasn’t because of anything of a religious nature. Hijab is liberating because I don’t have to worry about fixing my hair in the morning, I usually just shower, either braid my hair or put it in a ponytail, put on my scarf and other clothes, and go. And for me, I actually feel that I don’t have to care what others think of my hair or body, because they don’t have to look at it. Which further feeds into/recalls the stuff I heard growing up, that you have to fix your hair a certain way, or dress a certain way “so the boys would like you” or so “you would look like a “normal” (read sighted) person”. God forbid that all you wanted to do was brush your hair back neatly, or braid it or put it into a ponytail, no, you just weren’t a “normal” teenage girl if you didn’t spend hours on your hair, clothes and make-up in the morning. Or a “normal” adult woman for that matter. So for me, hijab was liberating, because then I didn’t have to worry about trying to be “normal” i.e. “look sighted” anymore.

So I guess you could say that admittedly I’m a bit biased on this issue, and I don’t want to knock other women’s choices of dress, however, whether or not you’re going to choose to wear hijab, I’d just hope that it’d not have anything to do with what others/society may think of you. Even though I know that’s easier said than done.

As far as whether or not I’d ever take the hijab off, I’d probably say no though Allah alone knows best. Because I do believe that it’s obligatory, and as one of the women in the story suggested, it’d kinda feel like I was going out the door without my shirt on, though admittedly, at night when I know that no one else is out, and thus no one else can see me, I’ve been known to run out the door without it if I’m just running Chloe out to park for the night.

I’m just saying I think what bothered me most about some of the women’s sentiments was not so much that they were taking off the hijab, but it was some of the reasons behind it, which to me didn’t seem to be made out of “personal” conviction at all, but made because of how they thought others would see them or how they thought others would think of them. And I just didn’t react well to that reasoning.

I do agree, though, that hijab is an extremely personal choice, and I’d not judg women either way whether or not they wore it or they didn’t. Because you can wear hijab or not and it’d not make a difference in what kind of person you are. Or in other words, hijab isn’t necessarily a reflection of one’s character or piety or whatever.

The thing is, I don’t react well to the “what will others think of me”/”I’m representing (insert group of people here)” stuff very well. Because firstly, who cares what others think and secondly, I represent no one else but myself. And this sorta/kinda falls in line with my lately evolving view that I shouldn’t be making things my problem that are not. Which would include what people think of a hijabi blind Muslim who uses a dog guide. As well as my view that I’ve held for a long time that I’m not here to educate you, or make you feel better, or teach you anything about blind people and Muslims. Because most of the time, when people come up and ask questions about Muslims or being blind, etc., they’ve usually already got their minds made up anyway, and no matter how you might try to tackle their stereotypes of you or any preconceived notions they may have of you, the best, for most in my experience anyway, that you can do is end up being an anomaly, i.e., “not like the rest of them”. And really, I’ve just kinda given up trying. But let me try to give an example of what I’m talking about.

I’ve been a Muslim for over ten years now, Alhamdulillah. And my family, as far as I know, doesn’t think I’m some kinda “jihadi terrorist who wants to kill all non-Muslims”, however, they may not necessarily see all Muslims as a whole in that light, i.e., they may consider me to be an exception to what they consider to be the general rule of the “majority of Muslims”.

And the same goes for blind people. I may be able to work full time, live independently, get around by myself, etc., but in my experience for many sighted people I’m just the exception to what they believe is the general rule of the helpless, incapable blind person.

Thus, it seems that in my experience, any “educating” you might think you’re doing is usually for nought, thus, I’m not going to get up every day with the thought that it’s some how my job to “educate” people on blindness, Islam, hijab, or anything else. I’m not saying I don’t mind answering people’s questions, I’m not saying that I get to be rude to people and otherwise act obnoxious just because I can. But at the same time, I’m not going to purposefully carry the burden of having to “educate” people or “represent” a group of people that I might happen to belong to. What I’m saying is that I’m not a walking PSA for Islam, Muslims, blindness, blind/visually impaired people, etc. I’m just not.

If my just going out and living my life and meeting people has overcome some barriers and shattered people’s stereotypes and misconceptions, then Alhamdulillah, that can be nothing but a good thing. I’m just saying that it is not my specific job, as a blind Muslim woman, to walk out of the door as some kinda “ambassador” for Islam, or “the blind” or whatever. Because sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I don’t feel well, sometimes I may be busy or have things to do, and many times, all of the “educating” and “representing” doesn’t do a darn bit of good as it seems that in many cases, I’ve not made any further ground with the person I’m trying to “educate” then when I started. They’ll still walk away thinking I’m just a poor incapable blind person, or a poor oppressed Muslim woman, no matter what I do. Or even if they don’t think I, myself am that poor incapable blind person or the poor oppressed Muslim woman, they’ll still think the majority of blind people or Muslim women fall into that category even if I, myself, may not. And thus, any choices I make or things I do are Inshallah for the good of myself and those around me, and not because I had to “educate” anyone or “represent” anyone or give in to “what others think of me”.

I can totally respect, say, a woman who’s done the research or otherwise come to a decision that hijab is not obligatory and thus not for her. Even though I don’t agree that hijab is not obligatory. However, it bothers me when people say that they’ve decided to take hijab off because of how they might look to someone, or what kind of a person they feel that they might be representing. Because it just goes against my feeling that we shouldn’t have to “represent” anything or anyone but ourselves, and I just think that if women use those sorts of things as a reason to take off the hijab, then it no longer is a “personal decision” anymore but instead becomes about what “others” or “society” or whoever thinks of them.

About Ginny

A blind Muslim woman currently living in Florida, just trying to make sense of the world around me! !
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7 Responses to “Hijab Is Liberating” Or Maybe Not?

  1. Pam says:

    I think it’s equally the problem when women put on the hijab because of what other (Muslims) think. I think this happens a lot more than we want to admit (people like to think they are doing it because it’s obligatory, but they are doing it because OTHERS tell them it is, not that they have made that revelation themselves).

    • Ginny says:

      Assalamu alaikum, Pam, I actually thought about this, too, and actually thought about mentioning it. However, my reaction to the story was not that the women had taken off hijab, or put it back on, or whatever, it was the reasoning that I heard. And I don’t think I’d like it anymore if people put hijab on “because of what the Muslim community would think” and not because it was something that they wanted to do. My feelings on this sotry along with “representing” and “educating” as I also alluded to in my post, are really quite complex, and I don’t think I adequately captured my range of feelings. Though I’ll address that Inshallah once I reply to Ify’s comment *smile*.

  2. Ify Okoye says:

    Ginny, thanks for the shout-out. About representing, whether or not we accept the responsibility or burden of being a representative of our faith or our race or our ideology or anything else, it still colors the perceptions others have of us and those they associate with us.

    Growing simply by virtue of being black, the daughter of Nigerian parents, I was and still am expected to be able to answer questions and demonstrate or be lacking in certain proficiencies or proclivities. I have been informed on many occasions that people intend to use me as a yardstick to measure or evaluate others. It comes with being a minority and also simply because it’s much easier to be intellectually lazy then to expend the effort to not stereotype and label using incomplete or insufficient information.

    And while it’s very attractive to me to be able to say, “I don’t care or modify my behavior based on what others think,” it’s not entirely true for me. Even the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) refused to have the hypocrites killed because he didn’t want people to say that Muhammad killed his companions and thus harm his dawah.

    • Ginny says:

      Assalamu alaikum, Ify, you know, I really don’t disagree with you. A former schoolmate and I, who went to the same school for the blind, we talk all the time about these sorts of things. And I realize that no matter how much I may not like it, and no matter how much I may not choose to carry this “burden” for myself, I know that when I’m out in the world, I’m “representing” something, whether it’s blind people or Muslims or women, or whatever, and I know that I’m used as a yard stick. But I don’t like it. As I said in responding to Pam’s comment, my feelings were I think more complex than I was able to communicate in the post above and I really wrestled with this. Because I wasn’t really reacting so much to these women’s stories at all, but reacting I think to my own experiences and feelings I guess you could say.

      I guess my feeling is that I know that I’m a yard stick, and all of that, but I’m also saying that I’m not responsible for people’s ignorance either. I’m not sure if this helps in more adequately conveying my feelings or not.

      I also want to say that I really don’t mind answering questions from the public, it happens almost on a daily basis with my Leader Dog, even more than questions I get on being a Muslim, etc. And I really don’t mind that. It’s the, I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s the insistance that because I’m blind I must be really good at music (even though I tried to explain to the lady who said this to me that I’m not), it’s the insistance that women are really oppressed in Islam, i.e., that Islam oppresses them, even though I’ve tried to explain that this is not necessarily the case. It’s the insistance on still remaining ignorant even after you’ve tried to “educate” and “represent” that I’d say I react negatively to.

      And I’m just saying that I can only do the best that I can, but after that I’m not responsible for people who still want to remain willfully ignorant.

  3. Jamilah says:

    Thank you for writing this from your own unique perspective. I really enjoyed this post. And I can totally relate when you say it’s so much easier to put your hair into a ponytail. That’s how I’ve worn it most of my life.

    • Ginny says:

      Assalamu alaikum, Jamilah, it wasn’t just that, it was the clothes, I really didn’t care about that either and I still don’t. As long as I look presentable, I don’t care if I’m not wearing the latest fashions or the latest designer stuff. It just never bothered me.

      But I hated when I was growing up, being made to feel that I was strange or weird because I didn’t want to spend hours on my hair or clothes, that I’d rather sleep in lol, or spend the time doing something else, and if I did decide to fix my hair, I wanted to do it, and I did do it, when I wanted to, and not because/when someone else wanted me to do it.

      It reminds me of a time when I was sitting in the college cafeteria talking to someone and I mentioned that I must look odd sitting in a T-shirt and cut-off shorts and my hair in a ponytail (I wasn’t a Muslim then), because that’s the message I got that if I went out like that, and didn’t spend time on my appearance, that I was somehow strnage, and the girl sitting next to me replied “half the girls in here look just like you”, and then I started to think, hey, maybe I’m not so weird after all.

      It’s the same with eating, I was made to feel sometimes that I had to eat in a really proper way, that I couldn’t make a mess or anything, because then “they’d i.e., sighted people would think that blind people didn’t know how to eat properly”, and it was only when someone again at college, told me once that compared to many sighted people, my table manners were exemplary, that I realized that perhaps I’d either been given, or had gotten, the wrong message somewhere.

      Basicly I had this idea in my head that sighted people somehow ate/dressed impeccably and if I did anything less than that, then sighted people would think badly of me.

      But then again, this goes along with the message I got that I had to be “better than” in everything I did, “good enough” or mediocre wasn’t good enough. I had to be twice as good as a sighted person to even have any hope of being considered “just as good as”. And I have to say that sometimes I find myself feeling better and resentful of all of this.

      And I tend to be a high achiever and hard on myself anyway, all of this “you gotta be better than” stuff just makes it worse.

      I just feel like if sighted people get to eat like slobs and look like slobs than I at least should be given a free pass if I drip catsup on my shirt or something and have it not be because “the poor blind person just didn’t know any better” as opposed to, well, I just plain dripped catsup on my shirt.

      It reminds me of the other day, my husband was eating in the car and made a huge mess, and I remember almost being happy about it lol, though that doesn’t quite explain my feelings about it, I remember thinking I was glad it wasn’t me, and that if it was me, it would just kinda be “expected” because ya know, I’m blind, and it’s just expected that I’m going to make a mess. And if I don’t make a mess, especially with “messy food” then people are surprised/amazed that “wow she can actually eat without amking a mess”.

      I know this is long and drawn-out but Inshallah this kinda helps explain why for my own stress level and I guess you could say sanity even, that I just can’t be the spokesperson for all blind people, or Muslims or whatever. I just can’t do it.

      Or perhaps I should say I don’t want the job, because many times I have to answer questions, etc., but I really feel more comfortable just going and doing and being me, than being put on the spot to answer some ridiculous question about how I dress myself or how I use the bathroom or how I shower or how blind people have sex, or whatever.

  4. rebecca says:

    Asalamu alaikum, I listened to that program and what jumped out for me was their reasons for putting it on rather than taking it off. It seemed so many put it on without much question/examination as to why they were choosing to do so (and I don’t say this to criticize them, they were doing what felt right at the time for them). It made me want to examine more closely my own motivation behind acts of worship.

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