As A Muslim Woman, I Believe Choosing To Wear The Hijab Is Not A Symbol Of Oppression – People Are

Author Gabrielle Deonath

By Gabrielle Deonath

Two months before my sixteenth birthday, I made a decision that changed my life. For eight months, I contemplated whether I wanted to take this step, whether I was ready to make this lifelong commitment. Ultimately, I decided to silence the noise of the world around me and follow my gut. June 2, 2012 was my first day as a hijabi.

‘Hijabi’ is a Westernized term for a woman who wears a headscarf, or ‘hijab,’ in accordance with Islamic guidelines. Growing up, I had worn a hijab in certain religious contexts. As a child, I attended an Islamic elementary school for a few years where the hijab was part of our uniform. I also wore a hijab while praying or upon entering a mosque. I knew it was a sign of my respect for God and our place of worship in these situations. However, I didn’t learn the true purpose of the hijab until my sophomore year of high school. 

My aunt had been going to an Islamic class for women at our local mosque for a few months and, one day, asked me to tag along. There, I first met Sister Hamida Khan. Sister Hamida, as her students called her, was a thorough teacher, an engaging speaker, and a funny storyteller. Searching for a way to connect more deeply with my faith, I resolved to start going to her class regularly. Sister Hamida covered many topics relevant to women’s lives, from the correct way to perform salaah, or prayer, to the do’s and don’ts of marital intimacy in Islam. She always made sure her teachings were supported by the Qur’an or the hadith (narrated accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad).

 A few months after joining her class, she held a session on the subject of hijab. She explained that the hijab was about more than just modesty. It was a tool to encourage others to value you for your inner qualities, skills, and talents over your outward appearance. My hair had been a defining characteristic of my identity. I’ve heard stories from almost everyone who knew me as a baby about the thick, jetblack hair I was born with. What would I discover about myself if I took the focus away from my hair, I wondered.

When I finally started wearing the hijab full-time, it didn’t take long to realize the positive effects it had on me. Soon after, my aunt sent me a popular Islamic community blog. “You should start your own blog,” she wrote in her email. I thought she meant I should start a blog series on the website she had linked to. Since donning the hijab, many complex feelings swirled inside of me, fighting for a way to be expressed. My aunt’s message inspired me.

So at 11 o’clock at night, I opened my laptop and began to write. In an hour, I had a complete essay about my journey to the hijab. I sent it off to the website without rereading it. At that age, I didn’t know anything about editors, and I certainly didn’t think my writing was good enough to be published anywhere. I forgot all about the essay, until I received an email two weeks later from the blog’s editors. They said they found it moving and wanted to publish it.

That essay launched my now decade-long career as a published writer at age sixteen. I was offered my first paid writing gig a week later. It became evident that I had a deep passion for the written word and had a unique opportunity that eluded most people at that age. At a time when there wasn’t a lot of authentic representation of Muslim girls or women, I was given a platform to share my voice.

There were other benefits of the hijab that I didn’t notice at that moment but realized later. As a teenager, I rarely struggled with negative body image. I was very slender in elementary and middle school, but my body transitioned into a fuller figure in high school. I had new curves and my thighs were thicker than they’d ever been. However, I can’t remember a phase in my life where I didn’t love my body. I believe that I was able to avoid that pitfall because the concept of hijab helped my mindset to evolve. It took my focus off of my appearance and others’ opinions about my body. Instead, it built my confidence from within, taught me self-love, and brought new strengths to the forefront.

And yet, much of Western society sees the hijab as a form of female oppression. I acknowledge and recognize that there are women around the world that may be forced to wear the hijab by those in power in their countries, villages, or homes. People within these communities oppress women, but their motivations are cultural, political, or social. There is nothing Islamic about any sort of oppression. 

Women’s rights were always a prominent topic in my Islamic education. ‘Heaven lies at the feet of your mother’ is one of the first religious concepts imparted onto most young children. Religious speakers often emphasize the high status of women in Islam, especially Mary, the mother of Jesus. I was always taught that, in Islam, it is a woman’s right to choose whether to wear the hijab for herself. I learned that marriages can be arranged but never forced on a woman. A wedding ceremony conducted without the consent of both parties is considered invalid in Islam.

A woman’s wealth, earned before or after marriage, is hers to keep, and she has no obligation to contribute to family expenses from her own savings. A bride is also given a dowry, which must be agreed upon by the bride and groom, called a mahr. This helps a woman establish her own financial assets and independence. Even in the case of divorce, she does not have to return the mahr to her husband. As I continue to deepen my understanding of Islam, I uncover more and more religious guidance that protects women and their rights.

As I reflect on my hijab journey, I realize how privileged I was. When I went back to school at the end of that summer in 2012, no one treated me any differently. I’m sure it was an adjustment to have someone so boldly declare their faith in a visible way. There were a few double takes as I walked down the main corridor that day, but it just took people a second to recognize that it was me—the same girl they’d been going to school with for the last five years, not a new student.

However, Muslim women around the world are constantly battling unjust laws that limit them from wearing the garb of their choice, whether it be the hijab, face veils, or modest swimwear. According to CNN, the French government banned the hijab in all public schools, middle schools, and high schools in 2004. Last year, they prohibited the wearing of religious face veils in public areas. And in January, the French senate proposed a law that could ban women from wearing the hijab in competitive sports. France is just one of several other European countries—including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark—to ban religious Muslim attire in some form.

Even in Eastern countries, hijab-wearing women are the target of anti-Muslim sentiment. In March, an Indian high court ruled in favor of barring women from donning the hijab in schools in the state of Karnataka. I’ve seen videos of university-aged girls being harassed on campus by Hindu students. Others show girls crying because they are being forced to choose between their education and practicing their faith. In another video, a female teacher is made to disrobe in public before entering the school. My heart breaks for women around the world who truly are being oppressed by the governments that rule over them, women who are not allowed to practice their faith the way they desire to.

There is a certain notion of female liberation perpetuated by society. The more skin a woman shows, the more of her body she reveals, the more free she is. But from what I’ve learned through my experience as a hijabi Muslim woman is that true freedom and empowerment comes from having the right to choose. When every woman has the right to dress, act, and be however she wants to, that is when we will truly be liberated.

Gabrielle Deonath is Guyanese-American Muslim writer and editor based in New York. First published at age 16, she has written for outlets including, SISTERS Magazine, Brown Girl Magazine, and Global Citizen. She also served as an assistant editor at Brown Girl Magazine for five years and is one of the editors of the company’s first print anthology, ‘untold: defining moments of the uprooted’. Her new book, ‘Shukr’, is an inspirational prayer and gratitude journal for Muslim women. Read more about Gabrielle at or follow her on Instagram @bygabrielled.

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