When I stand in front of my hallway mirror and pin my hijab into place, bringing the two tail ends to the front of my body so that they hang loosely over my chest, I see a woman who is finally at peace with herself and her appearance. I like the way my hijab frames my face; its drapes and folds give me a feeling of elegance. Some days I wear a full face of make-up, and, on others, I am barefaced. Either way, I’m happy with my face. But, it wasn't always like this.
Over the past two decades I have chosen to intermittently wear, and not wear, the hijab. With mixed white and Arab heritage, I spent my teen years and early twenties feeling as if I was fighting a battle between two identities. In one, I was constantly trying to prove to the West that their beliefs and misconceptions about hijab-wearing women were wrong - I was not wearing a headscarf to hide myself away, and I was not oppressed. Family members on the white, non-Muslim side of my family, as well as non-Muslim friends at school, would make assumptions that as a young, hijab-wearing Muslim woman I couldn't possibly know anything about make-up or fashion.
In fact, the opposite was true. I had perfected the application of liquid eyeliner long before my friends, and spent my pocket money on fashion magazines, knowing more than they did about the latest runway trends. In later years, after I graduated from university, I even launched my own modest fashion blog called Under Your Abaya, and regularly wrote for Middle Eastern fashion magazines.
The conservative sect of the Muslim community I was brought up in didn't approve of this. Their belief was that experimenting with fashion and wearing make-up didn't fit in with the concept of wearing the hijab. I tried to prove to family members that I could wear my headscarf and stay within the remits of modesty, that I could pursue my love of beauty by wearing subtle make-up. But my efforts never met their expectations. In their eyes, my appearance was never modest enough; leaving the house became a daily battle.
As I turned 25, I chose to no longer wear the hijab for a number of personal reasons. It wasn't about caving in to Western beauty standards – at the time I was living in Qatar and, if anything, I felt pressurised to adopt Middle Eastern beauty standards. I copied my Gulf girlfriends’ style of make-up, heavily lining both my upper and lower eyelids in thick black liquid eyeliner, coating my eyes in dark eyeshadows, filling in my eyebrows with dark eyebrow pencil, and experimenting with purple lipstick. I even dyed my hair black. With my fair complexion I looked more goth than anything else.
As I grew older, instead of seeing my mixed features as beautiful or unique, I felt I needed to align my appearance with one part of my ethnicity or the other. Once, a client at work asked me where I was from, to which I answered, 'I'm half-English, half-Egyptian'. 'Oh, that mix doesn’t usually turn out well,' he replied. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or offended. I looked neither fully English, nor fully Arab, and if you asked family members on my mother’s side, they'd call me 'dark', while family members on my father’s side praised me for having white skin.
After trying in vain to adopt Middle Eastern beauty standards and embrace that half of my heritage, I gave up and tried the complete opposite. I dyed my hair light brown, straightened my hair daily, and wore minimal make-up. I wanted to look 'more English'. Ironically, passing for a Western expat in the Gulf meant I became invisible. Before, when I wore my hijab, I had hated how men used to stare at me, then I relished the relief I felt at no longer being attractive in their eyes.
Three years after taking my hijab off, I made the decision, full of conviction, to wear it once again. I was making a conscious effort to be more practising of my faith and spent months reading into the hijab's history and origins. Once I separated it from the context of men and other people’s perceptions or expectations of me, it felt right. I was wearing it for God, not for the approval or judgement of other people.
With the decision to wear my hijab also came a resolution to continue embracing my love of make-up and fashion. I realised I could combine modest dressing and wear my hijab without compromising who I was or my values. Where once I'd hide away in black abayas, now I wear colourful kimonos teamed with silk blouses and jeans. I apply my make-up how I like it, not how I think English or Arab women wear it. I've found a middle ground of a brown smokey eye and matte rose-hued lip that helps me to look like me, not someone else.
The best part? Wearing my hijab has helped me realise that I don't need to look like one part of my ethnicity or the other, and I certainly don't need to adhere to any specific beauty standard. My hijab has enabled me to accept myself; now I own my individual beauty.
Yousra Samir Imran is a freelance journalist, and author of 'Hijab and Red Lipstick'
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