I have a dear friend who wears hijab. Or, rather, she kind of does and kind of doesn’t. She’s what I like to call a halfjaby: she wears it partially, and sometimes not at all.
She used to wear it pretty religiously, tightly pinning it under her chin, not a strand showing, she even dabbled in wearing a full length jalbab too. She once said she felt like she had to wear it during high school because everyone else at the masjid started to do so too. Still, since she was a deeply spiritual person anyway, she felt like maybe it was the right thing to do. We have a tight knit masjid community so she was always safe, friends with the same kids that go to the masjid in high school, and spent all weekend at the mosque like all of us, active in youth groups and more.
In college, she joined the MSA where there was a large Muslim presence in an otherwise desolate location in the middle of nowhere. When she came home to visit her family, she plugged right back into our masjid community, back to where we all grew up.
As we moved out of our safe muslim circles in high school and college, where wearing the hijab was easy, and into the real world, she began to struggle. She moved to a big city in hopes of finding a job that would help boost her career. She knew no one there and like most millennials and fresh-out-of-college kids, she had to grow up fast: learning how to rent an apartment, needing to make new friends, figuring out how to make her mom’s daal, trying to find the local indian store to buy cumin seeds to do so, figuring out the subway system, and on and on. But it didn’t take long for her to feel lonely, and scared. She said she started to feel really uncomfortable in interviews, on subways and even as she tried to hang out with coworkers. Her hijab made her stick out and rather than feeling safe, she felt incredibly vulnerable, and not at all like herself.
She opened up to me over long phone calls. I listened to her and offered an empathetic ear. I did not recommend anything to her, but when I hung up I was angry. Women I know who love the hijab are often strong, stylish and confident, all traits I admire. But in this case, my friend was badly suffering. In later calls, she confided in me that she wanted to take the hijab off. But her ranting would then lead her to ask herself, how is that even possible? Her brother would probably disown her, she said, but more importantly, the girls at home would gossip about her and look at her differently. She wasn’t even sure what her parents would say but figured they could be embarrassed, taking off the hijab in our local community seemed to be as bad as committing adultery.
So, she became a halfjaby.
A halfjaby is someone who only wears the hijab in Muslim settings while continuing to have others believe she always wears the hijab, no matter how loose it may be, how much of her bangs show or that she takes it off in other settings. This was easy to do since she was in a new city where no one from back home knew her.
Her first day without hijab she said she felt naked, awkward like she was forgetting something or that people kept staring at her as if they knew her secret. That slowly went away, but she continued to walk with her head down in between train stops, quickly ducking into buildings and coffee shops. She told me how dozens of times she thought she saw someone from back home and literally froze in spot, her heart racing. When she was with her new big city friends, she never posed in photos, fearing it would be posted on Facebook. On plane rides home, she would quickly scan the waiting area to be sure no one that knew her was there.
Her hijab was always at hand, in a side pocket of her bag, and she’d duck in to an airport restroom before heading to the baggage claim where her dad likely was waiting for her. She was always scared that someone might catch on to her life, saying to her that so and so said they saw you.
I thought this would ease up over time, but it didn’t. Her paranoia of being spotted and being the target of gossip continued, with the expectation of acting a certain way weighing down on her.
I eventually visited her with my daughter a few times in the big city, and she was confident, beautiful and stylish in a way that I hadn’t realized before. Her femininity came out in a breathtaking way, but her spirituality remained. Her love of God was felt in the room still. Her prayer mat still folded on the floor, the same Quran she had since she was young placed nicely on the Quran stand on top of the vent in the apartment by the window. And she never missed her prayer. The adhan clock would ring and she would get up and put on a long prayer scarf to say her prayers, with such serenity and calmness that moved even my heart just by watching her.
She is still a halfjaby, and she still has to maintain this terrible and tricky balance of wanting to just be, exist and live how she wants to in the real world, with no hijab on, and still be embraced and accepted in her home community. That still seems so far away, though. She says she knows that the people back at home would associate her hijab coming off as her losing her way, and yet somehow she believes her sense of God consciousness actually increased since moving to the city. She knows she may still be years away from “coming out of the closet” and needs to maintain these two identities simply because many Muslims in our community are intolerant.
The more women I talk to the more I realize halfjabys are far more common than we know. It’s about time that we as American Muslims learn to accept, embrace and cherish the women who struggle and accept that they can and should determine what fits for their lives. We don’t know the struggles other face, and so we shouldn’t judge them.
Here’s to all halfjabys who come out of the closet with confidence, and a prayer that they are embraced and accepted in all forms by Muslims.