Being a hijabi means representing Islam by wearing a piece of clothing as a head cover. As soon as people see a woman wearing a hijab, they are aware that she is a Muslim. It is the ultimate symbol, which highlights the identity of a Muslim woman. Wearing a hijab is definitely the most normal thing amongst Muslims.
Growing up in a country where Islam is the official religion, there is no need to worry about what other people think about me wearing a hijab. Not until when I went to the UK that I actually had concerns about being a hijabi. I get stared at, I get asked questions and suddenly I was more visible to others than I was in Brunei. With the news that spreads like wildfire about Islamophobia, I wondered if the reality would be as pictured on social media. Nonetheless, I had to face it head on and be a confident hijabi.
Throughout my stay in the UK, I had personally experienced a number of occasions highlighted by being a hijabi. At times the things that happened made me scared but most of the time those made me feel touched or laugh out loud. The scariest time left me fearful to even leave the house alone but thankfully the non-Muslim community showed their support in various ways. Despite what was happening in other countries, I was greeted with smiles every morning. Some of the things, which I want to share here, hopefully, will enlighten you more on how it is being a hijabi in the UK.
“What does it mean?”
This is the most frequently asked question. I was not the only Muslim woman studying at the University where I attended, but I was the only one in my class. I was definitely scared the first time I entered the classroom, this I remember clearly. I was scared because I did not know what to expect. Outside University was fine because the area I was staying at was Muslim-friendly (Halal stores, near the mosque, etc) and I did not really interact much elsewhere. However, when it comes to attending class at first, I couldn’t help but feel a bit worried about how my classmates would see me as. On the first day, I attended the class, one of the local students smiled, said “hi!” and kindly asked me to sit next to her. Then I was actually making friends with the others. I was really thankful, the uncountable worries left my mind and I was psyched.
Fast forward to a couple months later, my friends and I were having lunch while waiting for our next class. Having normal conversations when suddenly one of my friends said, “Do you mind if I ask, this thing you wear around your head, what does it mean?” I paused. The thing is, I was used to wearing a hijab and the fact that Brunei is a Muslim country, I never expected to be asked with this question before. I was actually a bit touched when asked because it was a genuine question to me. Turns out they were curious and wanted to know more about Islam. After explaining what the hijab means, they were satisfied to have an understanding on bits of Islam. Since then they would ask me questions like, “why aren’t you eating any meat?” or “how many times do you pray?” and so many more.
“Do you wash your hair?”
Another one of the most frequently asked questions: “Do you wash your hair? With the hijab?” One of the concerns circulating among my friends was that they never see me without a hijab. They actually wondered if I ever take off the Hijab and that was when my friends asked if I ever wash my hair and if I do, whether I wash it with the Hijab or not. I laughed out loud when they mention this to me. Obviously, I found it funny because I know how things work with hijab: that we can actually take it off. Afterwards, I explained to them slowly. I think they were a bit relieved to know that I can actually take my Hijab off and wash my hair properly.
Randomly get shouted at
The first two I have mentioned earlier were among the great things that happened to me. Unfortunately, I did experience the uncomfortable occasion, more than once, where I get shouted at right in front of my face. Once on a random day, I was out with my friends walking around the shopping center when a group of kids suddenly came to us, shouted “AAHH!” and left as if nothing had happened. Despite being shouted at, we had to maintain calm. We did not want to attract any more attention so we knew it was wise to just let it go.
Apart from that, I had to ride the train to and from where I stayed every once in a while. Twice (if I am not mistaken), the same thing happened again when we were riding the train. At times it was more than just an “AAHH!” and again, it was wise to just let it go. I would just plug in my earphones or pretend to look busy to avoid any other incidents.
Things like this may leave you uncomfortable or scared to be a hijabi in the UK. However, these are just the stories I wanted to share. Despite the stares and the uncomfortable incidents that have happened to me, they are nothing compared to the number of smiles I received in return. The support shown by the non-Muslims was overwhelming. Over time I managed to rebuild my confidence, learned to avoid unwanted incidents and actually enjoying my time being a hijabi in the UK. To share bits of helpful tips: avoid traveling or going around alone if you can, plugging in the earphones helps as other see you minding your own business, avoid going to quiet and dark places and last but not least, smile, be friendly with others, stranger or not.