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When We Talk of Freedom Hijabs, Respectability and What it Actually Means to be Free

Oppression does not exist in a vacuum. It exists to serve the demarcation between the superior and the inferior, no matter how faulty such a demarcation is. And the demarcation there was a piece of clothing, a veil.

It’s November. When night falls, harmattan spills into the room through the window. I’m sitting on the bed, one leg hanging off the edge, the other folded in front of me. I have my laptop in front of me and I should be working on a submission I hope to make before the night ends, but I am on the phone with a new friend. We’ve been discussing poetry, friendship; the common tunes that our hearts sing to. There is laughter in which I throw my head back and slap my thigh repeatedly, and I have to struggle to catch my breath. There is a fond dissecting of what home entails; I tell him how, against Warsan Shire’s advice, I have built homes out of people.

As the night crawls on, my new friend and I begin to sail on waters unfamiliar to our friendship: marginalization and intersections; stereotypes; religion; the notion of belonging. Because I am learning to carry myself more carefully even during conversations, I hesitate to delve into matters like this (doing so invariably leads to recounting stories of oppressions suffered). To revisit oppression is to invoke the pain that accompanies it and so, I try so hard not to.

Our conversation begins to revolve around the things I hate to talk about, and the atmosphere tenses up. Eventually, I’m in the thick of it. When I say, ‘but you know there’s been a constant marginalization and ill-treatment of Muslims all around the world, right?’, he disagrees. And this is when, for the first time this evening, I am speechless. I think about concentration camps in China where Muslims are treated like people with mental illness. I think about the Niqab ban in France. He says, ‘I don’t think it’s like that’.

I am reminded immediately of Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. In the book, Ruth, the protagonist black nurse is barred from attending to the newborn baby of a white couple who are both open white supremacists with a very strong movement to push forward their agenda. The husband has the logo of this movement tattooed on his head and arm. When he goes to speak with the head nurse about not wanting Ruth to attend to his child, he casually displays his tattoo as an unspoken threat to her. First, she freezes. Then, she complies.

The couple have the head nurse pin a card to their baby’s file that reads ‘no African-American nurse allowed to attend to this patient’. Ruth narrates her shock at the glaring racism to her white colleague; the latter meekly suggests that perhaps it isn’t racism at all. She says something along the lines of ‘I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t think they meant it that way’.

I‘m telling my friend about that day I sat next to a woman in a classroom of secondary school students. We had gone to speak to them about career paths. I had felt my veil sliding off my head from behind and kept readjusting it, simply assuming: that it was the wind doing the pulling; or, perhaps, that I had mistakenly sat on it as it was quite long. And so, began the cycle of adjusting my sitting position, trying to pull my veil forward to my forehead, then adjusting my sitting position again, and pulling the veil forward again. But the pulling from behind persisted until, finally, I turned around to see what the problem was. I found the woman who sat next to me, pulling my hijab from my head. I turned to face her, thoroughly confused and too stunned to talk. My chest choked with all kinds of emotions too heavy and fast for time’s pace. I started to talk but I was so flustered no words would come out. So, I sat there staring at her, just staring and waiting for an explanation. She said in a low, patronizing tone, her smile bordering on the motherly side, ‘you’ll look better without it, take it off.’

I felt my head spin but told myself ‘chill’. I wanted so badly to ask, ‘how disrespectful can you get?’. Wanted to ask, ‘where did you get your audacity from?’, because I truly wanted to know. But somehow, I managed to succeed in reminding myself that she was older—old enough to be my mother in fact. And yet, I couldn’t not say anything.  

As respectfully as my rage could allow, I said, ‘Madam, that thing you just did to my veil, you will not do it again.’

She stared at me as though shocked that I did not cower, smile meekly, or go silent with shame. She looked like she had heard a cat bark. And in that instant, I understood two things: oppression is always, always intentional. Oppression does not exist in a vacuum, it exists to serve the demarcation between the superior and the inferior, no matter how faulty such a demarcation is. And the demarcation there was a piece of clothing, a veil.

Back at home that day, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of inadequacy, of not telling her off more sternly. Strangely, as I sat seething with all the anger not properly disposed, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the sheer disrespect of her attempting to pull my veil away that hurt most. Yes, that hurt. But mostly, what was painful was the look on her face when I spoke; it was her shock that seemed to say ‘wow, I didn’t know you had the ability to talk back. You are inferior, not human enough. How come you know to speak?’  

When I finish recounting this experience to my friend, he says, ‘I don’t think it’s like that. People just don’t understand this hijab thing.’

This comment hits me in all sorts of ways and I immediately wish I hadn’t told him the story. I think about the many things I do not understand about other people’s faith and even personal choices, and how it hasn’t crossed my mind to ask them invasive questions, treat them with disrespect, or attempt to pull their clothing away in public. Because I am both angry and hurt, I walk away from the conversation.

I go on Twitter sure I’ll find something funny. There is a trending video of a woman. The caption tells me it is not something I want to watch, so I scroll past it. But it appears many more times. My timeline is filled with people sharing it and all the captions are enraged. Finally, I click on it. There is a woman sitting in what looks like a conference hall, surrounded by security personnel. She’s evidently about to undergo questioning. She is dressed as a northerner; full Ankara complete with the scarf, and then a large veil over it. When she realizes the media people present are making videos of her with their phones, she attempts to cover her face with the veil. There is a lady standing in front of her. She has on a rude look. She’s either part of the police and dressed in mufti, or part of the media. She attempts to yank the woman’s veil off, and this is when I know I should stop watching. But I don’t.

In retrospect, perhaps I had hoped that, somewhere along the line, someone would stop the lady from committing this act of violence, or maybe I had wanted to see just how far the human capacity to inflict shame as an injury could run. The woman with the veil is startled, she tries to hold on to the veil, but the lady isn’t done yet. The lady keeps yanking it, she throws the woman around even as the woman struggles to pull herself away. She throws the woman around with disgust so vile it had sauntered into anger; even as the woman screams, ‘You will not treat me like this. You will not do this to me, I am a citizen of this country.’ She continues throwing her around, even as the woman crouches near a chair, conquered but still trying to salvage what is left of her dignity. The lady finally succeeds in pulling off the veil. She pulls off the scarf, too, to reveal the woman’s hair and that is when the woman begins to cry. It’s when I begin to cry, too. Her wail is filled with so much anguish and I know I will be hearing it in my head for quite some time. I’ve seen oppression, I’ve seen dehumanization, but I’d never quite seen such brokenness televised.

Two weeks before this incident, I arrive in Ibadan way-worn, wearing a knee-length hijab. I have spent hours on the road traveling here. I am here for the Ebedi Writers Residency located at Iseyin, Oyo State. It begins today and I am excited at the prospect of having a quiet space to write in for 5 weeks.

When I get into the bus bound for Iseyin, all eyes turn to me. I know that look, have known it all my life. And so, I do not worry about it. I plug my earpiece into my ears, allow the music to sail me away from the present.

An hour into the journey, my phone rings and it is my father. Our conversation shifts between Nupe and English.  When I subconsciously switch to English, I notice a collective shock in the bus. The other passengers all turn to look at me. I am so shocked by the behavior that I stop talking mid-sentence. I tell my dad I will call him back when I arrive. There is a bit of shame muddled in my anger. I feel it like a stain.

It could have been my hijab; it could have been the henna butterflied on my hands and feet. It could have been both. But these people very clearly did not expect that I’d know how to speak English. And I know I shouldn’t have stopped talking; I know the shame shouldn’t be mine to feel because it is not I who has been offensive. But still, it is there.

Someone asks me randomly, ‘You are from the north?’ My first impulse is to not answer because I am already angry. And if I answered yes and he went the usual way of ignorant Nigerians—who insist on the stereotypical assumption that all northerners are illiterates and backward—and proceeded to ask ‘how come you speak English so well?’ it would upset me even more.

But I nod and keep my eyes on him. Daring him to go on and say it. He doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything at all.

When I tell my best friend about this through a WhatsApp voice-note later that day, she responds, relaying a similar experience. When she first arrived in China for school, she wore a short hijab to class. She got the stares. The professor, in an attempt to make her first day at school lively for her, asked her pleasantly if she’d like to stand up and sing. My best friend loves to sing. And so, she did. After the class, a fellow Nigerian in class who was Igbo and recognized home in her accent and appearance, came towards her and asked brightly, ‘Where are you from?’. Also recognizing the accent too, she answered, ‘Nigeria’. And this young man asked, ‘What part of Nigeria?’. ‘North’, she told him, and that was when his face fell. First, the incredulous stare. Then, the derision. And then, ‘enh? you are from the North? And you speak English? Like, you not only know how to speak English, you know how to sing too? This is surprising oh!’

I laugh because the alternative is anger. Anger is exhausting, and I am tired.

At the residency, I meet Nkemjika. We have been friends on Facebook for years but it’s the first time we are meeting. We are both surprised to see each other, and we hug.

The day after, we have to go to the market. I wear a hijab; a pink khimar. I notice her staring disapprovingly, it strikes me as both funny and disrespectful, but I say nothing. Still, I go back inside my room to assess myself again in the mirror to make sure there’s nothing wrong; that the colors in my outfit aren’t in sharp contrast or that there isn’t a fashion blunder. I examine my shoes. I take them off and wear another pair. I am fidgeting. I’m aware that I am beginning to bend, but somehow, I can’t help it. I sit back on the bed, feeling small. It is the same feeling of smallness as when I’m packing to travel from home; I find myself automatically reaching for shorter khimar, and more veils. Or when, once, my mother was traveling to Singapore and I took out all the khimar in her bag and replaced them with light, short veils. Because I did not want anyone to stare at her unduly or make her feel uncomfortable. Veils are more tolerated.

Eventually, I step back out and Nkemjika and I head out. On the way, we talk about all the things writers talk about. We talk about Chimamanda Adichie and Wole Soyinka. We stop at an ATM gallery and there is a long queue. Another Muslim lady stands a few steps away from the queue, alone. She has on a long hijab as well as a niqab. I’d notice in the coming days that there are many such Muslims here.

A few weeks before my residency, a Muslim woman living in the US had said on Twitter that it was important for Muslims to not shun one another when they see each other in public. She spoke of how important it was to at least offer a smile if not say hello when you meet a Muslim woman wearing full hijab and niqab, because these are the ones who feel the heaviest ostracism in communities. At the time, I did not see what she was going on about; I even felt that she was being dramatic. But as I stand with Nkemjika, looking at this woman stand apart from the queue, with people throwing her those familiar stares, I suddenly understand what the woman on Twitter meant.

I say Salamu Alaikum to her. When she turns to me and responds, there is surprise in her voice. But there is also a smile.

Nkem stares at the woman’s outfit, and then at me again. In my head, I’m saying ‘don’t say it, don’t say it’. She begins to talk about the first time she saw a woman in niqab and how scared she was. I sigh. Because I know where this conversation is going and have no interest in following it there, I do not say anything. Regardless, the conversation gets there on its own. She says, ‘you Muslim women need to get your freedom sha. Make una free unasef’.

I feel slapped. I fix my eyes on her, genuinely surprised at the myopic reasoning behind the comment. She does not explain further. But because she’s both a poet and a friend, I engage her, ‘wetin concern freedom, concern hijab? How can you tell from a person’s appearance that they need freedom?’

I ask because I feel this is finally an opportunity to understand why many people seem to think this way. She looks away, says nothing. I sigh heavily.

A few days later, another co-resident, Remi, knocks on my door. I have been sitting in front of my computer for a long time now and so when I stand up to go to the door, I stagger a bit as though inebriated. This is when I realize I am hungry. I open the door and she wants to know if I’d like some noodles as she’s about to cook some for herself. I find it very kind and I accept. As I am about to go back inside, she asks while touching my scarf—a gesture I am slightly shocked by—in a way that leaves no doubt in my mind that her next question is what has really brought her to my door, ‘Why do you keep covering your hair with this thing even when you are in the house? Don’t you feel hot under it? You should take it off. Free yourself.’

Again, that word. Free. I sigh, and I stare at her. I stare because she has on a wig and is beating her head lightly with a palm in the way women do when their hair is itching and they cannot scratch, or when said hair is humid. What I have on is a light piece of scarf draped on my head very loosely. I am not beating down on it. I consider her question again, and then I look at her wig again which she’s still beating down on in discomfort. Without meaning to, I begin to laugh.

‘Maybe I don’t want you to see my hair? Maybe habit? Maybe my hair is old, and I don’t want to do you the inconvenience of having to look at it? Maybe, maybe, maybe?’

She smiles uncomfortably and this is when I decide the new approach with which I will begin answering questions like these.

When I come back inside my room, I sit back in front of my laptop and return to writing. One line in, I am thinking about the subterranean reasoning of those questions about freeing myself. I ponder on the fluidity of the concept of freedom, the frequency with which its definition shifts, depending on the faith of the person being observed, and how ostensible is the observer’s concern, which when looked at closely, reveals a wide array of contempt, sheer ignorance, and the illusion of righteous superiority.

I realize the only times I have felt my freedom slipping from me are times when I wear less clothing than I want to, when I wear a short hijab when what I really want to wear is a long one. When I bend because I do not want to be thought of as other, or oppressed, or inferior.

I am on the phone again with an old, dear friend, talking about hijab and ignorance and prejudice. He is saying people should learn to ask questions about beliefs they do not understand so as to lessen the possibility of their being judgmental. He means well. But I do not agree.

Recently, I told myself I would not honour any form of engagement with anyone of a different faith asking questions about my personal religious choices, no matter how respectfully the questions are asked, or how seemingly well-meaning. It stresses me. The way I see it, when you ask me a question about the basis of my personal choice and religious decisions, when you ask me to explain the ideology behind my belief or my dressing, you are asking—whether consciously or not, whether you admit it or not—that I make a case for myself on why you should respect those choices. But to do that will be to first agree that you have the right to think lowly of me and are, therefore, entitled to an explanation for why you shouldn’t. You certainly do not have the right.

And so, when I’m faced with vague yet condescending questions like ‘aren’t you hot under that?’, I find myself offering responses that challenge the logic behind such questions, or answers explicable by ordinary logic. This takes the conversation away from myself and redirects it to the other person and their reasoning. This is always a better alternative.

At the end of my residency, I travel to Lagos to visit my close friend and course-mate, Ruka. When she comes to me at the park, we hug each other and scream. As though the attention we get from passers-by isn’t enough, Ruka lowers her head over the pedestrian bridge we’re walking over and screams to the chaotic bustling road, ‘Hauwa is in Lagos!’. I sigh, then laugh.

We are two young women of the same faith—one wearing a wig, and the other a veil, walking the streets of Lagos and holding hands. We are screaming above the noise of passing vehicles and humans, as though all the things we want to talk about cannot wait until we get to our destination, as though our lives in this instant are dependent on this moment. We are laughing like actual witches. And I am thinking this is what it means to be free