As a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, I have often been asked why I wear one – while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, walking in the Jordanian desert or standing in front of the UK’s leading businesswomen.
Never mind that headscarves have been worn throughout history, or that powerful women who are not Muslim, from Queen Elizabeth II to Joanna Lumley, have worn them.
None of that matters. The nuances are lost. People focus on the politics of the headscarf and the "Muslimness" of it. Just as unfortunate is the fact that some Muslims seem more concerned about the piece of cloth than they are about the women who wear it.
The hijab can evoke feelings of love, pride, empowerment, contentment, fulfilment and defiance. Sadly, it can also provoke hate, bafflement, pity and condescension. For some it is oppressive, for others it is liberating. Some wear it as a mark of their identity, others as a testament to their spirituality.
This has been expressed once again in the reactions exhibited towards a growing number of high profile Muslim women who have stopped wearing the head covering.
The most recent example is that of Ascia Al Faraj, a Kuwait-based blogger, who spoke to her 2.7 million followers about feeling a disconnection between her online identity and how she felt personally. She said she no longer felt authentic wearing it and therefore no longer wanted to be in the limelight as a hijab-wearing fashion icon. Last year Dina Torkia, a social media influencer based in the UK, removed her headscarf – a big statement for someone whose identity was built on the two pillars of being a hijabi and a fashionista. Torkia was subjected to a tremendous amount of vitriol, some of which she read out in a video that went viral. They were joined last week by Bushra Shaikh, who appeared on The Apprentice in the UK and has just decided to stop wearing the hijab after 26 years.
The act of de-veiling has attracted a huge amount of public attention in recent times because of social media. Many Muslim women with a large social media following and whose public identities have been shaped by the hijab have spoken publicly of their decision to stop veiling. These are the same women who have broken barriers, primarily in the fashion and beauty industries, set examples for other women and built strong online communities.
Choosing to wear a hijab –or not – should be a matter of individual choice. No woman should be abused or warrants praise for choosing to wear, or not wear, one. It doesn't need to be announced, celebrated or abused. When it is, the hijab becomes conflated with the woman. The hijab does not solely define a woman, nor her faith.
It is necessary to have a nuanced debate about the hijab as a symbol of one's identity, a fashion statement, a flag for women’s rights and, sometimes, a tool of oppression, depending on where you are. But we cannot do any of this because we are too busy making it our business to abuse women who wear it, who aren't deemed to be wearing it properly, or who don't wear it at all.
In today's culture wars, the hijab has become increasingly political. What those of us who engage in conversations about such issues need to do is to stop making the debate about the individual. If a woman’s hijab is relevant to your life, let's have a grown-up discussion about it. Your adulation if we wear it and hatred if we don't, or vice versa, means nothing if we don't have the right to make our own choices, without that choice being held up for close scrutiny at every turn – especially if we don’t have respect.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World