Growing up in Muslim-majority Malaysia, I became accustomed to battling with the identity I chose to uphold – that of the unveiled Muslim woman. There is a local term coined especially for us unveiled girls: ‘freehair’. It is a label to stigmatise and differentiate us from the veiled girls. Being a ‘freehair’ girl, I have also had my fair share of feeling displaced in a community that can be uprightly religious depending on occasion and location. Born and bred in the city, I was encouraged but never forced to don the hijab or dress like a ‘proper’ Muslim by my religious yet fairly moderate parents. But because of my ‘freehair’ identity, I had an especially difficult time in public schools and colleges, where the hijab was never quite made compulsory for Muslim women but there existed an unspoken rule that, somehow, you had to cover your hair or risk becoming a pariah.
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2015
Thus began my initiation into being coerced to don the hijab when I entered public secondary school, and later, public university. To describe my experience as a nightmare would not be an exaggeration. Islamic Studies, a subject made compulsory for all Muslim students, was not my most hated subject, but undoubtedly my least favourite. That disinclination, however, did not stop me from excelling, consistently scoring A’s that put me on par with my veiled sisters, if not better, and trumping the stereotype that ‘freehair’ girls possess only a shallow knowledge of Islam. It was still my least favourite subject because of my ustazah’s glaring eyes on the first day of class and her outright snarky comments addressed to the ‘freehair’ girls. This was to be followed by a sermon right after, about ‘the women of hellfire’ – that we would be hung by our scalps in damnation, never to get even a whiff of Paradise. When that did not work, I remember being pulled aside by other ustazahs in hallways and corridors (we did not have an ustaz or male religious instructor though I’m curious as to how a man’s approach would have been). I remember the awkward, deafening silence that greeted me whenever I entered a classroom, the unkind, judgmental stares by eyes that followed my every movement. I remember not looking forward to school, my fear of bumping into any ustazahs, and most importantly, I remember my tears of despair. In the end, I did cover up for much of my schooling years because the pressure was too much for a teenager to bear and also because I was beginning to be ostracised by my peers. Unfortunately, even after donning the headscarf, the way I dressed became a point of scrutiny – my trousers were too tight, my sleeves not long enough, and my tops too suggestive of my curves. From then on, I have struggled and skirted around the issue of dressing like a ‘proper’ Muslim.