Hijabi burkini manal rostom identity war
Photo Courtesy of Manal Rostom

Identity can be defined as a construction of ‘meanings’ that help us identify ourselves and who we are. One can describe the individual as a scriptwriter, who combines different scenes in order to formulate a coherent story. 

In this sense, the ‘narrative identity’ consists of previous experiences and memories that we constantly tell others or to ourselves. People formulate these life stories for the purpose of answering questions such as “Who am I?”, “What is my purpose?”, and “Where and who will I be in the future?”.

Unfortunately, we experience various situations that can cause us to feel uncertain of who we are. Such uncertainty can develop through the words that we receive from others and their treatment towards us.

For instance, for the past few months, many people have expressed their anger towards the banning of the burkini within hotel resorts and beaches. This has caused many women to speak about their past on experiencing similar situations of harassment and discrimination due to them wearing the burkini. Many of these stories also included hijabi women explaining how they were not accepted to certain job positions because of their hijab. 

Such experiences have caused many women to question who they are and the purpose of their hijab. It caused them to reflect on whether their hijab should be part of their identity or not. 

From a social psychology perspective, people become assured of who they are by providing interpretations of their previous experiences. These interpretations can develop through social interactions and feedback received from others. Such interpretations help individuals make sense of their reality and help them to behave in a way that is in harmony with the situation they are in and their emotions.

Social Stress, Identity & Hijab

Amal’s Story

Amal*, a woman who began wearing the hijab at the age of 10 has described the situations that caused her to question whether the stereotypes of hijabi women are part of who she is or not. 

I believe that hijab is part of my identity because I already have a concept in mind that the clothes that we wear bring out a part of our personality. So, hijab might not be my entire identity, but it’s a part of it considering that it was also my choice to wear the hijab. In terms of personal experiences, it’s not always going to be good,” she says, “a lot of people consider me extremely religious just for the fact that I am wearing the hijab. Many people approach me asking questions related to religion. And so this goes along with the identity that I want to portray.”

However Amal* adds that the hijab can bring its own stereotypes which can be seen as part of her identity, even though she does not consider it to be part of her identity.

“I consider hijab to be my identity, not the stereotypes behind the hijab. For example, I’ve worn the hijab since I was 10, and throughout the different stages of my life I’ve had different experiences. In the beginning in school, I would remember guys and girls telling me that they can’t differentiate between me and the cleaning women, because most of them were hijabi,” she explains, “obviously, I was still young and I didn’t know how to talk. But as a young person who didn’t even reach her teenage years, to be compared to older people was confusing. As a young girl, I would say that I do not look that old; but when I grew up I realised that they were trying to differentiate between the social classes.”

“Throughout my childhood, I was always considered ‘second choice’ in terms of friendships or relationships. This obviously affected my self-esteem. When I was a senior in high school, I was looked as the ‘extremely religious chick’ that doesn’t even interact with people, even though that wasn’t true in any kind of way. When I reached university, I was surprised that there were people who have said “Hijabi women are bee2a [low class]. Hijabi people are so strict, they always judge everyone” or “I am really scared to sit with hijabi people because I feel like they are always judging me”. 

So obviously all these experiences made me question my sense of self, because like I said, hijab is only part of my identity, hijab is not my entire identity. My identity consists of me trying to know other people’s perspectives, trying not to judge, or act upon my judgment. I like to perceive myself as kind, supportive, religious, and smart. Also, I like to play tennis, I like reading and singing. These are some of the things that are part of my identity. And so, sometimes I am seen by others as extremely religious or that I am judgemental. But also, I can be judged by other hijabis because I am not following their ‘full hijab’. So it brings this sort of dissonance, that I do not fit in with the hijabis and I do not fit in with non-hijabis. So like, where do I stand? You know the saying: I am too haram for the halals, and I am too halal for the haram people.”

Sara’s Story

Sara*, a woman who struggled between wearing the hijab or removing it has explained how social pressure has caused her to become confused of her identity. 

When I removed the hijab, I felt as if there was something different. I did not know how to fit in with my family or in university, or with the people that I usually hang out with, or even at work. I felt like everyone was staring at me and questioning how did I take such a step?! They began treating me as if I became someone else, not the woman that they know. They began assuming that just because I removed the hijab, that means I now have access to all the ‘wrong doings’. Sure, the hijab use to provide people messages, but I feel like the only messages that it sent was that there are Islamic boundaries and that I am a muslim woman. But, the hijab does not present whether I am a respectful person, or whether I am an ambitious person. So, it’s like when I removed the hijab, my identity left with it. So I was questioning why this happened? 

When this happened, it caused me to ask a second question, which one was I? Am I Sara* the hijabi, the one people love and accept her for who she is, or am I Sara* the one who wants to live a life that she loves, the one who is actually not different to the one who is wearing the hijab? Whether I wore the hijab or removed it, that does not determine who I am.

Like for example, my family is from Upper Egypt; all the women are hijabis and are really religious. So I started feeling like I do not belong to them. That this is not my place as they began treating me in a way that was completely different to the way they treat each other. Also, the community in my university, I feel like I am not like them or even look like them. So I felt like I didn’t know how to look like my family or like the people in my university. I felt like I was lost. What do I do? 

After some time, I began doing something different. As my family is from Upper Egypt, they do not have the concept that a girl who wore the hijab has removed it. So, when I am in Cairo, I am not wearing the hijab, and when I visit my family, I am wearing the hijab because that is the culture there and I have to follow it. So it became something extremely difficult that I can’t explain. 

I couldn’t, to be honest, maintain my identity or empower myself alone. I had a support system with many people in my life who were helping me go through this experience, and to accept the community that I am living in. It was really difficult as I was doing too many things at the same time, while trying to live my life. So, they supported me in understanding who I am, and it’s not the clothes that determine who you are. They helped me feel accepted and loved, and to accept and cope with the social pressures that surrounded me. But, this happened after a long time. I have spent months not knowing who I am. I felt like I was living with multiple identities – that I have to be someone at home who is different from the person at university, who is also different at work.”

Raising Self-Worth: Empowerment of Identity & Hijab

Although both women had different opinions on whether the hijab should be part of their identity; they both agreed that it does not reveal their real identity and of who they truly are. The stories of these women showed what is known as ‘incongruence’, in which the way they perceive themselves contradicts the way others perceive them. It also shows how the way they behave does not connect with how others perceive their actions.

The women have openly expressed how not only did they question who they are, but they also felt excluded from the people around them. Accordingly, this would be a result of low self-esteem.

The concept of self-esteem refers to how people feel about their self-worth. In other words, psychologists Stets and Burke state that it is “the degree to which individuals feel positive about themselves, that is, they feel that they are good and valuable. It is self-acceptance or self-respect,”. In order for one to be able to accept themselves, three crucial components should be present: 

  1. Positive self-evaluations, in which our self-worth is based on how much we feel accepted and belonged. As one begins to feel accepted, they will develop self-liking.
  2. An individual desire for agency or self-efficacy. This means the degree of how much the person perceives that they have control over their environment. 
  3. An individual sense of authenticity, where people pursue meaning about themselves and understand who they truly are. 

In order to assure that all three components are present one can adopt new habits that can cultivate their self-worth. These habits include: 

  1. Practicing compassion. The first step to enhancing one’s self-worth is to become self-compassionate, in which one needs to be kind to themselves and reduce harsh manners of self-criticism. Self-compassion is also about recognizing that being connected with others reduces feelings of isolation or that they are the only ones experiencing this. 
  2. Providing ‘unconditional positive regard’. The psychotherapist Carl Rogers was known for defining unconditional positive regard as pure acceptance towards oneself and towards others, regardless of what the person believes or how they act. 
  3. Changing the life story. At the beginning of the article, it discussed how one’s identity develops based on the interpretations of the experiences and life stories one goes through. In order to enhance self-worth and to accept one’s identity, one should learn how to change the way they perceive or interpret situations. For example, instead of comparing oneself to others, a person can focus on themselves and evaluate how to improve themselves. 

As such, the stories of these women provide an example of how social pressures and social interactions can affect one’s sense of identity, and how crucial it is to maintain it. 

*The names included in this were kept anonymous to protect the individuals’ privacy.

A message from the Editor of EMPWR.

Thank you Mostafa Hassan for starting this conversation. In the second video below, we’re proud to showcase your mentioning of indeed, the power of social media. You are indeed right. We’ve had enough. Our women’s voices are heard. Thank you for standing up.
We honor you for fighting for the dignity of our Hijabi Arab women.

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