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Writing the Hijab

As a Muslim writer, there are two tropes I told myself I would never write. Not because they don’t have the potential to be published, but because I’ve witnessed the harm these tropes have on my community. The first is the voyeur perspective on hijab. The second is the hyper-aggressive archetype of Muslim men. This article will talk about the former, but it will briefly mention the latter. The reason being that these two tropes often overlap and lean on each other.

So let’s get started!

Why Are You Writing Muslim Characters?

The Hijab is a religious headscarf that conceals a Muslim woman’s hair and neck. It is also a practice of following the rules of modesty. When writing Hijabi (Muslim women who practice hijab) characters, it’s important to ask yourself: Why am I writing this character? Is this for Muslim or Hijabi readers? Is it to fulfill some sort of diversity quota because it seems like the publishing industry is looking for it? This is something you should ask yourself when writing any marginalized character.

If you’re writing a story that takes place within a large Muslim community, how do you plan to have your writing reflect that community? Whether your Hijabi character is the central part of the story or a side character, jot some notes down on why she needs to be Muslim and a Hijabi in the first place.

The main issue when a writer enters with the mentality of “I need diversity” is it doesn’t authentically reflect the “diverse” group of people, instead, it is to fill the need of the writer or publisher. The result of this mentality is a diverse but not an inclusive story. If you’re writing an inclusive Hijabi character for the Muslim community (and more specifically, for Hijabis), the hijab itself should not be the main internal conflict of the story. Your Hijabi can simply exist in your story, without her struggling with her religion or hijab itself. There are great ways to write a Hijabi character that stays as a Hijabi. Where her hijab isn’t the focal point for her existence in your universe and she can grow as a character and remains a Hijabi.

Avoid Voyeurism

This is something a lot of writers might dip into without realizing it. Scrap it out immediately. Hijab is more than just a head covering, there are multiple meanings and layers to the concept of “hijab.” The English language limits a lot of it. In the simplest way to put it: the hijab is a barrier between what is public and private, the original meaning as “partition, screen, curtain.” Any sexualization is intended to be private. That is how one practices Hijab. Even scenes that take place in private, e.g. between a couple, can fall under voyeurism. When we wear hijab, we are creating a boundary and asking others to respect it. Therefore, even private scenes that may seem harmless (like a Hijabi removing her hijab at home) can overstep that boundary if written incorrectly.

Some things that may overstep that boundary:

  • Sexual language

  • Hyper fixation on and oversexualizing the body, hair, and curves

  • Removing the Hijab as a result of a developing love interest.

And really, why do we as readers need to know all these physical details? It’s not anyone’s business what her body looks like, how her fabric drapes her body, or general curiosity of how long her hair is. These descriptions fall under voyeurism and the best way to cut it is to focus more on internal aspects of the character instead of the body.

Focus On Internal Conflict

Now when it comes to the internal development of a Hijabi character, that is ultimately left to the writer and how they want the audience to perceive the character. However, it is important to be aware of problematic tropes that have real consequences to the community you’re representing. One harmful cliche in media with Hijabi characters is what I would call the “sacrifice of modesty.” Here is an example :

I’m going to have this young adult hijabi go to school, get bullied for being Muslim, have some romantic interest preferably white) understand her, and after a fight with her parents, she takes it off and dates them. She’s so progressive now! right?

Well, that’s not the best character development to give Muslim girls who practice hijab. It’s true, a lot of Muslim girls take off their hijabs. Some do it in earlier years than others. Some wear it “part-time.” Some wear it due to family expectations. But it’s important to be more thoughtful of why they might take it off.

There are various reasons, but the majority are internal and integral to our reality. With anything someone wears, there is agency even if social and institutional influences pressure us in a certain direction. Yet somehow it gets to the repeated cliches where the agency of choice is taken away from us Hijabis. The girl takes it off and receives love, affection, attention as a result of her sacrifice. While the two might not be a direct cause and effect, this trope frequently happens in that order. But isn’t there still a choice in taking off her hijab and dating someone? Yes, but that choice has become a cliche and oftentimes falls into White Saviorism. Even if the boyfriend isn’t white, why does she need a boy as a reason to take off her hijab? Why does she only receive confidence, love, affection, and respect once she takes it off? Many of these reasons stem from ethnocentrism, Orientalism, and Voyeurism.

Another example is the girl who takes her hijab off to rebel against her parents who forced her to wear it. There can be a conflict between children and their parents without it being oppressive or hyper-aggressive. Her parents might influence her, but there are other concepts you can use to show the dynamic between the two (without villainizing her parents, especially her father). In reality, not every conflict a Hijabi has with her family, her Muslim community, and the general public is related to hijab.

With Hijabis, multiple internal factors come with the choice of wearing and removing hijab. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend writing the removal of the hijab unless you’ve experienced wearing one. There is a lot that goes into the choice for removing it, and the topic is a complicated and delicate one. Also, it can be disheartening as a reader when you’re happy to see yourself in a story and as act three unfolds, you’re completely removed from it by removing the thing (the hijab) that you identify with. But if you must include it, I’ve got you covered (pun intended).

Here are some real-life examples I’ve heard as reasons for removing hijab:

  1. Finding one's sense of self: “I don’t feel ready to wear the hijab yet” or “I don’t feel connected to the act of practicing hijab”

  2. Some are influential “I want to experience wearing my hair a certain way to school” or “I want to feel the wind blow through my hair as I drive through the highway, like in the movies”

  3. Some are circumstantial “Should I take off my hijab while I’m driving through this part of town that’s infamous for Islamaphobic incidents?” or “I should try walking into this job interview without my hijab”

All of these reasons are what I’ve found the most common among Muslim women who have thought about taking off their hijab. Some of us take it off, for a day or indefinitely. Some of us have kept it on despite these thoughts. However, there are a lot of us who keep it on despite the many reasons stacked against us not to. There is something powerful and comforting in being unapologetic about how you live your life and what you choose to cover.

Ultimately, when writing the hijab, be mindful of the people you’re representing and realize with more diversity comes a brand new audience. Give yourself kindness, but also time to learn and discover. While it’s natural to have some blind spots, having people within the Muslim community read over your manuscript can help. Read more Muslim authors and about the Muslim community, talk to your local Mosque and ask them questions about the Hijab. Ask multiple Muslims who are willing to help, because not every opinion is universal. Find a sensitivity reader to be honest in their critique while also compassionate for your writing. You might not be a Hijabi, but we’ve got you covered.

Hana Ali is a Yemeni Muslim living in California. She enjoys reading, writing, and helping other writers with their projects. During her free time, she enjoys Korean dramas, animal crossing, and researching Islamic mythology and Yemeni folklore. If you would like Hana to sensitivity read your project, you can request her on the Writing Diversely Directory.

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