Semra Çelebi’s Double Trouble with Hijab

Semra Çelebi’s Facebook page “I took off my hijab” shares her decision to remove her headscarf after 16 years of wearing the hijab. According to Çelebi, the page was created “to gather stories and experiences of all those women around the world who stepped out of their traditional social environment and chose to live their own lives” and is dedicated to “all those women who struggle and have struggled to live their own lives.” Both statements, inclusive and nonsectarian as they are, support Çelebi’s avowed opinion that all women should have freedom to choose. She is clear that her decision to remove the hijab was an individual one, and that her page is not intended to campaign for other Muslim women to follow her example.

Image from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

For some who have commented on the page, this distinction makes little difference. Çelebi has received negative, hostile and patronizing responses, as well as more ambivalently phrased comments, many of which question the need for her to share her experiences publicly, citing anxiety about inviting anti-Islamic sentiment. For example this comment:

I respect your choice of not wearing hijab, though I regret it. And I’m sure you can still dress properly without wearing it and live your life in a well-mannered way. But your way of life is not mine or anyone else’s. That’s why I wonder: why do you need to discuss this? This way you’re inviting non-Moslems and bad Moslems to think bad about your religion. Go on with your life, don’t wear hijab if you don’t want to, don’t let anyone dictate your life, and be a good Moslem like you want to, but just stop this lame page. Let other women decide for themselves.

The reactions Çelebi has received answer the commentator’s question above. Why does Çelebi need to discuss this? Is she contradicting herself in stating that this is an individual, private decision, and then proceeding to set up a public platform for it? I can’t comment on Çelebi’s own aims for setting up this page, so I can’t address the “attention-seeking” claim, but I think if there is a contradiction, it is more evident in the mixed bag of ambivalent and defensive responses to her page.

Some of the commentators seem to take offense not at Çelebi’s act, but at her publication of it, as though stating, “I took off my hijab” is an infectious form of apostasy. Clearly, Çelebi’s experience and the reactions her page has generated show that this is a topic that needs to be discussed more openly. Her Facebook page has now become something of a platform for that discussion, with 652 members in the group, among them many hijab-wearing women. Some of these women are hostile to her choice, others empathize with Çelebi, and have shared similar feelings of being unconvinced yet pressured into wearing the hijab, while still others disagree with her decision but support it as a personal decision.

Unfortunately, coverage of Celebi’s page overlooks these various positions in taking the standard oppositional approach, underscored by that dash: “I took off my hijab – and they didn’t like it.” Whoever “they” are, Çelebi’s not one of them. She has emerged from the mass. Ironically, for both the hostile and the admiring, Çelebi’s act of removing a piece of cloth seems to strip her of being “Muslim.”

Çelebi didn’t write, “I turned my back on Islam.” She wrote, “I took off my hijab.” Yet her page is being manipulated: on the one hand, by those who see her choice as a betrayal of Islam, and on the other hand by those who celebrate it as an escape from Islam. This only highlights the dangerous superficiality of identifying the headscarf so deeply with religion. We don’t have to devalue the hijab or the Muslim women who choose to wear it to remember that even the most religious agree that wearing the headscarf is not one of the five pillars of Islam. Islam extends far beyond a piece of cloth.

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  • Dina

    “But your way of life is not mine or anyone else’s.”

    Interesting statement in its sweeping generalization of what “anyone else” is thinking.

    Generally, I find the reactions which reproach the publication to Ms. Celebi quite contradictory. It is very common for women to share their stories of donning the hijab, on facebook youtube and elsewhere. It is very common for men and women to post pretty, sometimes highly cheesy, sometimes interesting and unusual stories on a woman or girl who chose to wear hijab on their profiles or blogs.
    Now if people posted stories of women taking off hijab on their profiles or blogs, I suppose this would meet unfriendly reactions. Why practice spread, publication and in a certain sense proselytization of one’s convictions, but hostility towards other people spreading what is important to them for whatever reason?
    I say more power to stories of women who are happier with hijab (as long as it is not done in a brainwashing way by propagandists, I won’t say more power to them), more power to stories of women who feel they take on their own lives and get freer when putting off hijab as a rather limiting way of dressing as no one will disagree (I am not saying I do not understand the purpose, but undoubtedly it is more work and more limiting to cover your entire body and especially hair before even opening the door than a more effortless way of dressing).

    I wonder why many religious people see proselytization of their convictions and choices as almost a duty; yet are at people’s throat for doing the same with the opposite content. I go by the motto one should not do to others what one would not like for oneself, or one should grant others the same rights one takes for granted for oneself.

  • Jihad Punk XXX

    love this post! I also wore hijab and then took it off. the most hostile reactions I got were from non-hijabi Muslim women (yes, you read that right). They were scandalized, as if they felt that I was saying “hey look, hijab has been a waste of time and I don’t like Islam anymore,” and they confronted me, they didn’t “agree” with my decision. Yet they themselves didn’t wear hijab (hypocrites). Other hijabis were upset with me, but they didn’t react as badly as the non-hijabi sisters.

    Those who reacted badly, made me feel like I was a sell-out. I had to remind myself that I took off the hijab because I wanted to– just like how I made the decision to wear hijab in the first place, because I WANTED to.

    Islam teaches that Muslims must have sincere intentions when it comes to praying, fasting, paying zakat, and that includes wearing hijab. I felt unhappy with the hijab because I was starting to question the meaning of hijab and I no longer felt it was necessary to wear hijab, I felt like I was deceiving myself and Allah. I knew that Allah would want me to be true to myself, so I took off the hijab. F–k what anyone said.

    We have the choice to start wearing hijab, and then have the choice to take it off. too bad other Muslims around us don’t feel the same way.

  • L. Alahem

    I wore hijab for four years. I started wearing it as a new muslim, and then, I found that somehow my whole identity got wrapped up in the scarf. I stopped wearing it about 2 years ago, and then have recently begun wearing it again, but not at my work. I decided that for me, concentrating on the 5 pillars, most especially salat, deserved more of my attention than what scarf I would wear. Islam is my deen, my faith. Islam is not a wardrobe or a fashion statement. There will come a time when I wear it full time again, but when I do, it will be for the right reasons, and not to forge an identity that I don’t feel that I deserve. As she says, it’s personal.

  • Leena

    It’s one thing choosing not to wear the hijab, and another to reject it as being a part of Islam.
    Islam does not just revolve around the five pillars.
    Is wudoo’ or ablution part of the five pillars? Does this make it something that isn’t part of Islam?
    If someone chooses not to follow something in Islam, it is there choice. But Muslims must still sincerely advise them to obey Allah and His messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). But to stop practising something in Islam, and then say that it isn’t part of Islam is incorrect.
    Hijab is a part of Islam:

    “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful”

    [al-Ahzaab 33:59]

    There is a difference of a opinion amongst scholars as to whether covering the face is obligatory or not, but that’s not the point of my post.

    I am not perfect, like many other muslims, and there are many things that I need to improve in, like many other people. So we need to try our best in obeying Allah and His messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). But don’t make yourself a platform and outright reject hijab. We need to all check our intentions for wearing hijab, sometimes people do it as a part of their culture. Nevertheless, Hijab is a part of Islam, whether in the five pillars or not.
    We should not reject anything in Islam if it doesn’t fit our lifestyle.

    May Allah increase us all in beneficial knowledge and guide us and keep us firm on the straight path. Ameen.

  • Fatemeh

    Just a reminder: this isn’t the place for personal stories (you can do that on Semra’s Facebook page) or “hijab is obligatory” preaching. Please keep the comment moderation rules in mind: it must be relevant to the (media) post above.

  • Humayra’

    ‘Yet her [Celebi's] page is being manipulated: on the one hand, by those who see her choice as a betrayal of Islam, and on the other hand by those who celebrate it as an escape from Islam.”

    The media unfortunately doesn’t tend to be good at capturing nuance, especially when anything to do with Muslim women is concerned. This habit of categorizing stories about Muslim women as either about victims or escapees dies hard. But I can’t see this getting any better if Muslim women opt to silence themselves for fear of being misunderstood or having their voices coopted. As far as I can see, the situation will only improve if we insist on telling our own stories.

    As for those Muslims who see Celebi’s page as a betrayal of Islam, or as somehow pressuring women who wear hijab to take it off, their response seems way too defensive, as well as highly problematic.

    Leena, for instance, has just posted a verse from the Quran:

    “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful” [al-Ahzaab 33:59]

    and says, rather patronizingly,

    “We should not reject anything in Islam if it doesn’t fit our lifestyle.”

    I wonder if those who posted similar comments on Semra Celebi’s page realize just how off-putting this sort of rhetoric can be to those who don’t wear hijab, or who are considering wearing it. Here, a verse from the Quran is being used as a weapon: “hijab is in the Quran; here it is in black and white; it’s a part of Islam; you may not question!”

    Even though this verse, especially as Leena cites it in that notorious Saudi translation (Hilali and Khan), would seem to provide more fodder for questions than pat answers. Hilali and Khan’s insertion of the phrase “as free respectable women” (words which are not in the quranic text itself) indicate that hijab is to be worn by free women in order to differentiate themselves from slave women, who apparently don’t merit the same respectful treatment in public. Slavery is now abolished legally worldwide. but would any reasonable person argue on the strength of that verse that it must be brought back? The Quran has a whole lot more to say about slavery than about women’s dress, after all.

    Maybe a way to work towards derailing the typical “victim/escapee” media discourse (on hijab and on anything else) as well as the common conservative Muslim “you’re betraying/misrepresenting/undermining Islam” charge is to insist on raising such complex and open-ended questions publicly.

  • adya

    Ahm.. in what way would you say personal stories on peoples reactions with taking off hijab is unrelated to an article on a personal story of takin off hijab and of peoples reactions to that action.. not quite gettin the critique..

    • Fatemeh

      @ adya: Tasnim’s post isn’t about taking off the hijab; it’s about how the media has reacted to Semra’s story.

  • Tasnim

    @Leena: Just to clarify, I didn’t argue that hijab is not a part of Islam – that would be an odd position for me to take, as I wear hijab myself. But this post wasn’t intended as a theological lecture, so I didn’t go into the hijab debate armed with injunctions for or against.
    Given the rhetoric on the page though, I thought it was relevant to point out that hijab is not one of the five pillars of Islam, i.e whatever interpretation is taken, taking off your headscarf doesn’t make you Non-Muslim.

  • Aisha

    What bothers me in Semra’s page is the juxtaposition of taking off the hijab with “stepp[ing] out of their traditional social environment and [choosing] to live their own lives”, which seems to equate the two and leads to the inference that women wearing the hijab are only doing so in response to the dictates of a “traditional social environment” and cannot be considered as “[living] their own lives”. This statement may be non-sectarian, but it certainly does not sound inclusive, especially in the context of several European Muslim women whose struggle takes them towards a very different path. Again, Semra may say her choice is an individual one and may not be defining the right and wrong choices. However, that juxtaposition still sounds quite judgmental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people who made the opposite choice fro the same reasons as Semra felt alienated by this page. The media, biased as we know it is, is in this case only amplifying the “victim/escapee” message that already seems to be implied in these statements.

    As for Dina’s assumption that the hijab is “more work” and a “limiting” way of dressing, I would say that it takes a very similar amount of time to pin or tie your hijab as it does to fix up your hair. And the tyranny of the monolithic fashion world is far more “limiting” in choice, creativity, expression of individuality and acceptance of femininity (I mean, try fitting round hips into straight-legged square-hipped trousers, which is currently the main design on offer!)

  • Tasnim

    @Aisha: I take your point as to the inference of her statement. Semra’s page clearly hasn’t escaped the usual binaries underlying almost all discussions of Muslim women, and her opposition of tradition vs choice is part of that dynamic. But it’s also part of the individualist mindset, as is the dedication to women who have “struggled to live their own lives.” How individualist feminism plays into the victim/escapee mentality warrants its own discussion, but I can accept that some might be alienated by the opposition of tradition and choice.

    As Fatemeh mentioned above, the post focused more on the responses to her page rather than her self-representation or her decision to remove the headscarf. However those choices were formulated, I think the responses do more to impose the victim/escapee idea than Semra’s words. What I found most problematic were that the comments intending to promote hijab align it with a lack of freedom, underscoring the idea that if you’re not free to remove your hijab, you’re not free in wearing it. This kind of response devalues hijab, does a disservice to the Muslim women who wear it, and only entrenches the idea that “tradition” can’t be a choice.