The Muslim influencer who removed her hijab: a publicity stunt or a personal struggle?

Pic: You Tube

By Sophie Gregory, 25 June 2020

A Muslim model and fashion designer has chosen to remove her hijab, sparking online debate among her young fans.

Amena Khan, a 36-year-old social media influencer born in Leicester, explained the change in a 20-minute YouTube video.

Amena, who has been on YouTube for 10 years and has more than 400,000 subscribers , said: “I’ve decided to stop wearing the hijab . . . it was a fairly spur-of-the -moment decision. I’ve made content before where I’ve said that your goodness or your religiosity cannot be measured by external things that other people tend to judge and quantify.”

Amena did not give her reasons. Instead, she said: “I’m not a religious figure. I’ve said that from day one. It’s one of the reasons why I became kind of reluctant to make videos where I talked about my faith because . . . I was being put in this position of responsibility which I absolutely was not comfortable with.”

She also told viewers she that she did not justify her previous choice to begin wearing her hijab in her early twenties as “I never wanted the female Muslim experience to be boxed up into what is perceived to be the experience of a few”.

The video has been viewed more than 560,000 times, and has sparked debate among Amena’s followers about ‘descarfing’, the hijab, and the role of influencers. A number of young Muslims have created response videos and taken to Twitter to express their feelings about the decision — accusing her of profiting from the hijab for her business, Pearl Daisy, which sells modestwear and hijabs.

Here are a selection of tweets about it:

In her video, Amena told her viewers “we are more than our hijab” and “I will always advocate for women, whatever they choose to do with their bodies, I’ll always stand by hijabis, always”.

Amena had been publicly wearing the hijab since her twenties and gained fame after being chosen to represent a L’Oreal Campaign about hair, but was dropped over her comments about Israel and Gaza.

COMMENTATORS

Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, assistant professor, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University: “Islamic principles around modesty are rooted in its foundational texts and wearing the hijab is grounded in the hadith. However, there is a lot of diversity around practices for women and men with regards to modesty, and there is space for this diversity within Islamic theology. What’s interesting is that this focus on modesty is often superimposed on women’s bodies, rather than men’s bodies, even though Islamic modesty principles apply to both men and women. Across all society women’s clothing choices are much more scrutinised by society.

“Amena’s decision stems from her personal relationship with God. It should really be only her choice — and indeed any woman’s choice. The hijab is important is Islam. I wear it for the same religious reasons that millions of Muslim women all over the world wear it for. But it’s not one of Islam’s core beliefs. It is also a garment with a lot of baggage — women face so much judgment as a result of what they chose to wear or not wear.

“There will be impacts of this decision as a result of her public image. This might raise pressures on young Muslims in different ways and force then to take a stance — either to support her decision or to say that Amena is wrong. Though this should be about Amena’s own personal decision, it could affect Muslim women all over the world.

“There is a possibility it will be used by people to fuel their opinions about the hijab and judgments of Muslim women. In fact, it might also reignite some of the questions around the Muslim female identity: who is a ‘good’ modern Muslim woman? Is it the woman who wears the hijab with a bit of hair showing? Is it the woman wearing a hijab with jeans? Is it the woman who doesn’t wear one?

“Although Muslim women continue to face significant discrimination due to their visibility, we — society as whole — have also made limited progress in recognising the diversity of identities among Muslim women. I hope that this new debate does not push us backwards. We need to recognise Muslim women for their contributions to society rather than judge them for what they wear.”

Dr Rachel Woodcock, a visiting lecturer in Islam at University College Cork, said: “In Europe, I would say that figures like Amena and Dina [Torkia, known as Dina Tokio online] are quite prominent . . . they’re not overly religious but are connected to their Muslim identity. What’s interesting about Amena and others [is that] they have a positive connection to Islam that’s not necessarily about religion or the fundamental elements of the religion.

“For this generation, the hijab is about a connection to their Muslim identity rather than a religious traditionalist or fundamentalist attitude to the garment. In this sense, it is a ‘different hijab’. This new relationship with the hijab is clear in Amena’s video. She didn’t mention God or refer to her choice as a religious act. For people who wear the headcovering as a religious act, taking it off is an act of disobeying God. For them, this is a betrayal.

“There is a tension regarding the relationship between individual freedom and faith. In the West, the one moral boundary that cannot be crossed is any imposed limitation on individual choice. The freedom to take off the hijab is, of course, in line with that freedom. For some Muslims, though, freedom of choice must also contain willing submission to God, individual choices must be in line with the law of God.

“Also, many women correctly argue that wearing the hijab is their own personal choice. However, we do have to take into account that there are always social, cultural and political pressures in any public choices we make, and her choice will have been influenced by those pressures, as will the choices her followers make in response to her decision.

“We also have to take into account that wearing the hijab is hard. So, there is a sense of ‘sister, you’ve let us down’. I think, for some, they feel it almost would have been better had she never put the hijab on in the first place. If she had never worn it, it would not have caused such a stir.”

A female Muslim academic, who declined to be named, said: “As it is effectively an order in the Koran, modest dress, including ‘draw their veils over their chests’ is a religious obligation, and doing it is an act of worship. In Islam, religious obligations are individual, no one else is responsible for them being carried out. Any Muslim woman who struggles with wearing the hijab is, at the core, struggling with other issues as well, and removal of the hijab is simply a symptom of these.

“As for Amena, I don’t know her so I cannot say what her real reasons for removing it are, but from experience I can assume her hijab is simply a symptom of a bigger underlying struggle.

“Religiously speaking, we should be concerned that our own personal struggles with faith should not become something for public consumption, because we all have them from time to time and to varying degrees. We don’t want to be held responsible by God for someone else also falling into confusion just because they ‘follow’ us. Especially if our fame has come on the back of promoting something that is a religious obligation, like hijab.

“I truly empathise with whatever Amena is struggling with. However, I think it would have been far, far preferable, in many ways, for her to find a way to bow out of the public eye before taking the step she did. She could have avoided the stress of the inevitable accusations of ‘attention-seeking’ and ‘publicity stunt’ and so on. She could have avoided the accusations of ‘leading Muslim girls astray’. I cannot say what her intentions were in making her decision so public, but the uproar it has caused will only serve to create divisions and arguments that are not good for anyone’s mental health and resilience. For the community at large, the story will fade away as it has with other influencers who have de-hijabbed. But for Amena herself, the stress of these days will likely have long-term repercussions.”