Alimath Mahmood* expected a community backlash over her decision to remove the hijab. She had worn it for 14 years, watching as Maldivian society became more conservative and more critical of women who stopped wearing it. Yet her fears were mostly unfounded.
Most people rallied round her instead of demonizing her, but still asking why she did it. Some people even reached out to say that a person’s faith was not measured by the hijab they wore, that it was possible to have great faith and not wear a headscarf.
But there were some who stopped talking to her – including her parents. It took months for them to accept her decision, even speak to her. Alimath is 31.
Other women who have taken off the headscarf told the Maldives Independent about similar struggles. The family or extended family quarrelling with them over their choice. Some were forced to wear the hijab again because of family coercion. Of the 20 women interviewed, half had stopped wearing hijab and the other half wore it but wanted to stop.
One woman had to move to a different island after she stopped wearing hijab, her friends said.
Tabloid newspaper Vaguthu published articles about the decision of celebrated singer Mariyam Ashfa to stop wearing hijab. There was criticism, and photos of her bare head provoked outrage.
“Wanting to show off their body as much as they can is a characteristic of a prostitute (ކަސްބީ އަންހެނުން). Certainly, no one can show the righteous path to someone led astray by God,” read one comment underneath such an article.
Alimath was agonising about her decision in a climate of stigma and shaming.
“I started considering it last year when I was having health issues,” Alimath says. “I had severe headaches, it made me tired and hard for me to do my job. I kept thinking it could be the hijab, there was so much heat trapped under the veil. You get that sense of relief when you take it off.”
Others who spoke to the Maldives Independent also cited health reasons for removing it. When lawmaker Asma Rasheed took off the hijab in 2015, her son said it was due to medical advice after surgery. She was in her 60s at the time.
“There’s so many health issues related to it but you hush it down because it’s walking the thin line of religion,” says Alimath. It is difficult to talk about hijab in the Maldives because it is seen as a religious duty there. Simply discussing it would be seen as anti-Islam. None of the women interviewed by the Maldives Independent wanted to be identified.
Alimath’s mother has skin problems – black lesions on her hands and legs – that doctors have attributed to covering up with dark clothes. Some women have told the Maldives Independent the hijab contributed to their mental health struggles because it was easier for them to retreat inwards. They could hide behind it, avoiding eye contact and socialising.
Noora Naeem* has decided to stop wearing hijab but is waiting for the right moment. On a local trip earlier this year, the 22-year-old went outdoors without it for the first time since she was 13. “I’ve never been so free.”
She dresses in modest clothing – jeans, loose shirts, bright headscarves – but gets chastised for not covering up enough.
“They ask me ‘Why don’t you wear longer tops?’” she says, referring to her female relatives, “but they don’t get to tell me what to wear.”
At the time she started wearing the headscarf, at her mother’s insistence, her home island was attracting scholars who gave sermons which every islander was forced to listen to. Soon, all the girls aged 10 and above covered themselves up.
The Maldives was nudged into a more conservative religious era after globalisation opened up the underdeveloped and geographically isolated country.
The ‘War on Terror’ was fuelling a deeper exploration of Islamic identity and clerics seized upon the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to claim the disaster was punishment for “not practicing the correct Islam”. A more radical Islam was brought to the Maldives’ shores.
It is now common to see Maldivian women wearing hijab, a change from decades ago. Older generations wore it later in life but their daughters, sometimes as young as nine, wore it with the onset of puberty.
Alimath worries about the young children in hijab. Even toddlers can be seen in it.
“For kids who wear hijab, somehow they’re made to believe their body is a sexual object. When you cover them up, you’re internalizing in them a notion that most parts of your body are sexualised.”
On Noora’s island, children wear long sleeves and long pants from the onset of puberty. Some families take it further.
“My aunt makes her nine-year-old wear extra layers of clothing to cover her breasts, but her breasts haven’t even developed yet,” she says.
Alimath believes there needs to be a women’s support network to help those who want to stop wearing hijab.
“Different people have different reasons for taking it off, but women who’ve removed the hijab should support those who want to get out of it. Looking back on it, I can now say it was okay for me to do, but when you’re struggling with the decision it’s really hard.”
“The problem with society is, we’re so intent on demonizing a person we forget that beneath the veil, there’s a person with hopes and aspiration. If you know the personality and character of a person, you shouldn’t think of them differently without a piece of cloth.”
*Names have been changed
Maldives Independent, January 18, 2018