Nafiza Azad is the author of the Morris Award honor book The Candle and the Flame and the upcoming YA fantasy novel The Wild Ones. Here she reflects on her experience as a hijabi feminist and the importance of sisterhood in a girl’s life.
I started wearing the hijab for all the wrong reasons. Traditionally, it is worn as an expression of piety. When I put it on, it was an act of defiance. If the world is so determined to treat me as an outsider, I reasoned, I would embrace this Otherness in its entirety. The hijab, for me, is a physical expression of Otherness.
What happened after I put on the hijab surprised me. I still felt like an Other but beyond that, I felt powerful. Western media insists that the hijab is a symbol of feminine oppression. That couldn’t be further from the truth for me. To me, putting the hijab on and wearing modest clothes doesn’t mean hiding my body; rather, it means reclaiming it. I choose who gets to see me. This choice is power—perhaps that is why the West is so wary of the hijab.
Another unexpected benefit of wearing the hijab was the unspoken and almost instantaneous sisterhood I found. I feel an immediate kinship with other hijabis I meet in the street or when I am outside. Though we may exchange only smiles and greetings, the understanding, empathy, and recognition that arcs between us is enough to let me know I am not alone.
This sense of sisterhood was what I most wanted to recreate in The Wild Ones. The girls who make up the wild ones are survivors of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. Their choices were snatched away from them and they experienced what being powerless truly means. The girls were betrayed by the people they should have most been able to trust. The Wild Ones makes no pretensions at subtlety. It is an explicit and loud feminist manifesto, written especially for women and girls of color: women and girls who have marginalized identities and occupy intersectional spaces. Women and girls who are often forgotten and frequently dismissed by both society and lawmakers. With The Wild Ones, I propose that there is power in our sisterhood: the power to not just change our present but the power to change the futures of girls and women who are just now realizing the limitations imposed upon them by dint of their gender and their race.
I wear my Otherness on my head in the form of a hijab and on my body in the color of my skin. The West seems to be determined that wearing the hijab means agreeing with the subjugation of women. Therefore, to many, the idea that a hijabi woman can be a feminist may seem absurd.
To be completely honest, I don’t get it. If I choose to wear the hijab as an expression of my identity, as an illustration of my faith, am I not giving voice to the feminist tenet that women have the right to their bodies and the freedom to wear what they want?
The hijab in itself is not a symbol of oppression. Denying a woman her right to choose whether she wants to wear it or not, is. Forcing a woman to wear revealing clothes is just as much an act of oppression as is forcing her to wear the hijab. When all is said and done, what matters are choices and the power to make them.
It is this power to make choices that I return to the girls in The Wild Ones. They have the freedom to make the decisions that they think best without worrying that the wrong choice will get them kicked out of some Strong Women Only club that interprets strength in very limiting ways. I put forward the radical notion that strength can only be defined individually. For me, in this political climate and following the terrorist acts against Muslims and Muslim women specifically, most recently in London, Ontario, stepping out of the front door wearing a hijab is strength. For another woman, strength may be something utterly different altogether. A sisterhood, as expressed in The Wild Ones, accepts these different definitions of strength not as divisive but as inclusive and binding. As one of the girls in The Wild Ones comments, “You wouldn’t ask a drop of salt water if it represented an entire ocean.” Similarly, not all drops of salt water need to be identical to belong to the same sea.
The girls in The Wild Ones have the space to mess up and be flawed. Instead of aspiring to unachievable levels of perfection, all girls and women should have the freedom to be fully human. There’s nothing wrong with being weak and soft occasionally; it is okay to be scared, and sometimes losing your temper can be the best thing you can do for yourself. You have the right to say no just as you have the right to say yes. No one, I repeat, no one has the right to tell you how to be a girl or a woman.
I call for anger in The Wild Ones: the anger that comes when you walk down the road and someone whistles at you. The anger that comes after the tears when someone tries to touch you without your permission. The anger that comes when you and your words are dismissed in a classroom or at work by people who think your gender determines your level of intellect.
The weapons the wild ones wield most proficiently in the novel are their screams. A scream is usually an utterance of extreme pain, anger, or unsuppressed emotion but, I wondered, what if I subverted that? What if a scream is not a manifestation of futility and frustration but an articulation of female power? Could the wild ones change the world if they screamed together? Can we? Let’s raise our voices. Let’s scream.