Feminist Muslim Toqa Hassan Explains Islam and the Role of the Hijab
words and photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
“And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal…” Qur’an, Verse (24:31) translation by Abdul Haleem.
“Indonesia,” one of the only four white men in the room confidently answered. He was right. Indonesia does have the largest population of Muslims in the world. Among the many misconceptions about Muslims is that the majority of Muslims are Arabs from the Middle East. Actually, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs from the Middle East, but the majority of Arabs are Muslim.
“It’s like a rhombus is not a square but a square is a rhombus kind of thing,” Muslim and researcher Toqa Hassan says. Another major misconception is that all Muslim women who wear the hijab are oppressed. “Hijab is just the fabric we wear as a form of obedience [to Islam],” Toqa said. According to Islam, the official religion of Muslims, wearing the hijab is technically a choice.
“Islam is not requiring you to cover. Islam is giving you the option to obey,” Toqa said. “The rules for modesty are intended to protect and guard the dignity and honor of Muslim women.” However, some countries, like Saudi Arabia, legally require women to use the cover. Toqa is a communications graduate student at the University of Akron and researcher of the hijab and its influences on Muslim women who live in the West. Toqa admits that as a person of today’s society, she sometimes falls victim to comparison.
“This [wearing the hijab] is a way for me to not conform to the beauty standards of society today,” she says. On June 12, with only three days left of Ramadan until Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s major holidays, Toqa stood at the front of a small room in the Northwest Akron Branch Library. Her satin two-toned purple and floral hijab framed her face and was pinned and styled purposefully toward her right shoulder. Eighteen people sat scattered across five rows, waiting to hear her presentation, “Introduction to Islam: A Woman’s Perspective.”
Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, prayer and introspection for Muslims. During Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, must restrain from sexual activity and immoral behavior and focus on being better versions of themselves. The idea is to create discipline, cultivate clarity and gratitude, honor Allah and ultimately achieve salvation. Timing is precious to the rules of fasting. Fasts are broken as soon as the sun peaks above the horizon and then again in the evening when the sun sits directly between the horizon and the other side of the world once more. It’s 6 pm when Toqa begins the discussion. She’s already been fasting for approximately 12 hours, and apologizes “if she sounds tired.” At exactly 8:58 pm, Toqa and her family will break their fast and share a meal together. The crowd at the library was the largest Toqa had ever spoken to. Among the folks attending, seven were men and women of color, seven were white women, and four were white men. Four of the women of color, including Toqa, her mom, and her sister, were wearing hijab. One white woman, a former Christian turned Muslim was also wearing a hijab.
“Women are the highest converters to Muslim in the US and UK,” Toqa reports. “If women thought that this religion was terrible, you wouldn’t have this statistic.” The hijab is a symbol of what’s inside of a Muslim woman. Without speaking, the hijab tells you what she believes, how she expects to be treated, and how you can expect to be treated by her. “It’s kind of like a filter,” Toqa explains. Toqa was 13 when she started wearing her hijab. She couldn’t wait to wear it, surprising even her parents, who told her it wasn’t time just yet, until eventually it was. Toqa grew up in Egypt until her 4th grade year. In 2006, she and her family moved to the United States where her father was earning his PhD at the University of Akron, and where her mother also ended up earning her PhD. Karen Jones, a white woman and community member, sat in the front row closest to Toqa. She asked question after question, discarding old notions with each of Toqa’s answers. “What I thought was completely wrong,” Karen said, “I came here to ask you, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are they making you do this?’” she adds, referring to the hijab. Toqa, a feminist, interprets the suggestions for men and women in the Qur’an as non-binary. “I don’t think I would stand for something that degrades me as a person. I’m a woman, you know? I can’t change that,” Toqa laughed. For Toqa and other women who choose to don their headwear, it’s a symbol of inner beauty, pride and individuality.
“The hijab is a constant way of me remembering that I do not conform, I only submit to my lord… I don’t submit to social media standards, I submit to my lord,” Toqa declared against western beauty standards. Though Toqa is dedicated to her decision to wear the hijab, she respects individuality and believes in self-government, “I want people to make their own choice,” she said.