Raising a Hijab-Wearing Daughter in a World that Doesn’t Understand

When she turned 15, my daughter announced her intention to start wearing the hijab (Muslim head scarf). At the time, we had been living in Qatar for nine years and upon our arrival in Dubai she donned her first veil.
Nothing prepared me for the deluge of feelings that followed. Her soft cheeks, her doe shaped eyes and a perfect nose used to be encircled by a halo of dark brown hair that I tended to lovingly while she was younger. I reminisced about those countless hours washing, combing and braiding it, nourishing it with regular applications of coconut and almond oils. I remembered the way the sun shone off the auburn and gold highlights when she played in the park. I thought of the road ahead of her—how hard it will be, how little she knew of what awaited in the future.
A sense of irrational fear and foreboding enveloped my days following her transformation. It was post 9/11 and the subsequent anti-Islamic sentiment was rampant. Terrible scenarios churned in my mind. What if she became the target of condemnation on our next trip to the U.S. and Europe? What if people looked at her with mistrust, suspicion or simply unkindness? I put together a list of reasons to discourage her from this life-altering decision.
First, she was too young. I wanted her to wait until she finished college at least, in order to have a greater understanding of to what she was committing. On the other hand, since many of her friends were already ‘hijabis’, I knew this tactic wouldn’t work. Second, I felt she needed more information about the path that lay ahead, the difficulties that she might face. Previously, she was an active girl, won prizes in horseback riding, tae kwon do and gymnastics. She was on the swim team. I wondered if the billowing hijab would alter her priorities or stifle her dreams in some way.
The thing that struck me the most once she started wearing the veil was the instant profiling from strangers and those close as well. Some branded her a timid girl whose family probably forced her into this choice. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Others elevated her to almost divine status, as they saw only the virtuous, thinking highly of her every move and hanging onto her every word. Somehow, in a matter of months she had attained the respect of her peers and family that takes other teenagers years to achieve.
Her impish locks disappeared beneath the length of swirling silky cloth. Those dark eyes looked at me, at the world with an assurance, defiance and mostly conviction.
There were times when I was startled by the sight of her in front of the school, books across her chest, a heavy bag on her back, chatting animatedly with other girls, some hijab wearing, others Christian, even Druze.
Who was this girl? I would ask myself repeatedly. And what had she done with my daughter? On sweltering Dubai days, I would worry she was too hot, only to have her tell me calmly that she was fine. She never fiddled with the scarf, never complained when the air was too wet and hot even to breathe. Over time, she experimented and then molded her own version of trendy hijab, manifested by wearing rings on all her fingers, owning an electric guitar and driving my car like a possessed madwoman.
Her European side of the family politely avoided the topic. Some pretended not to notice the obvious change and a few voiced their disbelief, questioning why we would allow this transformation. Even my more liberal Muslim friends and acquaintances swiftly concealed shock when I introduced her. The hijab highlighted the obvious contrast between mother and daughter.
“Did you force her to wear it?” asked a voice shrill with the promise of delicious gossip later on. “But she doesn’t have to wear it, you know?” from others intending to inform me, a clueless Westerner. In their eyes I detected a flicker, a hint of blame as if somehow I must be responsible for my daughter’s “suffering”.
After all, they whispered, aren’t those who wear the hijab usually forced to? Aren’t they all dominated by male relatives, society and overzealous imams?
Their ignorance exasperates me, because I know a Salha, a Nadia and a Zahra and many other young girls who have adorned themselves with the veil on their own volition. Many third culture kids yearn to belong. In the absence of a parents’ homeland comes a sense of displacement, of questioning just as many other teenagers might question their very existence. Some find their identity in their faith.
As a Muslim convert, my path has been different from my daughter’s—an amalgamation of experiences and influences resulting from my years spent as the stepdaughter of a Muslim, growing up in a Muslim country and embracing Islamic culture and later, a Muslim husband. Even though each of us practices our religion in her own unique way, the two of us make perfect sense to each other.
Mine is a moderate, spiritual view. In a religion of rules, I follow the ones that speak to me in the most sincere form. I believe in the good in each man, child and woman, I trust that God is looking out for us. I know we are all loved.
My daughter practices hers on her own free will. She fasts and prays and has an unshakeable trust in the words that rise from the Quran. Hers is a journey galaxies away from mine, the strength of her character evident by her dedication to a lifestyle that is by no means easy in today’s world of skeptics. I admire her courage and wish I could have some of it too.
Wherever her life might take her, she will make her own way, her own choices as she always has. And then, she will stand by them. Her joyful certainty has me humbled. I’m in awe of her tranquil composure, her highly held head on which a delicately swirling, tenderly wound hijab rests like a crown. She carries it proudly, unflinchingly, unapologetically.
As she rushed to board her plane a couple of months ago, I followed her with my eyes. A sparkle caught my attention. I smiled at her newly bought earrings, the scarf that was coming undone in her haste.
That’s when I saw it. A single tendril of dark hair caressing her neck lovingly.
She turned, blew me a kiss and was gone.


  1. Very honest piece. I really enjoyed. I am glad it portrayed the fact that derision for wearing hijab comes from within the Muslim community as well, not just from non-Muslims…that strikes at the notion that we are all coerced into wearing it (though not denying that some women are forced at times). Many of us face shock and opposition from our own community members. It also highlights how much judgement our (hijabis’) family members get (husbands, parents) for being perceived as possibly having forced us into it. I am glad to see Zvezdana accepted her daughter’s decision and gave full unwavering support even in the face of judgement, as this can be just as shocking as a child wanting a purple mohawk for some parents. Sounds like a great mother and daughter!

  2. What a lovely, lovely piece! It shines with beauty, sincerity and experience.

    Your best yet, Zvezdana,


  3. As usual, Zvezdana, your insight and style of writing inspires me. Your spirit and understanding, I’m sure, inspires your daughter.

  4. Zvezdana,
    Your daughter sounds like an amazing woman and your story is so very moving. I can feel your fierce protectiveness and her equally as fierce individuality. I love that she doesn’t seem defensive to those who question her. I have attempted to explain to people ‘back home’ that there are many Muslim women who choose to cover but it tends to fall on deaf ears. They seem to feel that it’s just my naivete protecting my sensitive nature. I’ve always been a strong proponent of choice, and not just choice that suits the limited beliefs and understandings of those around us.
    Thank-you for sharing,
    Anne 🙂

  5. Is the majority of the Muslim world like Qatar?
    Are the cities of Qatar like the cities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh?
    Qatar has 1 million people, Afghanistan has 30 million, Pakistan almost 200 million.
    What you do not understand is that the situation in the oil rich arab countries like Qatar are not like the majority of the Muslim world.
    Qatar has 1 million people.
    Do you think the majority of girls in the muslim world get to choose if and when they want to wear the hijab?
    Do you think all girls in the muslim world can even go to school at age 16?
    Self centered.

  6. Thank you all so much for your insightful and gracious comments. I am happy that most of you understood that this is a personal essay and the journey of one girl and her mother.
    > As for those who disagree thank you for your input as well. They are entitled to their opinion and I can see their point. However,I never said that I speak for all the Muslim girls/women across the globe who might or might not be forced to wear the veil. I know many Pakistani girls and women as well as from other Arab countries (and Some non Arab like Bosnia and Malaysia for example) who are perfectly comfortable with their decisions either way. It is terribly unjust when someone is forced to wear the hijab, not attend school etc…I am aware it happens and it breaks my heart.
    > This however, is a magazine that strives to bring people and parents together through cultural and religious understanding, diversity and tolerance as this article hopefully should too. This is not a political discussion on the rights of Muslim women etc. I think you missed the point.

  7. Beautifully written piece. There is some sort of a calmness even as divergent beliefs try to coexist, and that is amazing.

  8. There comes a point when we have to let our children express their individual personalities, whether we agree or not with their view/actions. If we have done our job as parents well, they’ll be equipped with adequate knowledge to make a balanced and informed decision and the channels of communication remain open for discussions to take place. On top of this, faith is an intensely personal subject, different for everyone. I’m glad that you and your daughters’ dual expressions of belief can co-exist happily in your house. A thoughtful and touching piece.

  9. I loved this piece, so sensitive, so beautifully written, so full of love and respect for her daughter and her decision to wear the hijab that it positively shines. The feelings expressed, more beautifully that I could have done, reflect my own mix of feelings about my daughter’s decision to wear the hijab. I am American and the wife of an Emirati. My daughter faced the same decision, but with a slight difference. She knew that in her culture, where expatriates vastly outnumber nationals and identity takes on an extra crucial importance, one is not only immensely proud of being an Emirati and not only desirous of being a good Muslim, but one wants to stand out in a globally mixed society identified as such. My daughter knew that eventually she would be expected to wear a hijab and abaya. No one ever pushed her at any point. In fact, my husband was very sensitive that this was her decision and that she be allowed to make it in her own time without anyone interfering or pressuring her. My daughter has cousins in Saudi Arabia whom she is very close to, so when visiting them she had to wear a hijab. This helped her to make the transition. She decided to wear the hijab and abaya in highschool, as did most of her Emirati friends. I felt proud of her, but at the same time a bit apprehensive about what the reaction would be in America, when she traveled there, as I was aware of incidents of racial profiling and prejudice there, especially in the wake of 9/11. As a senior, she was chosen to represent the UAE for the Global Youth Leaders group, and chose to wear her hijab. I reminded her that she didn’t have to if she felt that she stood out too much, as the point of Muslim women wearing a hijab and dressing modestly is to not stand out or attract unwanted attention. It was a very hot Washington summer. Before the program started, she and I went sight-seeing around the city, she with her black hijab wound around her head several times. We were both perspiring, but she was determined to be true to her convictions. During her program, she came met young people from all over the world and became very close to some of them, especially her Jewish American roommate. She also made efforts to get to know the Israeli girls in the program who responded to her friendliness, at first guardedly, then warmly. She visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, wearing her hijab of course, and had to go through extra security procedures. Because it was an emotionally moving experience, she comforted the Israeli girls who were in tears. I felt very proud of her and heartened that she’d had such a profound experience in building bridges between and among cultures. Wearing a hijab is a very personal decision that reflects many different aspects of religious belief, personal identity, cultural expression, as well as national identity. Once, when someone asked her if she “had” to wear it or “was forced” to wear it, she smiled and said that she had freely and happily chosen to wear it. I wonder if that person would have asked the same of an Orthodox Jewish woman, or a nun, or a male Sikh, or an Indian woman wearing her national dress, a sari. While not all of those are the same situation, as a nun obviously has to don the habit, they are all cases of dress reflecting identity, whether religious, national or personal. At the end of my daughter’s program, she found herself in a food court in New York ordering pizza. When she looked up, she noticed a nun in her habit standing to one side, and a Hasidic Jew with a black hat and side curls to her right. The three of them looked at each other and laughed. One of them said, “Well, we’re all here, aren’t we?” How wonderful is human diversity! How terrible if would be if we all dressed or thought alike. Thank you to Svevland for her very sensitive and exquisitely written piece on her wonderful relationship with her hijabi daughter.

  10. HI Zvezdana,

    Really wonderful piece. I enjoyed reading it.

    I love how you supported your daughter even though she chose something that perhaps you would not have chosen for her. I think that is true parental love–supporting your child’s choices even when you might disagree–the most selfless act we can do as mothers.

    It continues to amaze me how someone can look at a woman in hijab and see only a woman oppressed. What a narrow-minded and ignorant view. Yes, many unfortunate events happen in the Muslim World–actually all over the entire world. This is not a reason to drop our values–because of some wacky behavior in Afganistan.

    It’s interesting how in the West some people do not question a woman’s or girl’s RIGHT to wear sexually revealing clothing or uncomfortable, unhealthy high-heeled shoes. People see this as a right, a freedom. Yet when a woman chooses to be modest, they see this as oppression. Hmmmm. Quite ethnocentric if you ask me.

    Well, obviously, your story and your writing struck a nerve with your readers. Well done. I’m looking forward to reading more from you. All the best to you, your daughter and your writing.

  11. Well written. I felt the mother’s love for her daughter and her decision . I think Holly atticulated so clearly l what I would have said, but not so well! Keep up the writing.

  12. Zvezdana,

    I cannot express how your piece touched me. Your silent support of your daughter’s decision speaks volumes of your love and admiration of who she is becoming. It’s a horrible thing that we have to worry about how our children will be treated according to their values…especially when those values are virtuous rather than hedonistic. I’m happy that your daughter could take such a brave and unwavering step toward adulthood on her own and I’m even happier that you are golden enough to let her become who she is without trial and tribulation.

    And to everyone, we should all take a look at the bad that is in every culture and race, not just the ones of the Arab world. No race is perfect and no race can claim they don’t oppress someone in some way.

    All the best to you, dear Zvezdana, and your family!

  13. I am deeply grateful and humbled by all the beautiful and wise words above.
    Feeling blessed to have your support and understanding and happy that my writing has touched you on some level. All of you have so much knowledge to share and I can learn so much from each and every one.
    Thank you for taking the time to read my articles, to share them and to write such insightful comments.

  14. Also want to thank Stephanie and InCulture parent for giving a forum for parents to share their experiences and stories.
    What a fantastic way to bring people from across the world to share their journeys with each other:)

  15. Beautifully written! I’m in a multi-cultural marriage (I’m American, husband is Italian) but I’m also from a multicultural family. In my marriage I’ve often worried about how I will deal with things like this in my future. It’s likely that I won’t understand or relate to my kids since they’ll most likely be raised in Italy. My father is Iranian and we definitely had/have a hard time really “getting,” eachother as I was growing up. He was raised Muslim, he’s way more conservative than my mother who is an American hippy but he’s really against women covering their hair. He obviously wants us to be modest (even though none of us are particularly modest) but believes that it’s a man’s job to be human and responsible in his thoughts and actions, not a woman’s job to hide herself. He puts the responsibility on men. I believe that everyone has the choice to believe what they want and do whatever they choose as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I have to agree with my father though. Why is it always the woman’s job to protect herself from a man’s gaze? Why don’t we just raise our boys to be decent humans who respect women whether or not her hair, shoulders or body is showing?


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