Too often, hijabis are seen as a symbol of a decades-old political and religious debate. They are put under the microscope, analyzed, and thoroughly criticized.

While wearing the hijab is supposed to be a personal decision, it is seldom treated as such. 

Society has a lot to say about every aspect of the hijab, with the general assumption dictating that the decision to put it on forms an eternal pact, a "death do us part" promise. 

The result? An overwhelming stigma surrounding women who stop wearing the veil, especially in Muslim and Arab communities.

These women are often judged and looked down upon in the region's conservative communities, with many people refusing to acknowledge the valid reasons that justify the move.

To get a glimpse of what lies beyond the decision to stop wearing the hijab, we talked to young women from around the Arab world who shared their experiences and reflected on their decisions.

"Quran focused on a lot more than wearing the Hijab"

Anonymous, 28 years old, United Arab Emirates

"Wearing the hijab is truly first and foremost a personal choice," says a former hijabi who chose to remain anonymous

She had worn the hijab since puberty, as per the Islamic tradition, an age she believes "we are not really aware or as conscious about things".

Over a decade later, at the age of 27, she decided to take off the hijab driven by the feeling that it no longer truly represented her.

"I am re-discovering myself and my religion from an adult point of view," she says, adding that she is doing her own research on whether covering one's hair is truly an Islamic Fardh (obligation.)

"The Quran focused on a lot more than wearing the hijab, [which was mentioned in] only a few Ayats," she notes. "It focused on prayers, charity, doing good, helping others, loving for others what you love for yourself." 

She also highlights the fact that the Quran orders Muslim men to lower their gaze first and foremost, before asking women to dress modestly. 

"Why did I have to cover up so that men don’t lose control of something they can control?"

Laila Hzaineh

Laila Hzaineh, 20 years old, Palestine 

Laila Hzaineh, a 20-year-old Palestinian feminist vlogger and Swarthmore College student, describes her decision to wear the hijab in seventh grade as a "premature and uneducated decision," triggered by fear of divine punishment.

Hzaineh took off the hijab three years later, having grown up to believe that it does not fully serve the widely-advertised purpose of "protecting" women.

"I heard stuff like 'it will protect you', but it never did. Nothing changed when I put it on," she says. "Harassment never stopped. Catcalls never stopped.  I kept my part of the agreement, but hundreds of men in the streets didn’t."

Hzaineh now considers that the idea of covering a woman's body reinforces male domination, asserting that women have the right to be protected regardless of what they are wearing.

She asks, "Why in the world did I have to cover up so that men don’t lose control of something they can control? Since women also have sexual desires and needs, why don’t men have to cover up as well?"

"As an art history student, I started approaching this matter from an aesthetic point of view," she says. "The human body is nothing but a piece of art, and art should be celebrated, not covered."

For Hzaineh, the decision to take off the hijab drew heavy backlash. Hzaineh says she lost many friends and was called degrading names, with teachers and elders treating her like a "lost-cause who was bound [to go] to hell".

"I decided I wanted my relationship with God to be based on love, instead of fear"

Enas El Masry

Enas El Masry, 26 years old, Egypt

The media graduate took the hijab off after eight years of wearing it, having first put it on at the age of 17. She says she took both decisions out of free will and of equal conviction.

El Masry says she was in "perfect harmony" with the hijab, explaining that wearing it never stood in the way of her "learning, growing, exploring or living up to every bit of wilderness and free-spiritedness inside me". 

"Unlike what most people would think, I was in pursuit of a better relationship with God both times," she says. "When I first put it on, I did so out of fear of punishment. As the years passed, I decided I wanted my relationship with God to be based on love instead of fear. With more faith in God's mercy than His punishment, I felt at peace with taking it off."

El Masry believes that while in theory, wearing the hijab may motivate a woman to be "the best version" of herself, but that is only possible with an internal drive and a determined mindset. 

"In real life, if you really want to live up to anything, it's never a piece of clothe or loose garments that prompt you to do so - it's always a drive on the inside," she explains. "When that drive is real, nothing can uproot it from within unless you decide to let go."

"I will not be defined by their standards of modesty"

Nahla Aboutabl

Nahla Aboutabl, 23 years old, Egypt

For the 23-year-old Master's student, the hijabi experience was all the more challenging living in the United States. 

"As an American Muslim, I had spent my childhood before the hijab trying to hide my Muslim identity in fear of being associated with terrorists or backward minded people," she says.

She put it on at eleven years of age, consequently losing some of her closest friends as a result and being treated as an outcast at school, where she was the first and only hijabi student. 

Over the years, she fought "tooth and nail" to convince her parents to allow her to remove the hijab. At 20, she finally decided to take it off despite their disapproval.

"For the Muslims that ostracized me and made me feel less pious or not Muslim enough, I tell them: a woman is much more than the clothes she chooses to wear or not wear," she says. "That I will not be defined by their standards of modesty and I do not have to wear my religion on my sleeve for them to be pleased. That it's not them I'm trying to please in the first place." 

Aboutabl goes on to say that wearing the hijab taught her about freedom of choice, explaining, "Hijab taught me that I have a choice and that I can reclaim my religion and interpret it how I choose."

"It physically and metaphorically started feeling heavy on my head"

Razan Mneimneh

Razan Mneimneh, 21 years old, Lebanon

"This particular issue, with all its sensitivity and complexity, had a lot to do with the prevalent sexism and misogyny in our region," says the media graduate who wore the hijab at the age of 16. 

"I wouldn’t really say anyone pushed me to do it," she says. "Although thinking about how proud my family would be once I put it on really motivated me to go for it."

Mneimneh says that the hijab gradually confined her to the physical representation of what being Muslim should typically look like, put her under the microscope for people to judge, and made her feel like a representative for all Muslims.

"You exist merely as a link to what the hijab means, and no matter what you do, you can not exist outside [of] it," she says. "You are inspected when you’re drinking a cup of water, exiting a car, or more crucially, when your hairline appears."

Growing older, as Mneimneh started formulating her own independent beliefs, she felt "more and more out of touch with who I was".

She decided to take off the hijab at 21 years of age. "I decided I couldn't take it any longer when it physically and metaphorically started feeling heavy on my head," she says.

"During the whole period of wearing it, I had an identity crisis"

Source: Pinterest

Anonymous, 21 years old, Lebanon

Coming from a very religious background, wearing the hijab at a very young age was the norm for the 21-year-old translator. She, however, never understood why a woman must cover herself up. 

Her objections to the hijab pushed her parents to take her to a sheikh, who said the degrading yet often-used phrase, "You are like a piece of candy. If you cover yourself, no dirty flies will come close."

Still unconvinced, she put on the hijab as per her parents' will. 

"Whenever I looked in the mirror, I did not see myself. During the whole period of wearing it, I had an identity crisis," she describes her experience with the hijab. 

It soon became too hard to bear and she eventually took it off, with the support of only two family members: her mother and sister.

"It was the happiest day of my life," she says. "I was so happy that I couldn't care less about the hate messages I received on Facebook, the fake friends who shunned me for taking it off, or all the gossiping and looks of disgust I got every once in a while."

For some, taking it off in public is not an option, so they are bound to a "double life"

Anonymous, 19 years old, Palestine

The journalism student wears the hijab around her family and only takes it off when she goes out in Jordan, where she currently resides.

"They knew my dad would kill me. Literally," she says.

She has been forced to wear the hijab since sixth grade, after which her family began toughening the dress code, prohibiting her from wearing colorful clothes and forcing her to wear the 'abaya.

This lack of free-will soon began to weigh heavy on her, driving her to despise the hijab. "I felt like I was wearing my hijab to please my family, not for Allah," she says.

 But, taking it off was out of the question.

"When I'm in Jordan and I go out without it, I just feel like I'm living a double life; one where I'm your basic hijabi and the other where I'm me, just without my hijab."

It's up to women to make the choice

To wear the hijab or not to wear the hijab is a matter of personal choice, and should be treated as such.

Whether women choose modesty or not should only be decided by them as modesty is not defined by clothes or certain predefined criteria. 

A healthy society means a society where women are empowered enough to make their own decisions.