‘Taking my hijab off was the hardest decision of my life’

Mariam Khattab wearing her hijab/ Mariam Khattab after taking off her hijab
Mariam Khattab wearing her hijab/ Mariam Khattab after taking off her hijab

Mariam Khattab has made the decision to remove her hijab – the head-covering worn by many Muslim women – after living in the UK for more than two years. The 22-year-old, a third- year Journalism student at the University of Sunderland, is originally from Alexandria in Egypt. Here’s her story:

The 22-year-old, a third year Journalism student at the University of Sunderland, is originally from Alexandria in Egypt. Here's her story:

Mariam Khattab

Mariam Khattab

"This week someone went out of their way to give me a flyer in town. I mean how great is that? People handing out flyers can actually see me.

"It was not just any flyer though. It was a flyer for some sort of a church event. How ironic. In two years of living in this country, this has never happened.

"So what has changed, you ask?

"I took off my hijab - that one meter piece of cloth I wore over my head that scared the hell out of some people and apparently also worked as an invisibility cloak. Who knew?

Mariam Khattab

Mariam Khattab

"In the time frame of seven days, my whole life turned around. People now smile at me in the street, they’re not ‘afraid’ of sitting next to me on the bus, they don’t give me that death stare when I walk into the pub with my friends, and one or two guys may have flirted a little – mum and dad, you can scroll past this part.

"However, that’s only the little shallow, happy part that people see. Nobody sees the -behind the scenes- action going on.

"I took my scarf off because at one point I started fearing for my life, yep, my actual life, because of wearing it down the street.

"I became a victim for stereotypes, got shot down on work-related opportunities and was basically always the odd one out.

Mariam Khattab

Mariam Khattab

"I was threatened, screamed at, had people gang up on me, and etc, etc… all kinds of racism you can think of. It only made sense that I finally reached my breaking point.

"This has been by far the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my entire life. It’s left me emotionally shattered to pieces.

"Since taking off my hijab, I’ve noticed changes, differences – suddenly I’m not instantly a Muslim to everyone, suddenly people don’t make presumptions about me, suddenly people are not instantly judging me.

"But this has not been easy.

Mariam Khattab

Mariam Khattab

"This week I reached out and decided to go to counselling, where I was initially diagnosed with severe anxiety. I reached the lowest of the low in terms of my mental health and I am now just trying to pull myself back up.

"The University of Sunderland has been amazing, my lecturers and friends have been supporting me and helping me. The Wellbeing team there have been fantastic.

"I’m a fighter though. I won’t allow myself to be in this state for too long. I will adapt with my new lifestyle and start a new page.

"Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy being un-judged at first sight and having people tell me I look nice every now and then or having them start conversation with me and seeing all those doors finally open.

"It’s just not that easy to live with my choices, yet. I suppose I would like to be able to wear my hijab and not be judged, not feel threatened. I’d like to live in that kind of society.

"Taking off the hijab has not changed who I am, I’m not suddenly a different person, my faith has not changed and my beliefs remain strong.

Mariam Khattab

Mariam Khattab

"Maybe the only change is that it makes other people feel more comfortable.

"The moral of the story?

"Stop judging people. Think before you speak. You can turn somebody’s life upside down in the matter of seconds with a bunch of words that won’t do anyone any good.

"And if you’re like me, an over-thinking human by nature, don’t be too harsh on yourself. They don’t walk in your shoes.

"Also, appreciate those flyers."