World Hijab Day is held on February 1st,
however the case of Dina Torkia proves that even in the West the hijab is hardly a free choice.
Dina Torkia is a popular British hijabi fashion vlogger of Egyptian descent, who recently decided to remove her hijab. It didn’t go down well with her fellow Muslims.
Subsequently Dina recorded a forty-seven minute video reading out the abusive messages she had received, which ranged from, “The choice you made is welcoming you to the cock carousel. Slut.” to, “May Allah destroy you too you Arab whore.”
Her husband, Sid, a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, was also vilified for supporting his wife, “Dirty kaffir dog may you and Sid burn in hell for eternity.”
Dina, who has over a million Instagram followers, had stressed that she wasn’t leaving Islam, but the hijabi movement itself had become a “toxic cult.”
A number of Muslims suggested that Dina had invited some of the abuse seeing as her whole brand had been built around ‘modest’ clothing. Indeed Dina had only just released a book, Modestly in September. It featured many pages of styling tips for those who wanted to cover up.
However Dina’s growing discontent had been hinted at in her book,
“There is a lot of judgement when it comes to women and the way they dress. It’s almost ingrained into an overarching global culture that expects women to look a certain way, largely determined by male standards. We know this is happening in western societies and has been for centuries, yet when I’ve been taught that head-covering should protect us from that culture of superficiality, but then find my peers judging my outer ‘religious’ appearance, I find it hypocritical. It’s just as damaging for a young girl to experience. Girls and women everywhere, Muslim or not, end up feeling overly conscious of the way they look. They are two sides of the same coin. Muslim women face the constant pressure of perfecting the ‘ideal’ woman’s image in their heads.”
Dina went on to stress, “Let me make one point very clear: this mentality is in no way Islamic. It’s cultural.”
Certainly Dina made some valid points. Every community, be it Islamic or not, passes judgement on what women do, and wear.
But there is a dangerous difference between the West and the Islamic community: a westernised woman is unlikely to be killed for her fashion choices.
Furthermore in many Muslim-majority nations there are draconian laws for women who don’t toe the Islamic line. Shaparak Shajarizadeh fled Iran on hearing that she had been given a twenty year sentence for removing her hijab (2 years imprisonment, 18 years of probation, meaning that if she removed the hijab again she could end up imprisoned for a further 18 years).
For those who leave the faith altogether they pay a high price, as apostasy incurs a death sentence under Islam. In recent weeks there has been a plethora of headlines about ex-Muslim women living in fear, the most high profile case being that of Rahaf Mohammed’s. Having renounced Islam she fled Saudi Arabia, citing fears that her family would kill her. Proving, that for Muslim women, if the sharia courts don’t get you, the mob will.
Though it is also true that many of Dina’s fellow hijabis were horrified by the abuse Dina suffered. Some sympathised, but still prayed that Dina would return to a righteous path. Others disagreed with her choice, but supported her right to make it. A few called out the hypocrisy of Muslim men who have their own form of ‘hijab’ but rarely observe it.
Another young hijabi, Tazzy Phe, made her own video imploring Muslims to be sympathetic to Dina, as they didn’t realise how difficult wearing a head covering could be. She cited her own problems: from being judged by Muslims (for showing too much hair) and non-Muslims, to suffering migraines and hair loss.
Whilst the goodwill shown by Muslims like Tazzy Phe is encouraging, to some degree it is irrelevant, because the case of Dina Torkia demonstrates that wearing the hijab can hardly be a free choice if removing it leaves a Muslim woman at the mercy of a vengeful crowd. Furthermore you can’t help wonder if this is why women like Tazzy Phe stay covered.
This wasn’t the first time Dina had expressed her concerns about the head covering. Two years earlier, whilst hosting their regular YouTube advice segment, Dina and Sid had responded to an email from a viewer who was being forced to wear the hijab. The discomfort shown by Sid and Dina was palatable, as they discussed the pros and cons of wearing it, then Dina blurted out that she too was miserable wearing the hijab and that when she was younger she had been too scared of her father to take it off, but now she was just scared of God.
From the comments accompanying the video it was clear that many other hijabis felt the same conflict about the head covering whilst equally espousing the virtues of wearing it.
As an outsider looking in it is hard to escape the feeling that many of these women are in denial about being trapped in a toxic culture. Yet it’s impossible for a non-Muslim to point that out, without such criticism being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ or patronising.
This is probably why Dina and Sid’s advice videos became so popular. They often dealt with taboo topics, but they were part of the community. They understood through first-hand experience what anxious Muslims were going through. No wonder young Muslims flocked to hear the couple’s candid, but non-judgemental, advice.
In one segment they discussed what the first year of marriage was like for them. Relaying their own experience of having limited physical intimacy before marriage, Sid and Dina suggested that sex didn’t have to happen on the wedding night, with Sid emphasising to the male viewers that they shouldn’t force their bride if she wasn’t ready.
On another occasion they advised a woman who had been slapped by her fiancé that this was a red flag for the relationship, with Sid adding that whilst it was bad for either party to hit the other, it was worse when a man slapped a woman, as he had the physical strength to do more damage.
Despite such serious topics there is often a slapstick side to Sid and Dina’s style. When one newly-wed confessed her embarrassing problem—she couldn’t do a number two when her husband was home—Sid and Dina comically discussed the various ways in which ‘shitting’ could be introduced to the marriage: from subtly masking the noise, to making a statement of it!
Such hilarious videos display the perfect comedic chemistry that Sid and Dina share as they verbally spar with each other. For instance, whilst reassuring one nervous young woman with body issues that a good personality would be more important in her upcoming marriage, Sid went on to mention that there were many things that spouses do that annoy each other. At this point Dina gave Sid a sly, sideways glance then mouthed to the camera, “Many!”
When Sid and Dina announced mid last year that they were going to quit doing their Q&A sessions and instead would be concentrating on other video ventures, the disappointment of their viewers was summed up in this comment,
“As a fairly impressionable teenage Muslim girl who finds it difficult to talk to her parents or any other bloody family member about some of the issues within the Muslim community, your videos have genuinely opened my eyes to a bigger world view. I obviously don’t take everything you say in those videos word for word, what I’m trying to say is that its made me think a lot about my choices and has allowed me to realise that I actually have a choice over my own life (as sad as it sounds).”
In Dina’s own words from her book Modestly, “Go where your heart leads you and don’t be afraid of your own growth, even if it’s not what people want to see or what people may always want.”
Let’s hope that the Muslim community will give Dina and other Muslim girls the freedom to follow their own path, with or without their hijabs.
Dana Forrest is a freelance writer and writes on issues of cultural and political significance