Zainab Faal, a journalist and social media associate, grew up dressing like most girls in her community; the usual belly shirts, sleeveless tops, jean trousers and short skirts, often supported by imported artificial hair.
Around November 2014, she came home one day wearing the veil.
“I can’t explain the trigger. It was just a religious call,” Zainab explains. “I just started wearing the veil simply because as a Muslim lady, I saw it as an obligation to cover if not all but most parts of my body. To me it is security. Immediately I started putting on the veil, I felt more secure.”
The veil (hijab in Arabic) is often a generic term for the attire that Muslim women wear to cover their heads (and often neck) to show modesty.
To zainab’s family, she wasn’t serious about keeping the veil. “Most of my friends and family didn’t take it serious. Maybe they thought I was joking or wearing the veil to make fun or something like that.”
Everything changed when they saw her clearing her wardrobe and replacing her belly shirts, jean trousers and short skirts with the veil.
“I pulled down everything; dresses, short skirts, trousers etc. I gave all of them away. I don’t know who have them right now. I just parked them in one big bag and then gave to someone to just take them away from me and give them out. In my wardrobe I now have long robs (dress), free long shirts, long sleeves and of course the veils. It took me a year or so to have my wardrobe function properly. I did it and I am happy.”
While Zainab was adapting to her new lifestyle, Isatou Sanneh, a stylist, was struggling to get her family and friends to accept her decision to drop the ‘Western’ dress code for the hijab.
“It was a religious call, for the purpose of Islam. My mum especially was not comfortable with me wearing the hijab. Some of my childhood friends were also calling my mom asking her ‘did you really see what Isatou is wearing nowadays?’ They were all surprised because I used to wear short skirts and things like that.”
For some, embracing the veil as a religious call means submitting oneself to Allah by following the teachings of Islam. This means giving up some of the things you used to do and when you are surrounded by longtime friends with old habits that can be a bit tricky. But for Zainab and Isatou, nothing much has changed in their dealings with their loved ones.
“I am the only person who wears hijab among all my friends but it hasn’t changed my relationship with any of them. Everything stays the same and my life has changed just a little bit and I am okay,” says Zainab.
“Some people expected me to change and be a new person,” says Isatou. “Yes I changed my dress code but my personality and my interaction with my friends and family remained the same. It took time before people stopped being judgmental and realised it’s the same Isatou in a different attire.”
Today, anyone walking in the streets of Banjul and its environs will easily notice a phenomenon that wasn’t so evident just two decades ago; more young women are wearing the veil.
“There are lots of girls that are wearing the veil now because they feel it is a religious obligation – girls like myself. But I have also seen girls that I had conversations with who are simply wearing the veil because of the beauty of the dress. Many fashion designers are into hijab wears like long skirts that look very beautiful on any lady.”
As a fashion designer, Isatou says some young women use the veil as a fashion statement. “Some are doing it for fashion. Nowadays the veil is so beautiful on us. You can wear it very fashionably. You can be more attractive than those who are not putting on veil. It feels good to see more young women wearing the veil.”
The ‘veil revolution’ in The Gambia is growing and to meet the demand of the increasing number of young women wearing the hijab, the designers are adding more colours and styles to the garment to make it even more appealing and attractive.
Meet other young Gambian women who embrace the veil/hijab
Fatoumatta Samateh: “My dad was an Imam before he passed away. He wouldn’t allow us to go out without the hijab on. So I’ve been wearing it all my life. I wear the hijab solely because it’s obligatory upon every Muslim woman. Wearing hijab doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Accept your flaws and work towards improving yourself. Do not let that scarf on your head limit your potentials. You have the power to conquer the world.”
Alima Jobe: “I’ve lived most of my teenage life without the hijab but I always knew in my heart that I wanted to wear it. The one faithful day Allah’s calling finally entered my ears. I’ve been wearing it for the past six years.”
Fatimah Ceesay, 23: “I started wearing the hijab at a very tender age. It has raised my self-esteem. People admire me because of my mode of dressing.”