Shaila Kibria has accomplished many things since leaving UTM: running for the New Democratic Party, publishing a children’s book, and writing for CBC Radio—but she most recently made headlines over her choice to stop wearing her hijab.
Over the past year the “dejabbing” movement has gained notoriety in the media. “Dejabbing” is when a woman chooses to remove her hijab (a headscarf). Muslim women wear the hijab when in public as a form of modesty. A hijab can cover a woman’s hair or it can be a niqab, which covers a woman’s entire head and face, leaving a rectangular opening for her eyes.
Every woman who chooses to “dejab” does so for unique and complex personal reasons. For Kibria, her controversial choice to stop wearing her hijab landed her in newspaper headlines.
Kibria started secretly wearing a hijab more than 20 years ago at age 13, against her parents’ wishes
For a few of those 20 years Kibria attended UTM, where she kicked off her activist and advocate career by establishing the UTM Food Bank, writing for The Medium, and joining the student union.
While she did not graduate, she did marry her first husband in 1992 at 17 and had her first of three children at 19.
In 2007, Kibria was nominated to run as the NDP candidate in the provincial elections for Mississauga-Erindale. She hoped to become the first hijab-wearing woman to be a party representative, but votes fell short and Kibria lost to Harinder Takhar, the Liberal representative.
She wrote a children’s book, remarried, wrote for CBC Radio, and was an executive director at Islamic Relief Canada. She now works for the Service Employees International Union. Throughout all of her ventures she has remained an advocate of women’s rights and of Islam in Canada.
Kibria’s decision to “dejab” met with a dramatic response. The Toronto Star published an article on Kibria’s decision only hours after an article supporting women who wear the hijab went up on their website. The first article defended Muslim women’s choice to wear a hijab or niqab as a way of identifying with their religion and as a form of empowerment.
This was not the situation for Kibria. She said she felt suffocated and separated by the hijab, and that it failed to offer the identity, security, and truth it used to when she was a teenager. She became worried that her success—the interviews, the radio writing, the children’s book—had all been unfairly helped because she chose to, in a visible and unabashed way, identify herself as Muslim.
“Everyone knew me as a Muslim leader,” Kibria told The Toronto Star. “Every issue was not a ‘human’ issue, but a Muslim issue.” After more than 20 years, Kibria decided to abandon the politically, emotionally, and religiously charged hijab.
The worst criticism did not come from her employers, political supporters, or her mosque, but from her family, friends, and personal advocates. Her Facebook was flooded with negative comments and denouncements of support after she made her decision public.
After the publication of the Toronto Star article, Kibria has declined to comment further on the matter.
“Dejabbing is a social and psychological phenomenon; it’s not necessarily a religious thing,” explained Imman Sarhan of the UTM Muslim Student Association.
“It’s not a new thing. I’m not sure why Shaila got so much attention. Whether she wears it or not shouldn’t affect her cause,” Sarhan said.
Sarhan, who wears the hijab every day, says that no one has ever “made comments”, adding, “UTM is a pretty open-minded campus.”
Nida Tariq, a member of the MSA, chooses not to wear a hijab. She received similar open-mindedness.
“I don’t wear it because I have certain religious goals I want to achieve before [that],” Tariq explained. “Whether [Kibria] wears it or not, it’s not our job to judge her.”