“The truth is that my freedom was always in my ability to choose for myself, not in whether I covered my hair and body or not.” — Najwa Zebian
Lebanese-Canadian activist, author, speaker and educator Najwa Zebian has amassed over 1 million followers on Instagram by helping her audience find a home within themselves. Her words have healing powers, inspiring her community to embrace their most authentic selves and share them with the world. Najwa doesn’t just preach authenticity and vulnerability, she practices it as well. Even when it may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar, Najwa never shrinks herself or shies away from telling her story. One of those stories is of her hair and her journey from wearing a hijab to showcasing her curls. We chatted with Najwa all about her decision to stop wearing a hijab, how she’s grown to love her curls, and more. Read the exclusive interview below!
Mane Addicts: What prompted you to stop wearing a hijab?
Najwa Zebian: When I decided to take my hijab off, I had been wearing it for about fifteen years. Shortly after I moved out of my parents’ home, a culturally frowned upon thing to do for a single woman, I was really deep in figuring out what my purpose in life was. One night, as I imagined what a biography about me a hundred years from now would say, I could see a picture with the following words beneath it: ‘Najwa Zebian changed the world by…’. But the picture pulled me back to it. In the picture, I wasn’t wearing the hijab. I knew at that moment that the person I’d been projecting into the world didn’t reflect the way I saw myself. I knew then that I had to start making this change towards being more authentically me.
The first time I walked outside with my hijab off, I felt naked. I felt guilty for actually enjoying the sun touching my skin. I felt guilty for enjoying the air blowing through my hair. It was beautiful and full of feeling like I was doing something wrong. At the same time, it felt so right. That’s what happens when we embrace who we truly are: We have remnants of who we thought we needed to be screaming from within ‘what about me?!’ And it’s a conscious, courageous decision to say: ‘I am no longer you. I didn’t choose to be you. But today I am choosing to be who I am.’
MA: How did you know this was the right act of self-love for you?
NZ: You know how we get upset when someone doesn’t reciprocate our love or show us affection? I felt like a hypocrite waiting on others to love me when I myself wasn’t answering my own call for love. I abandoned myself so much just to be welcomed into others’ lives. Because somehow their welcoming of me meant that I was okay and enough.
Taking my hijab off was part of answering my own call for love. To love me, I needed to allow myself to actually live out that love through action—to live in a way that reflected me authentically. When I first wore it, I wanted to look like my older sister. And I was attending an Islamic school. My goal was to be the best good girl I could be. But with age, I realized that I could be a good person without an identity that genuinely no longer resembled me. The quest to be a good girl was part of a journey to becoming someone who followed the rules and never caused trouble or discomfort. It was deeply entrenched in shame. But to be the woman I am today, I had to break many rules and be disruptive to the comfort zones of those around me. I had to deconstruct the layers of shame, which in Welcome Home, I refer to as the ‘unveiling’ that surrounded me.
So as you can see, taking the hijab off is in no way a protest against the hijab itself. I respect a woman’s choice to wear it or not wear it. Taking it off was a protest in the face of who I thought I needed to be—to be ‘good’ and ‘enough.’
MA: How does your hair feel like home?
NZ: Making the decision to expose my hair in public was a major part of me coming home to myself. The idea that I could choose for myself was a revolutionary thing for me. I had always defined myself by what checkmarks I had in boxes of people, religion, culture, work, etc. Choosing what to do with my hair symbolized that my choice to be myself unapologetically was more important to me than fitting a certain image that no longer felt like me. My hair is always a reminder that I am being authentic in the way I choose to live and practice my life.
MA: What’s a common misconception people have about your hair story that you’d like to debunk?
NZ: Many people believe that I became ‘free’ once I took my hijab off. The truth is that my freedom was always in my ability to choose for myself, not in whether I covered my hair and body or not.
I was discriminated against while I wore it and that was not okay. I share a story in Welcome Home where I was on the bus and a man told me, ‘you know you’re in Canada? You don’t have to dress like that.’ After I took my hijab off, I was discriminated against by those who tried to shame me for ‘wanting to show my body.’ That’s also not okay. We must stop making other people’s choices for themselves a battleground for proving a belief we have.
To be ourselves, we must be the narrators of our stories. One of the chapters in my story is my relationship with my hair and my body. Had that story been choosing to wear the hijab, that would have been beautiful because it’s my choice. And this story of me taking my hijab off and learning to let my hair embrace its natural curls is no less beautiful.
MA: What’s your advice for other individuals who want to stop wearing a hijab? And what’s your advice for people who feel at home in their hijab?
NZ: My message to both is the same: Make sure it’s your choice. If you want to take your hijab off, make sure that’s what you want, not what you think you need to do to fit in. And the same goes for those who feel at home in their hijab. Make sure this is what you want. To anyone who says ‘I have no choice,’ remember that doing something for the sake of avoiding shame and exclusion is further shaming you and making you feel excluded. Because you cannot authentically be yourself. You are putting on a show that further alienates you from yourself and the world around you.
MA: How have you come to embrace your curls?
NZ: This will sound odd, but I didn’t even know I had curly hair. For the years of my life that I wore the hijab, I would always put my hair up in a tight bun. I’ve had my hijab off for three years now and I just recently learned how to care for my hair and allow it to embrace its nature. I definitely damaged my hair using heat and tying it tightly frequently. But I’m learning. Hairstory was a game-changer for me. From the first time I used it, I felt like my hair was saying: ‘This is exactly what I need!’ I honestly felt like my hair, which is extremely fine and frizzy, was a desert that finally got a quenching rainstorm.
MA: Which products do you love to maintain your curls?
NZ: New Wash, Powder, Hair Balm, and Dressed Up by Hairstory are absolute musts. New Wash feels like a warm hug for my hair. Powder has saved my hair on days when I had no time to go through the routine of washing and styling. I combine Hair Balm and Dressed Up for even more volume and smoothness. Being someone who constantly creates content, this brings me peace that my hair is always well-taken care of and presentable.