I’m just going to come right out and say it: Sex workers wear the burqa. Drug users wear the veil. Child abusers wear the hijab. This piece of cloth is not THE sign of piety. There are vast amounts of women who do NOT wear it, and adhere to Islam with an enviable amount of piety, dedication and pure faith. And who unfortunately, are looked down upon for not wearing the hijab, receive fewer marriage proposals, and who are hijacked by the Media as being the “right kind of Muslim” (ie, not a terrorist or extremist)
Don’t get me wrong. I love my hijab. I love the community it affords me — how great is it that strangers greet me, or ask for directions or welcome me into their home because I’m an identifiable Muslim. In its simplicity as being a piece of cloth is also a multitude of wonderful experiences for women: it provides strength, God-consciousness, self-esteem, the ability to negotiate male-centric spheres without issue, and more. I just think that the hijab gets a lot of bad press and a lot of apologetics. It becomes a problem and an issue for women because it is reduced to being only a sign of piety. It becomes a problem because it is seen as only a dress code for women – when in fact, it is SUPPOSED to be more of a mental attitude practiced by both men and women.
You just will never hear of the 100 page treatise outlining how men should wear their hijab. Why isn’t the male “hijab” discussed more often? I shouldn’t be able to see your awrah in your tight jeans and muscle shirt (aka, gulf styles), nor when you wear shorts to play b-ball, and heaven forbid I look up at the imam and see butt crack in the last row. But we’ve made it a woman’s problem by only focusing on female aspects of hijab. So lower your voice, your gaze, cover up and move to the back.
I put on hijab in May of 2001. Little did I know September was just around the corner. I put it on because:
a) it was mentioned in the Qur’an as a practice for “believing women” to help you become aware of God;
b) I was still in the throes of convertitis, and was really, really eager to follow all aspects of my new religion with enthusiastic abandon; and
c) I wanted people to know I was Muslim.
One of the major symptoms of convertitis is that you want everyone to know that you’ve accepted a new Truth. So I’d be in everyone’s face, dropping Islamic terms, or coming up with any excuse to mention that I was Muslim. Hijab would remove that overbearing need, as it’s pretty much a no-brainer when you see a headscarf to guess the religion.
First I did my research. Being a new, baby Muslimah, I had to get my facts straight and find out how to wear it, what to wear and why. The Internet is rife with well-intentioned advice for women wanting to cover. However, back then, you wouldn’t find websites talking about the modernization of hijab, or the new hijabistas. No… it was generally only about duty to God and protecting your inner pearl. Emphasizing the stripping away of makeup, jewelry, colour, perfume, and adornments that help people create their identity. While yes, hijab is about one’s relationship with God, and I value the argument of austerity to help still the mind and commune with the divine… hijab is also about your relationship with yourself. And as a convert, I was recreating myself. Separating my non-Muslim lifestyle and embracing an Islamic way of life.
So I went out, bought myself drab blacks, browns and navy blues and a whole new modest wardrobe. Because apparently, the majority voice argued that the best way to wear hijab, was to be inconspicuous. Black was best. Colours attracted attention. Lower your gaze, don’t talk to or touch men and become invisible. And I did.
But only to myself. Because I certainly attracted the attention of well-intentioned non-muslims who were confused to see a white woman in that thing, and muslim men on the prowl for a good, pious wife. While I accepted it, I really felt my sense of self shatter. In a matter of months, I went from one concept of who I was, to someone else entirely.
Then came September. I was one of six women on university campus who wore hijab. I was also high-profile: I was a residence assistant in the dorms, on the Muslim Student’s Association, and on the Multifaith Committee. I gave the opening prayer during Convocation, and spoke at the 9/11 memorial.
That year I was also spit on, accosted in Tim Hortons and told to “go back to your country you Effing terrorist.” Seriously… who screams profanities in public to a short, tiny Muslim lady when you’re 6’4 and 170 lbs of muscle? Luckily my two (hijabless) girlfriends screamed right back at him (nobody else said a word). I was too shocked to move. That was also the year I received two marriage proposals and had three (non-Muslim) strangers proposition me. One guy looked me up and down, licked his lips and said, “ooooh, sooo nice.”
I was wearing a full length, formless skirt, a shapeless baggy blouse and my biggest, drapiest hijab. I went home that day and seriously questioned all of the articles claiming that hijab protected women. I had never felt so slimy and disgusted because of that jerk’s comments and the hungry look in his eyes.
Ladies: just because you wear the burqa, it does not protect you from men who have imaginations, nun fetishes, or use sex as power.
Hijab 3.0 came about out of an emotional crisis. Previously I had segregated myself from all of my male Muslim friends, and only talked to the same group of online hijab enthusiasts. Now I was more involved in the community. This helped me in my loneliness and understanding of hijab as more than a tool to make you invisible (which it doesn’t). I was wearing colours again! And *GASP* the occasional pair of pants!
But I still wasn’t in physical contact with men.
One night, one of my favorite students came in with a problem that affected him deeply. After chatting for about an hour, he burst into tears. So I did what any caring human would do: I hugged him.
In that moment, I started seeing some of the hypocrisies of the practice of my faith. Why was it OK for Muslim men to talk to (apparently scantily clad) non-Muslim women, and not to talk to me? Why were some of them even going to clubs? What do you mean your Commerce group meets in the Pub? What the hell? And I’M the one that’s not allowed to shake hands?
I started questioning the fairness of it all.
By the time I moved to Montreal, I had been wearing hijab for five years, and reevaluated why I wore it. Sure, I still saw it as being something requested of women (not a sin if you didn’t wear it), but I was wearing it more for the tradition (can’t deny 1400 years of usage) and for identity and community.
Then one of my hijabi friends attempted suicide.
At the time, she was befriended by strict adherents to the religion. People who told her that her daughter shouldn’t play with a toy harmonica because it was haraam (forbidden); that pictures of her daughter were haraam; that her jeans were haraam; that every thing she was finding joy in, was haraam. Presumably, she buckled under the weight of this pressure and lack of support at home. The most evil thing, was when she had taken the pills and called one of her so-called friends for help. “But sister, what you are doing is haraam” (suicide is forbidden). Thank God, a classmate happened to phone, find out what was going on, call 911, and save my friend’s life.
When she got better and came back to the community, her hijab had changed. She was wearing it less like the traditional Arab style, and more like how her community wore it “back home”. She was proud, beautiful and empowered. I envied her in that, as I felt my hijab becoming like a weight.
Then my best friend decided to put it on. But before she did, we had a discussion with Sheikh Omar, a spiritual leader with the Naqshbandi Sufis. This was the FIRST TIME a MALE spiritual leader sat down privately with me. The three of us discussed the virtues and needs for hijab, and then he showed us the most moving thing: he took off his turban.
This is akin to a priest removing his collar, or a Jew taking of his yarmulke. Removing a sacred object and showing you what was beneath. He slowly lifted it off his head, and straightened himself out to his fullest height, and explained that with out his turban, his soul was filled with worldly things, such as pride…. Then he put it back on and slowly sank into his seat, illustrating that when he wears it, he is humbled before God. It’s his constant reminder that God is watching him.
It may have been the night of dhikr, the goofy sufis, the lovely tea, or the thrill of having unrestricted access to a spiritual leader — but I was tremendously moved by that simple act. And I think that idea has stayed with me the longest.
I started out this post series talking about how I wear my hijab today. The truth of the matter is that it changes with what I’m doing and who I’m with. If I’m with family who would feel more comfortable with me in the traditional style… yeah, I’m not going to sweat the small stuff. I like my current spanish hijab. It’s easier to deal with when nursing publicly and personally, I think it frames my face better than other styles.
Religion is organic and fluid. There is a claim that Islam is universal and “for all times”. I think it’s because it’s flexible and allows for cultural expression. With that in mind, we also have to discuss hijab as something that is open to interpretation, styles, fashion, and cultural influences. How they wear the hijab in Mali is different to how they wear it in Canada. Communities have been styling it in their cultural way for centuries. The “traditional” way of wearing it, is really simply an Arab style.
Should we expect that one cultural styling needs to be imposed upon another? What is the “right?”
I know some would answer by the “textbook” and say: “everything must be covered except for the hands and face”. So why don’t we just cut holes in bedsheets and wear them? Because we are WOMEN and human and are SEXUAL beings. And even in the act of covering our sexuality, we express it.