Eryn in hijabEryn has decided to wear the hijab.

She’s at a lovely precocious stage of mimicry where she will throw diapers into the dustbin and wave ‘bye-bye’ to my makeup as she flushes it down the toilet. She cleans the floors and the windows with the kitchen towel. She brushes her hair with her toothbrush, puts her shoes on backwards, knows how to access YouTube and dusts her grandfather’s foot powder on everyone’s feet.

When I grab my shawl and prepare for one of the daily prayers, she crawls to the prayer area and starts moving her hands to her ears in takbir. She’ll then cup her hands in front of her face in supplication and place her forehead to the ground in prostration. When I’ve finished praying, she’ll sway from side to side as I chant Arabic recitations. Then she’ll “ask” for her hijab.

In one of her many sensory discovery boxes, I have scarves of different colours and textures — so I’ll let her pick one out. Once I’ve wrapped it around her head, she’ll look appreciatively at herself in the mirror, kiss her reflection and promptly take it off.

The first time she did this, I beamed and praised her. The second time was just as cute as the first. I really didn’t think anything of it, except that her cherubic cheeks looked so darn cute poking out from the scarf’s cowl. The third time we were praying with the Hubby, and before the prayer began he handed the scarf to her and said, “Here sweetie, put on your hijab.” I stopped cold and about a hundred red flags went up in my mind.

We try to be responsible parents. We limit chocolate and television. We’ve incorporated Montessori teachings into her daily schedule.  We expose her to books, global cultures and she’s taking instruction in three languages. And we’ve had the hijab discussion.

The hijab discussion essentially amounted to the both of us agreeing that one day, if she wants to wear the hijab we won’t prevent her from doing so. But that it will not be an issue that is forced upon her.  Eryn wearing hijab is something between herself and God — once she’s old enough to understand the meaning and intent behind it.  Now, I completely recognize that because I wear hijab, I could very well influence not only her decision, but the timing of it.

Eryn trying to take off her hijabBabies in hijab are really, really cute.  It’s probably safe to say that every parent has dressed their baby in some kind of cultural costume, Star Wars inspired t-shirt, footballer onesie, band paraphernalia, formal attire or at the very least given the baby a shampoo mowhawk, just to squeal in delight at the amazing cuteness. It’s the same for hijab. For a baby, hijab is just dress-up. It’s a colourful and textured scarf.

But for women, hijab is more than just play. It’s intended to be a symbol of the faith, an additional step in modest dressing, and for many, a required act of worship. It’s supposed to be a personal choice that helps regulate interaction between unfamiliar men and women. It’s to act as a barrier between the Self and sexuality so men and women can interact with each other without attraction getting in the way. Hijab is a way of dressing as much as it is a symbol of Islam and a system of social mannerisms.

In practice, hijab is all of these things, but it also is forced upon women and used to repress and control their sexuality. It sets up a hetero-normative expectation of how men and women should act with each other. In some cases, women are erroneously taught to wear the hijab because uncovered, their bodies attract unwanted attention and men are incapable of controlling themselves. Many believe that hijab is a Divine commandment that protects women’s sexuality and maintains the chastity of men.

For many, hijab is obligatory on every Muslim woman, and the definition of “woman” tends to be when a girl begins menstruating. It’s reasoned that because every religious duty (such as prayer and fasting) is incumbent upon a child once they reach puberty, girls must therefore also wear the hijab. Unfortunately, it’s also reasoned that when a girl approaches puberty, boys may find her attractive as her body blossoms.  So, it’s just better for everyone involved if she covers up.

In fact, it’s argued that in order for a girl to “be comfortable with hijab” by the time she reaches puberty, it’s even better if parents encourage her to start covering earlier.  That way it won’t be much of a transition when her entire world is rocked by the torrential hormonal changes, the potentially publicly embarrassing physical changes, the indignity of having her father pick up maxi-pads on his way home from work, the absolutely frightening shock of finding blood on underwear — because she’s already been taught to view herself as a sexual being at the age of 8.

There’s a difference between discussing menstruation with your children as a natural, normal and celebrated bodily function, and discussing it as a marker for sexual preparedness.

I don’t like seeing the hijab on little girls — and when I say little girls, I mean at least from the ages of 5-12. Because hijab is such a “grown-up” decision, I can’t help but feel that there are ulterior motives.  When they’re exploring their Muslim identity, mimicking an older sibling, or joining mom at the mosque like “a big girl,” it can be endearing. These are also reasons as to why Muslim parents may put hijab on their young girls.  But I’ve seen a lot of young girls wearing the hijab because it’s expected of them, a parent has forced the matter at home, or it’s an expectation upheld by school systems.

Sometimes it’s used as an identifier celebrating Muslim cultural identity. Once when volunteering at a fun fair with the March of Dimes, I saw several young girls in hijab. When I asked one of the parent volunteers why her daughter wore hijab, she told me it was because she wanted to remind her daughter’s teachers that she was not allowed to eat the pork hot dogs. But more often than not, when the hijab is put on young girls, it socializes them into accepting a standard of controlled sexuality.

Recently Baher Ibrahim wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian on the rise of little girls wearing the hijab in Egypt:

Many defenders of the hijab point to the influence of “decadent western culture”, endlessly criticising how western TV sexualises and objectifies women, though they fail to understand that they are doing they exact same thing to little girls when they constantly promote the hijab. If it is so important to cover up, there must be something worth covering up and hiding from men. Inevitably, little girls are taught to view themselves as sexual objects that must be covered up from an early age – and it is this culture permeating the minds of our younger generations.

Much to my horror and confusion, when I got my period at the age of 11 my mother proudly announced to my father that I was now a woman. I had no breasts, no hips, no sexual experiences, no concept of how sex really works, no notion of the complexities of romantic relationships, and no desire to be a woman. You can bet that it’s completely confusing to tell an 8-year-old that she has to cover her body because men will find her sexually attractive.  What does that information do to her sense of self if she wakes up to see herself as a standard of sexuality? That the duty to maintain the chastity of men relies solely on the body of a prepubescent girl?

There’s nothing wrong in helping instill values of modesty in our children, but this can be done without relying on arguments which objectify women. Personally, I think offering young girls the option of wearing skinny jeans, cropped shirts and high heels to be just as outrageous as forcing them into hijab.  I don’t buy into the argument that hijab is a bulwark for sexuality — for a woman or a child. Men will still find women attractive, even if they’re wearing a burqa.  And boys will still snap bras in the playground, even if the girls are wearing hijab.

When the Hubby told Eryn to put on her hijab I reacted because it was an external voice commanding her to do what ultimately must be her choice.  I know he was simply encouraging her, just like we encourage her to throw out her diapers or clean the floor when we see her performing these tasks (not so much the flushing of the makeup though).  He also asked her to put on the hijab because he was inviting her to the prayer — a time when all women traditionally are required to cover their heads. I also know that because I wear the hijab, I have already influenced her — and I sometimes worry that this influence will make her want to wear hijab before she is truly ready.

Eryn trying to take off her hijabI find myself in a difficult position. On the one hand, I am an empowered woman who wears the hijab as a symbol of faith and as an identifier that I belong to the religion of Islam. Personally, I believe that you can be modest and practice the method of hijab without actually wearing one. So I will not be telling my baby that she has to wear hijab because she is a woman and a sexual being. That her breasts and hair are in need of covering to be equal with the boys in her class and the men on the street. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I’ll do if she wants to wear hijab at the age of 8 because she wants to be “grown up” like me.  Or because she’s proud of her Muslim cultural heritage.

I want her to choose hijab for herself if and when she is ready.  When she is old enough to understand the value of our religious culture and appreciate all of the varied reasons to wear the hijab.  But I also want to protect her from spurious viewpoints that may make her feel less than equal to anyone, and of course, from any negative viewpoints of the hijab.  Forget about what the neighbours will think if she’s running around town with a Dora-inspired hijab.  I don’t want her to ever feel ‘othered’ or attacked because of a cloth symbol.

I want to be a parent who encourages her explorations into identity, not make her acutely aware of her gender. I want to encourage her in all things positive — whether it’s playing dress-up, competing in physical challenges, visiting other houses of worship, or proudly announcing to the world who she is.

No matter what, she’ll still be my little baby.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.