Sometimes I look at a post for such a long time, reading and re-reading, that I feel like I’m missing something extremely important. The elephant grows so big that I can’t see the trees from the forest. I wrote this post in the wee hours, with the intension of generating some dialogue about modesty — but obviously I can really only write from personal experience. I’d be genuinely interested to hearing all of your thoughts on the matter.

I’m always surprised when someone asks what my hair looks like.

It’s usually a complete stranger or an acquaintance who opens the conversation by complimenting the colour of my scarf. Eryn is another convenient topic starter – with people asking up front if her cherubic curls are mine. I have one acquaintance who jokes that his goal in life is to see my hair and he’s just waiting for a really strong wind to rip off my hijab.

This question is rooted in curiosity, and while mildly invasive, I find it strange that some people think I would actually divulge my “hidden secret.” Or run giggling to the ladies’ room to slowly unwrap my head – fetishizing what lies beneath. Often, I just smile and say that I’m bald.

When I refuse to describe my hair I get the follow-up question, “why?” and have to attempt a discussion on modesty and gender interaction in-between subway stops: I cover in front of men… well, the religion teaches that interaction between the genders should be guarded and has special dress requirements for both men and women… yes, I can show other women… no, I don’t sleep with it on… some don’t cover because there are differences in interpretation and cultural expression… well, no, the Qur’an doesn’t exactly say “hair” and there’s internal debates over that… yes, men grow beards… yeah, I know, ironic — but it’s not about hair per se… yes, I know the hijab tends to draw attention “here”… no, I’m Canadian… yes, originally!

Despite appearances, modesty in Islam is not just about hair and hiding the female form.

Just when I thought the subject was closed for a little while, I received two great comments about modesty. One pointed out that when modest dress is believed to safeguard the chastity of men, it becomes “more about men and their perception of women” and less about women and their relationship with God — especially when modest dress is reserved for “mixed company.” The other comment rightly pointed out that, “if the veil protects a woman’s integrity and declares her to be a good and chaste woman, then what does that make the uncovered woman?”

The Arabic word associated with modesty is haya, meaning humility, shyness or righteousness. The Qur’an tells both men and women to “lower their gazes” to “guard their private parts” and that the best covering is “God consciousness” (24:30-31, 7:26). Often, people identify the hijab as being an externalized symbol of their inner haya — and many have told me that they don’t wear hijab because they feel that they haven’t yet achieved an idealized level of piety to warrant displaying their haya to the rest of the world.

My own journey with hijab is long and constantly evolving — but I’ve come to understand it more as a process and state-of-being, than a symbol of piety, a piece of cloth, or a gate protecting sexuality.

For me, taking on hijab started with an attitudinal change. After converting, I started guarding my words and actions. I no longer went clubbing or out drinking, said goodbye to swearing, changed my dietary habits, prayed and fasted, and added long sleeved shirts and ankle length skirts to my wardrobe. I committed to wearing hijab over 10 years ago, and the physical scarf became an externalized symbol of what I felt inside — my desire to follow religious guidelines (even though today, wearing hijab means more to me as an identifier of faith than an expression of my haya).

Theoretically, when modesty is understood as a frame of mind encompassing humility and religiosity, and guiding one’s interactions, speech and thoughts, the headscarf becomes a tool to help further facilitate modesty. The level of one’s modesty naturally changes over time, is different for everyone and is tightly related to cultural expectations — which is why there are so many interpretations of hijab for both men and women. A headscarf doesn’t regulate interaction between the sexes — clear thinking and common decency do. Modesty is applicable to everyone, from body paint to niqab, and obsessively focusing on the physicality of women’s hair, faces, voices and public presence creates an environment of shame. And we carry that shame when hijab is viewed as necessary for inclusion in the community; when women are made to feel less than equal; when guilt is used to force women into carrying family honour.

The inner dimensions of modesty are completely lost when women are made the gatekeepers of sexuality. But haya can be held by anyone. Haya and hijab are not necessarily synonymous. The physical scarf is not indicative of anything special outside of identity. It doesn’t make you better, smarter, faster or more righteous. Some of the most pious people I know don’t wear a headscarf. Their religious knowledge and commitment to Islam greatly outweighs mine — and sometimes I find myself in awe and envy of them.

People wear the scarf for many reasons — but the process of hijab is so much more and can be “worn” by anyone.

Believing that modest dress safeguards chastity becomes a serious issue when it’s extended to include women’s voices, public movement and when women (who are already covered), are asked to pray behind a barrier, because their very existence has the capacity to disrupt men. Modest dress gives women power in some public spaces and diminishes their movement in others. It can be a tool of oppression and symbol of protest. It’s cultural, national, political, spiritual, and very, very personal.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.