Hijab…Not a Halo

 

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I was speaking to Nabila Amin Hoda, a friend of mine, recently about the “hijab” and what it represents to her and we ended up in quite an intense discussion. I then asked her to contribute to “Chasing Thoughts” as I’m sure it would be of interest to you guys as well. I understand that it may be slightly long but please be patient as Nabila has done a brilliant job portraying her emotions in this piece and deserves to be heard.
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It’s a Hijab…Not a Halo!

They say there are two sides to every story. Well, this story is different. It’s the “story’ of Hijab, and there are four sides to it. Yes, I said FOUR…just hear me out.  To start off, I’d like to mention that I wear Hijab. I didn’t always do so – in fact, for the majority of my life I dressed in a way that would be considered far from it. The change was gradual, I stalled at each stage for a few years, pondered, regressed, analyzed then moved on closer towards the big step of putting on the oh-so-talked about piece of cloth. So, now you know that what I am about say isn’t a string of random theories based on assumptions, guesses or outright pulled-out –of-someone’s-butt kind of talk. Its real, its something I have lived and experienced.  With that said, I can confidently state that Hijab is probably one of the most controversial topics within Islam (of course, not more so than the J-word) but its pretty high up on the discussion list.  As can be said about most of the topics within Islam today, Hijab is truly misunderstood by people on all sides of the argument. Notice I didn’t say “both” sides…refer to point about there being FOUR sides to this story.  Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the exact meaning of the concept as it was meant do be understood by the words in the Quran and Hadith, but I think I might have a pretty decent idea (I hope).  

The most prominent side of this story comes from people who wear it and think it’s the ultimate definition of the perfect Muslim. Their thought is that any pubescent girl without it is close to the scum of the Earth, and any women practicing it is practically an angel.  She can do no wrong, she can think no wrong, her soul is as pure as the rivers flowing in Paradise, and she is a true Muslim. I have met many such people. I was in my Junior year in college when 9/11 happened.  America was instantly polarized. You were either with “us” or with the “terrorists.” You were either American or you weren’t.  What people often overlook is that a similar polarization occurred within Muslims in America. You were either ‘Muslim’ or ‘American.’ Being Muslim was defined as not only following a certain code of conduct, but a certain code of dress as well. For women, that dress included the Hijab Ah, the Hijab.  In my desperate attempt to grasp a solid identity in a time when you were either this or that…I was obviously “that”, so I put on the Hijab.  I got brainwashed into believing that the Muslim women who did not put it on, hardly had the right to be called Muslim. They were traitors, sell-outs.  They did not withstand the true test of their “Muslimness.”  So the Hijab played the role of identifying. Instead of SOLIDIFYING and identity, it DEFINED it.  My cousin recently got married, and before he did, his mother-in-law wanted to talk to someone in the family to get personal references. I ended up being that person. She said to me, “When I found out that you wore Hijab, I knew I could trust you. I know you will tell me the truth.” Seriously? Wow. People, please, it’s a Hijab…NOT a halo. I have told many lies, I’ve copied homework, I’ve talked behind people’s backs, I’ve checked out (and continue to check out) cute guys.  And, don’t have a heart attack, I avidly followed ‘Sex and the City’ on HBO. I’m so glad Carrie and Big didn’t get married – but, let’s leave that topic for another blog post. 

Then there are those who don’t wear Hijab and would never wear it themselves or be ok with their mothers and daughters wearing it, but when they do come across someone who wears it, all of a sudden they just entered the presence of one of ‘God’s chosen ones’ who knows the answer to all Islamic questions, and someone whom they can make special requests to to pray for their son’s board exams – this side to the story actually cracks me up the most.  Last October, we had a huge family gathering to celebrate Eid. After lunch, came the time to pray the late afternoon prayer.  The magic question was popped “which direction should we face in this house for prayer.” After about 10 minutes of discussions on how they could deduce the correct Qibla by analyzing their geographical location in relation to where Route 7 intersects Algonkian Parkway, one uncle exclaimed, “ask Nabila, she will know.” Seriously? Wow. Yes, I know, I too noticed that piece of cloth on my head but oddly enough, it doesn’t give me superhuman abilities to initiate direct contact with God, who will then align my brain waves with the magnetic force of the North Pole to determine the direction we should face to pray. People, please, it’s a Hijab…NOT a halo.  I’m not someone you come to when you think your prayers aren’t working. I have no idea what year the battle of Badr took place, I don’t know what it means if you had a dream about a light shining from a bush, I don’t know what year the world will end and I sure as hell don’t care if your son fails his boards. 

Then, of course, there are those pleasant human beings who hate Hijab with every fiber of their being, and just can’t keep it to themselves. The will go to any lengths to insult, blast, criticize and offend Hijab. What they have to gain from it, I do not know.  This is the one aspect of my post-Hijabifying experience that I will never forget. It was malicious, it was offensive, it was hurtful…it was downright awful.  I love my family, I seriously do, but, the whole episode following my putting on Hijab was a true test of who was for real, and who was just looking for an excuse to jump on a soap box, because there was nothing else they could justifiably criticize.   As I mentioned, I put on the Hijab post 9/11. After the initial shock of, “are you CRAZY, you’re going to get shot if you walk down the street” came the “you are becoming a fanatic, the Hijab has nothing to do with Islam, you are being oppressed,” etc etc. I sparked intense discussions across the globe (I have family all over the world, from Singapore, to India, to Saudi, to the US). The family email list became hyperactive with articles, excerpts, Hadith, Quran, video clips, you name it. My phone was ringing off the hook – and all this, because I had DARED to put on Hijab – I had violated the family’s code of conduct and insulted the term  “Muslim” by putting on the “cursed head gear” according to one of my Aunts.  And at the end of the outright insults and “advice” came, “we just care about you so we want to “save” you from becoming a fanatic. It went as far as my family giving me an ultimatum, “either you take it off right now, or you don’t leave the house.” Cousins I was close to stopped talking to me, aunts I had stayed up gossiping with at nights, all of a sudden pulled away.  That 22” piece of cloth became the biggest barrier anyone can put up to separate themselves from loved ones, and moreover, from the ”normal and moderate” Muslims.  Seriously? Wow.  So, one would figure a family such as this which was so damn concerned about the image of Islam or the misinterpretation and wrongful practice of it, would go after other members of the family who threatened to corrupt as well. Guess again.  One of my cousins, through his actions, attitudes and general demeanor would otherwise be considered a misogynistic asshole.  Forget the part about him incessantly consuming alcohol, gambling, eating pork and sleeping around.  He talks about women like they are piece of meat only around to quench the insatiable male thirst.  They can be used one day, dumped the next day, there is always a ‘flavor of the week’ as long as there is a pretty girl around a man’s arm to  give him self-proclaimed clout in a man’s world. Honestly, I could care less what he did with his life. It’s his life, I don’t have the right to pass any judgment on anyone. If he calls himself Muslim, good for him. If he’s agnostic, good for him. But that’s me, I don’t butt into other people’s lives or tell them what to do. However, this very loving family who found every curse word in the book for Hijab DOES indeed butt in. So, by that logic you’d think that for the sake preventing the violation of the code of HUMANITY (forget Islam) they would step in and tell this guy off (let’s call him Shawn).  But…no! Shawn can do no wrong. Shawn is a suave ladies man. Shawn has a successful banking career which makes him cool as it is, and the fact that he goes dancing on a Wednesday night with Brazilian wannabe models whom he can sleep with and then not give the time of day actually makes him even cooler.  He’s hardly ever bought his mother a birthday gift, but he presents the most exquisite wines when he needs to charm a lady, albeit for one night. Um, HOW is this acceptable in a family who claims to be the keepers of Islam?  Honestly, seriously, forget that…who CARES what he does right? I sure as hell don’t. But do you see the point I’m getting at? How is it that my actions were so damn offensive to people who hardly see me once in five years, but Shawn’s actions are nothing short of living life in the ultimate “cool” fashion. Point made.  So going back to that ultimatum – I actually took of the Hijab. I was depressed, but felt like I was beaten up, lying on the floor bleeding and people were still kicking me in the gut. Yes, it was that bad. So it took my about 7 months to grow a spine and I decided to just put it back on because it was for ME. NOT for anyone else.  They obviously showed their double-standards, so why should I live my life according to their will? I mean, come on, I was 22 years old, just received a college degree in Business, what about to start my Masters. I’m SURE I am capable of making my own decisions.  So that is what I did, and I have stuck to it since August 14th, 2002. Yes I know, its Pakistan’s independence day…I call it MY independence day! 
 
This last group actually makes me sad more than anything else.  It consists of the people who wear Hijab, but abuse it. They abuse the image that is portrayed when they put it on.   I see women who wear the head scarf, but their actions are not conducive to the meaning of it.  Hijab is NOT merely a head cover. In fact, Hijab doesn’t even MEAN head covering. It means ‘protection.’ Protection of one’s respect, body, mind – physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s the way you act, not whether you have every strand of the hair on your head covered. So when women/girls do put on Hijab, they need to do their homework. It’s not the be all end all. There is great responsibility that comes with it.  The Hijab is meant to be the ultimate embodiment of the qualities of Maryam, the Virgin Mary.  But there are many other qualities that come along with the physical act of a cloth on one’s head: chastity, humility, modesty, generosity, spirituality, kindness. The list goes on forever.  I know someone who put on the Hijab as a front, so people would see the outwardly “angelic” characteristic, when in actuality she would do all those things – perhaps even similar to our friend Shawn – but in secrecy from those who saw it as a halo.  What a great situation, this is what it means to ‘have your cake and eat it too.” Do whatever you want, and no one will know. Seriously? Wow.  People like this not only give other “Hijabi’s” a bad name but they insult the purity of what the Hijab is meant to be.  You know that discrimination and judgment I experienced with my family? Well, that discrimination is reversed in this situation.  I have a friend who has a successful career, is very well-liked by everyone, has many friends, goes out, parties on weekends, generally enjoys life – even if it may contradict some people’s definition of what it means to call oneself ‘Muslim.’ What I’m saying is, he’s a nice guy minding his own business, not harming anyone or butting into others’ lives. He has a friend who would perfectly fit into this last group regarding Hijab. She wears Hijab, but leads a lifestyle contradictory to it.  But at the end of the day, it’s the guy who gets the raw end of the judgment – she’s safe from it, because she wears the Hijab. She can do no wrong, even if she sleeps around.  Get my point? People see it as halo, everyone knows it, it annoys most people, a lot abuse it.   

I know what you are thinking, “look at her, she thinks she has it all figured out.” That is not the case, I already said I’m not claiming to be an expert. I do have a very decent idea of what it is supposed to mean. I am not saying that just because I know what it means and I wear it, that I actually embody all those qualities of Mary mentioned above. HECK no. I wish. I can only hope that I can ever achieve half those things in this lifetime. But that’s what Islam is about isn’t it? It’s a struggle against yourself. It’s the struggle to be the best daughter you can be, the best parent you can be, the best husband you can, the best teacher you can, the best doctor you can be, the best you can be at anything you do. Above all, a struggle to be the best human being you can be.  The Hijab, for me, was just one small step towards spirituality that I can only hope helps me achieve this and win that struggle.  It works for me, it may not work for someone else. It’s not a ‘label’, its not the “icing on the Islamic cake” its not a cover to hide all your sins under, its not a barrier that is meant to segregate you from others, its not a license to judge others and it sure as hell is NOT a halo. 

So, what is it about this simple cloth that sparks so much controversy? How can everyone have such opposing opinions of it? How can some see it as a halo, and others a curse? How can some think it’s adorned by angels on earth, while others think it only corrupts humanity?  As long as we as humans are more concerned about what the person next door is doing and whether they are living life the way WE think it should be lived, this question will never be answered. Not in this lifetime.

Peace be with you.

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31 comments

  1. I knew Nabila through her sister in college. She is a wonderful person with a great heart.

    All I have to say is: amazing writing. It is a nice perspective from all around of what Hijab really is and how it affects people differently.

  2. I love you Nabz and am so glad you wrote this post. I think you have put into words (and very eloquently, I might add) what a lot of Muslim women feel–whether they wear the Hijab or not. When I joined the MSA in college I was immediately shunned because I didn’t wear Hijab and was frank enough to say that I had no plans to. Even though I was there for almost every iftar during Ramadan and tried to go out of my way to be friendly with everyone, I knew I was being judged. Ironically, a few of those same MSA girls lived in my dorm and I would see them party on the weekends and partake in very’un-hijabi’ activities. The hypocrisy astounded me.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I know a girl who was a hijabi and her parents forced her to take it off so that she could marry someone ‘suitable.’ Equally revolting.

    Fantastic post!!!

  3. thanks for posting this!

  4. This was fascinating. The writer has given us ALL of the perspectives (I could actually think of individuals that fit each category she mentioned).

    What I’ve come to notice is that non-hijab wearing Muslims are actually MORE critical of the ones that chose to wear it and are more judgemental towards hijabis than the hijabis are of non-hijabis (sorry i’m using the term hijabi).

    I initially used to think that a girl wearing a hijab would have a condescending (holier than thou) attitude but I’ve noticed that a lot of them see it as a PERSONAL decision.

  5. From my experience, it seems to me that in the states, the hijab has a lot more to do with identity (compared to other South Asian or Arab countries). In your experience, do you think American Muslims chose the hijab for identity or the actual spirital aspect (modesty etc)?

  6. That’s my sister in law 🙂

  7. But in all seriousness I think you’re dead on.

    Not to suggest that this is (another!) subject that needs to be usurped by the male perspective but I do think it would be worthwhile to get the points of view of how men perceive hijab and the various positions they tend to take. From the hypocrisy of demanding it of their relatives but then being less than scrupulous in their own actions to the demonizing it outright and failing to be supportive of those that do choose to wear it (and of course to those that have a “healthy” outlook on what hijab represents to them and their deen). There’s definitely a lot of overlap with what you’ve explored here.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Bhabhijaan… (I’ll even refrain from pointing out the one typo).

  8. Excellent post. As a young Pakistani guy, I had trouble understanding why my sister started the Hejab but began to see her point of view and understand that it is her personal choice.

  9. It’s a personal choice. Who are we to judge huh?

  10. Raqib has a great suggestion, you should do a follow up post on the male perspective…

  11. Brilliant post, very thoughtful and best of all – honest. It takes a lot of guts to do what you believe in, especially when you have to stand up to your own family. Really amazing to read different takes, without once feeling like I’m being preached to. FANTASTIC 🙂

  12. maybe one of the reasons people have negativity towards people that wear the hijab is because they feel that hijabis think covering their head is a requirement in Islam and therefore those that chose not to are not following the religion properly…

  13. middle east · · Reply

    Princess Raniya once said that its time the world starts worrying about what’s inside a Muslim woman’s head instead of what’s ON her head…

  14. Zahid · · Reply

    I found the post a tad bit longer than it should be, but hey may be it is just my rusted habit of reading.

    I do not know much about covering in Islam. Ignoring the “spiritual” side of it, hijab wearing at the time of prophet was also a matter of Identity. Muslim women wore a piece of cloth when they were in public areas to show that they belonged to the prophet’s movement. Of course belonging to the Prophet’s movement came with all the other requirements as well, in short trying to be a good Muslim, an honest submitter to the new order of things and ways of living that the Prophet was inviting Arabs to.

    In this day and age, I find that the actual act of wearing hijab isn’t as important as the social context in which such a step is taken. For example, if a woman lives in a strictly traditional surroundings, where she observes that Hijab is being abused by women, she might perceive the taking off of Hijab as more of an Islamic and honest initiative. While a woman in your position, with the kind of context you have described, interprets the wearing of Hijab as one etc etc…

    Hence, assuming that the woman deciding to wear or take off hijab doesn’t have any other ulterior motives, the wearing or taking off of Hijab is an act of personal understanding, subjective meaning, dependent on the personal history and experience, borrowing and reacting to the symbolic meanings attached to hijab in her surroundings. This is my take on the things.

    Nice post. Good day.

  15. Ijaz Ul Haq · · Reply

    Great Omar- This is a Subject which needs a better understanding. Nabila has done a great job in explaining all aspects of understanding the concept of Hijab. I will reply in detail later regarding the other side of the story. I can’t do it on my Blackberry right now. God bless Nabila and give courage to all those who want to stand up and be counted.

  16. sharmine · · Reply

    i love this ! and the title
    hijab not a halo!!!
    very well written!!

  17. Meerah · · Reply

    Very well written Nabila. I commend you on your strength and courage to follow through with what you believe in. Hijab is definitely a touchy subject, one that I frankly have never questioned nor criticized. But then again I grew up believing that everything in Islam was black or white, and only recently came to realize that that is not the case. At the end of the day hijab is about being modest and God conscious.

    It’s one thing to totally object hijab and another thing to choose not to wear it. However, I believe that it IS possible for a Muslim woman who does not wear hijab to embody qualities such as chastity, humility, modesty, generosity, spirituality, and kindness. I also believe that we have no right to judge other people’s actions, good or bad, bc in the end only Allah knows that person’s intentions. The day Muslims stop fixating on what other Muslims should or should not do, will be the day we can all prosper and live peacefully as a unified Muslim ummah. iA that day will come soon. Peace 🙂

  18. I know I’ll feel like an idiot when I hear the answer to this .. but what exactly is this “J word” you speak of?

  19. But if its “not a halo”, and we should not judge, why so hard on the last group? Would you have her take off her hijab until she is requisitely “Muslim”? And when is that?

    I think you have it wrong when you say “the people who wear Hijab, but abuse it”. Perhaps they are not abusing it, but are just not perfect. And perhaps the abuse is coming from other people who assume the woman wearing a hijab should somehow be held to a higher standard than any other Muslim woman. In fact, your own self-description would put you in this category, yet I’m sure you do not feel you are in anyway “abusing” the hijab (and neither do I, for that matter).

  20. Umair · · Reply

    Thoughtful, bold and balanced. Very well written!

  21. Sorry for the delay in approving these comments, guys. I’m currently on holiday right now with my family and haven’t had internet access until now.

    OA, your comment made me laugh. I had NO idea what the J word was either and felt like an idiot. I had to confirm with a friend who laughed me and then told me that the J word is Jihad.

  22. meerah · · Reply

    I agree with Anon. If hijab is not meant to be a halo then why do you assume that those who wear hijab must exhibit all those qualities you mentioned like chastity, humility etc. It seems contradictory in a way to your argument. With or without the head covering all muslim woman should work towards those noble qualities.

  23. shaheryar mirza · · Reply

    nice post..really enjoyed this..nicely written..but omar how about you try playing your role of editor and editing some of it..sheeeesh..ahahahahaha..don’t want to take away from the post though, excellent..a+ for writer…and for editor..no comment..hahahahaahha

  24. Thanks for your advice Shery. You’re right, I’ll make sure to do that next time and will keep it in mind. Please keep the feedback coming as it will help me improve the Blog.

  25. Just got around to reading this post. And yes I do agree it was a tad long. I had mixed emotions reading this post – there are so many different schools of thought with regard to the hijab that I don’t know if anyone really knows when or why women started wearing it. Though the best part about this discussion was the comment by middle east, ‘Princess Raniya once said that its time the world starts worrying about what’s inside a Muslim woman’s head instead of what’s ON her head…’ :))

  26. OURANCE VERSES ABOUT HIJAB

    1. “O you children of Adam! We have bestowed on you raiment to cover your shame as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness, that is the best. Such are among the Signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition”. (Quran: 7.26).

    2. “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their brothers, or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons or their women or the servants whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex, and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O you Believers turn you all together towards Allah, that you may attain Bliss”. (Quran 24.31)

    3. “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful: (Quran 33.59)

    4. Allah has clearly ordained in the Quran as stated above the order and the directions regarding the Hijab. Why has Hijab surfaced as the major discussion? Why not nudity, homosexuality, Gay/Lesbian marriages and other such acts of western behavior? Just because the former relates to Muslims and the latter to the western world. Hijab bothers them the most because it is an identity of the Muslim while the latter is justified, legalized and even pertains to fundamental / humans rights. Hijab came to the lime light post 9/11, when the war against terror or the war to terrorize began. The Muslim world came under focus and all aspects of Muslim life were not only observed but came under severe criticism. The Madarassahs, the dress code, the practices or observing religious virtues/ rituals all became the topic of discussion in the media or otherwise. The Muslims resented the onslaught on religious beliefs and as such started observing religious rights/ rites in order to defy and be identified………. Hijab was one of the symbols which could be easily recognized and many young Muslim women started wearing the Hijab.

    5. Turkey had in the past been completely “Secularized” and all Islamic symbols of identity were removed including dress, Hijab and beard. The Hijab was banned from all Governments Offices, including the Parliament, Universities and Schools. The President’s / Prime Minister’s wives were not allowed to attend official functions because of Hijab. A member of the Parliament was de-seated and a Professor of the University was told to keep her job or the Hijab. She chose to keep the Hijab and the PM/ President’s wives stayed away from the official functions……. This led to a process of evolution and today hundred of thousands of women in Turkey are wearing the Hijab and the official ban had to be lifted.

    6. The argument is simple, the world has become a global village, and the respect and understanding of each other’s beliefs and practices and culture has to be maintained. If I don’t mind your practices which are totally alien to mine, such as dress code, Gay marriages, nudity etc then why is someone bothered if I follow my code of conduct and my wife/ sister wears a Hijab.

    7. Muslim world under pressure has started raising controversies and has spoiled its case in a debate against themselves. We started coming up with new theories and new Slogans like the “Enlightened Moderation”. In the process we are losing our own identity by trying to raise controversies regarding religion and still not being acceptable to the West.

  27. What is Nabila’s reaction to all that’s been said after her article was posted here?

  28. Cecilia · · Reply

    Great post! I had a friend at work who was Muslim and we would discuss the different aspects of our religions. (I’m Christian) When she told me that she may start wearing the hijab again I encouraged her. She told me she always felt more at peace when covered. Since I left my job she emailed me to say she has begun wearing the hijab and has had no problems. ( She works in the States)

  29. The Norwegian government allowed not long ago the use of Hijab in the Norwegian police forces. But the far right progress party has promised on the upcoming election that if they get the power, Hijab will be forbidden not only in the police, but also in the schools.

    http://sioenorge.wordpress.com/2009/02/07/police-uniform-with-hijab-another-victory-for-islam/

  30. Mrinalini · · Reply

    I was just looking at this picture again – Nabila is someone I know way back before she had left for the states, years and years ago- our families have known each other forever and I was so suprised when I came across this blog –
    I am a Hindu and head covering is a very prominent part of many-a-married Hindu women, ranging from villagewomen to high flying executives who cover their heads in the presence of God, elders and inlaws.
    I have personally been extremly curious about muslim women and the Hijab and often wondered with the world situation being what it is- in terms of safety and security why women who do have a choice do wear the hijab and are un fazed by stares, curious whispers and general public scrutiny.
    Nabila has actually explained it in a way that some like me – who do not know Islam can understand a little more of what it is all about.
    Awesome writing – nope not long at all !!! I wish it was longer!!
    Well Done Nabila! see u on facebook !!

  31. Love the blog! I have not read anything this beautifully and peacefully coherent in ages!

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