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.
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.