Bismillahi ir-rahman ir-rahim – In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful
When I was still working it always took people a while to get comfortable around me. I could always detect a sense of uneasiness, not that they were afraid of me as such, but just that they were unsure. Unsure how to be around me, unsure how to speak to me, unsure what I may be like…I was the unknown. As the days went by I would sense this uneasiness slowly fading away. Eventually they were be at a point where they would be comfortable with me. They would realise that under my headcovering and modest clothing was a person, not really all that different to all the other people out there. When they reached the next level of comfort the questions would come – they would always start off about hijab.
“Why do you cover your hair?” they would ask. Sometimes the wording would be a bit clumsier than that, but it was essentially the same question. I can’t remember exactly what I would tell them, you’d think after a while I should have started to expect it, but it still felt like it was a bit out of the blue. One minute you’d be talking about the weather, and the next “so why do you wear that?” I never really was too sure about the best way to answer the question, and in all honesty I’m still not. However, since then hijab has been in the spotlight, and there have been calls to ban the hijab, it has caused me to think a lot more about it. What is hijab? And why did I chose to wear it?
It was almost 10 years ago when I started wearing hijab. Its kinda scarey to think of it in that way, 10 years seems like a lifetime ago, and truth be told I can barely remember what its like to step out in the street with my hair flowing. Yet at the same time it seems like yesterday, I still remember everything. The lead up to it, the nerves I felt, and heading out for the first time with it on. It changed nothing yet it changed so much. It was a pivotal moment in my life, and it would shape my life in more ways than I could have possibly imagined. It was the best thing I ever did.
I say this realising how many in the west view hijab. I know many detest it. I know how they view us as blemishes in a land where beauty and appearances mean everything. I wish I could say I dont care what they think, but I’d be lying. Sometimes I read views that hurt me deeply. Not so much because they think so negatively about people like me, but because of the ignorance they hold and the extreme hatred they feel towards us. It can be scarey. And now as a mother it has become more scarey. Not only do I fear for my children, but I fear that if anything ever happened to me how it would affect them. Most of the time I allow myself to remain blissfully ignorant, I forget what I know because…well its easier to do so. Whatever has been written will be, despite how much worry I do or don’t feel. So I just take the necessary precautions without obsessing, and get on with living my life and raising our beautiful children.
I should probably explain here what hijab exactly is. Hijab is not merely the headcovering as the term has come to mean, but it literally means a ‘veil’. In essence it is a veil between women and men, like an invisible barrier of sorts. I know some may find this offensive, but if you think of it we all have barriers between one another. In particular there are always barriers between males and females, work colleagues have different relationships to friends, and friends have different relationships to spouses and there are certain barriers in place that you don’t cross without spilling over into the next level of relationship. Sometimes this happens by accident, sometimes by choice. In islam this process is simplified. The wall or barrier is basically the same between all males and females, the exception being ones spouse and close family members. Hijab helps maintain this ‘invisible barrier’. The result is a move away from women being viewed as sexual objects and seeks to avoid the potential problems that may result from this.
In order to have proper hijab there are many conditions that need to be fulfilled. Firstly and most obviously, the hair needs to be covered. However its not just the hair, in fact its all of the body except for ones hands and face. Furthermore the clothing needs to be thick, not transparent, and loose enough not to allow the shape of ones figure to show. Clothing should be plain and modest, not overly attractive or bright and attracting attention. In addition speech should be relatively monotonal, not too soft or loud. Basically you need to dress and behave in a manner that will not attract attention. I remember as a non-hijabed teenager having a discussion with another non-hijabed older girl, trying to justify our lack of hijab and saying “but in Australia more people look at you and you attract more attention when you wear hijab”. Deep down I think we both knew that the attention you attract when you wear hijab is normally of a very different nature to the type of attention you may attract without hijab. Not only is this obvious logically, but it becomes even more apparent once you wear hijab. While I admit that you can get quite a few looks, the looks are quite different – shock, suprise, sometimes even disgust, but a world away from the unwanted advances that occur when not in hijab. In fact, its not until writing this now that I realise how much of a difference it made. I almost forgot how it used to be, alhumdulilah for blessing of hijab.
All my life I had a deep rooted belief in islam. Growing up in Australia however, I found it extremely difficult for this to translate into my day to day life. As a child I firmly believed, but I prayed on and off, dressed pretty much the same as many here, and apart from fasting every year, there wasn’t anything islamic that I practiced consistently throughout my life. So it was something that was deep within me, but on the surface I looked and with some exceptions acted just like any child/teen in Australia.
After I finished high school I went to Egypt for a few months. Although I had prayed for significant amounts of time previous to this, it wasnt till this trip and some persistant dawah from my cousin that I started praying again – this time alhumdulilah I never stopped. When I was about 20 I started to really think about things, I guess I was going through a bit of an identity crisis. I always struggled with my identity, a phenomena that many children of immigrants go through. But for me it wasn’t about my arabic heritage, it was about my religion. Who I was in the outside world, who I would let my friends see – that wasn’t the real me. And at the same time my family only saw part of the real me as well. I felt like a fake, like I was two different people, and nobody saw who I really was, as I never allowed anybody to see both sides of me, each side was reserved for its allocated people. I felt like a sphere with all different people around me, and the view people saw of me was based on where they were in relation to the sphere, each seeing a particular part of the sphere and nobody seeing the it in its full form. I often had this image in my mind during growing up. I hated being like this. I needed to find who I really was, a ‘me’ that I was happy and comfortable with for all to see.
I think deep down I always knew what I wanted. I remember long ago in Egypt, I was about ten, or maybe in my early teens, I was telling my brother that had I lived there I would have worn hijab. So it must have been what I wanted all along, but something I was only comfortable doing in the right environment. So it wasnt surprising that when I wanted to find myself that I turned to islam. Subhanallah (glory be to Allah) but I’ve never really thought of it in this way. We are born as Muslims, and although I was always Muslim I was somewhat astray, and yet when I wanted to find myself it was the fitrah (natural inclination) that I came back to Allah (swt).
I turned to islam. I read every book I had about islam and started researching things on the internet. My faith was growing. But the pressure to ‘fit in’ and not be some religious zealot was so very strong, I was scared. I remember sitting there on my prayer mat making dua for Allah to guide me, and I could feel something in my heart, something that was holding me back, something deep inside of me….I was making dua for Allah to remove it, for Allah to make me a better Muslim and make me love it. I used to feel that to be a practicing Muslim was to be boring, to be serious, have a boring life…I knew I was wrong but its a feeling I had and I could not shrug it. I made dua for Allah to remove this, for me to be more practicing and love it, to not view it as boring. And lo and behold it happened – I don’t know how it happened, or when it exactly happened but my iman (faith) grew slowly. I no longer thought that practicing muslims were boring, I wanted to be one and I loved it!
I started attending lectures and learning more and more. The more I learnt the more everything around me made sense, it was like a constant cycle fueling my iman. It always reminds me of the hadith qudsi, probably my all time favourite hadith:
I am as My servant thinks I am . I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assemble better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I draw near to him a fathom’s length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed
I had slowly walked to Allah (swt), and true to His promise I could feel him coming to me at speed.
I eventually go to the point where things had changed. I still felt like a fake but for different reasons. Islam had become the centre of my life, it meant everything to me – yet I was ignoring one of the basics of Islam, the command for women to cover. I couldn’t go on doing that, it was increasingly eating away at me. However, at the same time I couldn’t just cover overnight. To go from being a normal member of society to being abnormal. From being viewed as fashionable to being viewed as oppressed. And probably most difficult of all, in a country where Muslims are a very small minority – to go from being seen as ‘one of us’ to being ‘one of them’. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make, I knew what I had to do. I had to do it to be true to myself and most of all I had to do it for the sake of Allah (swt). Allah – who had blessed me with so very much in this world. Who had created me and knew more about me than myself. He (swt) had given me a simple command and it was my duty to follow. So I put it in my mind and worked towards it, knowing that it was ony a matter of time.
This all coincided with a time when I was at university completing my social work degree which had a strong feminist flavour to it. Ironically, this only made my iman stronger and strengthened my resolve to wear hijab. One of the main thing I learnt in the course is that there is a real problem in this world, everybody knows it. Our societies are pretty much in tatters, we are struggling morally and economically. This is fueled by a many number of things, the focus on the individual, a consumerist society, capitalism, and the list goes on. In my mind it was becoming increasingly clear – there are problems, the problems are vast and many. But there is only one solution, and that is Islam.
When I first wore hijab I didn’t really understand what it was. Like many I thought it was just a matter of covering my hair. I did understand it a bit more than that, as I did instantly stop wearing pants out in public, but my understanding was quite limited. I would wear a long skirt down to my ankles, a top which I’m embarassed to say was somewhat tight fitting, and a hijab which was long enough to cover down to just above my waist. I also wore make-up at the time. Over time I became increasingly uncomfortable with how I dressed. I slowly reduced my make-up until I no longer felt the need to wear any. It wasn’t easy, especially when you’re used to it. Upon reflection its quite sad how my levels of confidence were directly related to make-up, but alhumdulilah now I cant imagine ever setting foot outside with make-up on, I don’t need to alter my appearance to feel confident. I also slowly altered the way I dressed, I began with wearing longer hijabs until after about a year I would wear loose fitting abayas. I remember when I started wearing abayas finding it quite amusing and telling friends “If I had known that I would be dressed like this when I first wore hijab I think I would have been too scared to put it on”. The change occurs so gradually that you barely know its happening, sometimes when you notice something and it surprises you as you dont quite know how it happened. In my experience the journey towards proper hijab is a natural progression for a muslimah, and an ongoing one at that.
These were not the only changes in me. Other more pronounced changes occured in other aspects of my behaviour, it truly did change me in ways I had never anticipated. The first thing I noticed was that I was no longer hesitant about my Islam. I remember prior to hijab when somebody would ask me to go somewhere that I wasn’t comfortable with I would find it so hard to say no, I would want to make excuses so as not to seem strange. The main one being restaurants which served alcohol, I remember sitting in places where I just felt so uncomfortable and pretty much miserable the entire time. I did not want to be there but I just went along with things because I didn’t know how to say no, for some reason I was too embarassed to. I was afraid of what people would think of me, after all I just wanted to fit in like everybody else. Post hijab this was no longer a problem. You only had to look at me for two seconds to realise that I wasn’t like everybody else so I stopped trying to pretend that I was. If I was invited to a restaurant that served alchol I would casually say something like “thanks, but I dont go to restaurants with alcohol” and that was that. A huge weight had lifted off my shoulders and I now had the courage to be who I wanted to be. I was only beginning to get a taste of how hijab was shaping my life, but I wanted more.
The next thing I noticed was that hijab was making me a better person. No, having an extra fabric on your head does not automatically bring about this result, but speaking to other sisters I know others have gone through the same thing. In Australia, particularly around 10 or so years ago, hijab really stood out, and as a new wearer of hijab you couldn’t be more conscious of this fact. I was also aware that any wrong move I made, whether on purpose, by accident, or merely something that can merely be misconstrued as wrong would always be judged. And no they wouldn’t be judging me, or at least that wasnt my concern, they would be ready to pounce on Islam. It is a huge responsibility, and a fact that can be quite overwhelming when deciding to wear hijab. Afterall who really feels ready to represent our beautiful deen, to represent the truth? I certainly didn’t. As it was I had suddenly become a reluctant ambassador of Islam. And while I realised that I was never going to do our religion justice, I knew that I was going to do my utmost to make sure I represented it accurrately as I could, and I certainly was going to go out of my way to make sure I never disgraced Islam in any way. I was constantly aware of this, from walking down the street, going out of my way helping others, how I dealt with people, shop assistants, clients at work. In every aspect of my life I tried to convey the best behavoiur I could. Eventually when you do things enough times, whether out of natural inclinations or due to conscious effects, you start adapting the behaviours you take on as part of yourself. So over time these actions became a part of who I was. Naturally there is still a lot of room for improvement, but it was certainly a change from the person I was pre-hijab.
Last but not least was the effect that hijab had on my iman (faith). Now this was the most surprising part that I would never have expected. Not that I found it strange that it would help my iman grow, but it was more in the way that it occured. When I first wore hijab…well theres no real eloquent way of putting this, but I thought I was good. I thought I had made some huge sacrifice for the sake of Allah, and I thought it was really good. Particularly given the region where I resided, that lots of people would look at me like I was some kind of freak, I really thought I was going out of my way and that it was something special. Its not that I sat there thinking “oh how good am I”, but I just thought that I was making a big sacrifice and giving a large part of myself for the sake of Allah (swt), and in a way I was. After wearing hijab for a while I started feeling something that I never expected. I realised that wearing hijab was the best thing I had ever done. It made me more confident, more firm in my faith and more comfortable with who I was. For so many years I had struggled with my Islam, wanting to practice it but for the most part being unable to – hijab ended that. Hijab was my stength, my protection – and all those years when I was searching for who I was, hijab helped my find myself. It suddenly occured to me, this wasnt about my sacrifice to Allah, this was about Allah’s favour to me. The command to wear hijab is in fact a favour, it is a blessing that He bestows on us out of love for us. I was too blinded by my own arrogance to see that I wasn’t doing Allah any favours, I was only helping myself through my obedience to Him. Although somewhat different it is a little similar to how a parent may instruct a child to wear a jacket to protect them from the cold because we know better than they, Allah instructs us to wear hijab because He, our creator, knows us more than we know ourselves. Its not because He will gain something out of it, just as I as a mother gain nothing out of my child wearing a jacket out in the cold. Its out of extreme love that I have for my children and my desire to protect them that I could never leave them in the cold without instructing them to wear a jacket. The realisation was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. Once again I was reminded of another one of my favourite hadiths:
O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another. O My servants, all of you are astray except for those I have guided, so seek guidance of Me and I shall guide you, O My servants, all of you are hungry except for those I have fed, so seek food of Me and I shall feed you. O My servants, all of you are naked except for those I have clothed, so seek clothing of Me and I shall clothe you. O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you. O My servants, you will not attain harming Me so as to harm Me, and will not attain benefitting Me so as to benefit Me. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as pious as the most pious heart of any one man of you, that would not increase My kingdom in anything. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as wicked as the most wicked heart of any one man of you, that would not decrease My kingdom in anything. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to rise up in one place and make a request of Me, and were I to give everyone what he requested, that would not decrease what I have, any more that a needle decreases the sea if put into it. O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for, so let him finds good praise Allah and let him who finds other that blame no one but himself.
I suddenly realised that everything from Allah, all of his guidance, the halals and harams – He gains nothing from it, it is all for our sake. We would be wise to follow the guidance of our creator, but it is not for His benefit, the only one who stands to benefit is the one who follows the guidance of He who knows us better than any one of us knows themselves.
Criticisms of hijab are many. I find it not only frustrating, but also amusing at the amount of people who seem to think they know why we wear hijab. The feminist stance is the most ludicrous. They seem to think that as Muslim women we are unable to think for ourselves. Apparently even though some of us think we chose to wear hijab, we’re just so deluded by all those oppressive men around us that we don’t know really know what we want – we just think we do. Well thank-you for having faith in our intellect and our ability to think for ourselves. We really appreciate the faith you have in us…..but let me ask you this. For the people out there who have any connection to reason or objectivity, I pose this question. Which is the more likely, that a) despite our firm convictions and love for hijab, that we are deluding ourselves and only covering ourselves to appease males, or that b) despite the belief that they are ‘doing it for themselves’, that other women are adorning themselves and showing more of their bodies to appease males? I think the answer is clear. I know that there are different women in this world, who wear very different styles of clothing with very different levels of modesty. I’m not bunching them all into the same category, and it’s not for me to psychoanalyse them. However, I feel the need to point out the ridiculousness of their stance. Apart from those closest to us, there are no males that stand to benefit anything (at least not directly) through hijab, so if anybody is going to be accused of dressing to appease men, Muslim women should be the last on that list.
So this is how and why I came to hijab. It was the best and the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. By wearing hijab I learnt lessons that I was unable to learn any other way. I was able to see and understand things that I couldn’t before, I was able to find myself. I thank Allah (swt) for the blessing.