By Raihana Shams Islam
Hijab (the headscarf, and more broadly the clothes worn to cover a Muslim’s body) and the entire concept of the prescribed modesty in Muslim women’s attire are the subjects of excessive interest all around the world. Hijab is often deemed a form of oppression against women. It remains one of the focal points of the West’s unhealthy obsession with Islam. Therefore, donning the hijab in this critical world can be a daunting task.
I was brought up in a Muslim family where hijab was not very prevalent. Hijab was well-respected, but not practised. I, too, did not wear hijab. I believed that it was the Divine preference and I knew that I should choose to wear one. Yet, I kept putting it off. I needed, but could not gather, that extra bit of strength to go one step further. Two things were keeping me from making that final decision: apprehension of social ridicule and hesitation in making an ultimate commitment. Maybe these two things were intertwined, only showing the lack of deep imaan (faith) within me. I believe my situation was not unique and that many girls find themselves in the same shoes.
Almost after three decades of my life had passed, I could finally feel myself getting ready. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) had blessed me with the courage and confidence to reassert my faith in Him. Donning the hijab came naturally to me – and I must say, wearing this so-called ‘symbol of oppression’ has been a liberating experience for me. This sense of submission to Allah (swt), the Almighty, is purely therapeutic to the soul.
What made this happen? The insecurities and apprehension that one has in early years tend to wither away with age, experience and personal achievements. This maturity empowers you to make the right choice. This is true for every aspect of life and it certainly worked for me.
On top of this, I was fortunate enough to see many minority Muslims living in the West. Their commitment to Islam in a society adverse to it impressed me to the core. The way they carry themselves socially is, in itself, a beautiful da`wah (call) to Islam. The bond between fellow Muslimahs (female Muslims), especially in a society in which Muslims are a minority, is immensely strong. You could be in Rome, stared at in the streets and feeling alone and awkward – but when a stranger in hijab comes up to greet you, you feel an instant bond of sisterhood, no matter which part of the world she is from. This sense of ummah (community) inspired me.
Further, in this age of confusion and confrontation, blind stereotyping and blatant Islamophobia can be catalysts to an increased awareness of one’s identity as a Muslim. The more your belief is ostracized, the more you will soul-search, and chances are that you will come out a stronger believer. No wonder that more and more Muslim women, all over the world, are choosing to cover themselves to affirm their religious identity.
The after-effects of this huge change in life are many fold. One fine morning you put on hijab for the very first time. You almost feel a spiritual serenity. This is the calm after the storm of so many years of tug-of-war with your own self. You are happy to start your journey afresh on the right path, but in no time you will realize that this journey is not meant to be easy. Facing the people you know, with hijab on for the very first time, can be quite disconcerting. You have to be strong to take the stares and the remarks which will come in many shapes and forms. Some will be encouraging, some patronizing, others belittling and almost condemning – and these are only from the people who know you. Then there are people in the streets, at bus stops, train stations and the shops, who do not know you but make a point of staring at you and judging you on the basis of what you are wearing. Rest assured, this is the baggage you will have to carry and endure for the rest of your new journey.
Some people will look down upon you because, in their view, you have chosen to be ‘enslaved’ by a religious scripture. It is no use arguing with them that, in our minds, there is not even a comparison between being the slave of our Creator and being a ‘fashion slave’ or an ‘individualist’ humbug. There are others who will feel pity for you because when they look at your face surrounded by hijab, they see the sure sign of an oppressed soul. In their minds, the only scenario they can come up with is that your parents, your husband or your in-laws have ‘made’ you wear this piece of cloth against your will. They think this as if a woman with a hijab – or a niqab (face veil) for that matter – is some sort of subhuman who cannot think and act for herself! This is simply dehumanizing beyond measure. What we have to face with regards to hijab (or niqab) is nothing but stereotyping stemming from sheer ignorance and prejudice.
I have met people who like to remain politically correct and therefore abstain from criticizing hijab, but many of them cannot hide their condescending tones when they remark “you must be feeling very hot in that,” or “that (hijab) must be very uncomfortable in this climate.” They do not seem bothered about any other kind of attire or accessories that might be uncomfortable because of their shapes, materials, tightness or designs, like pointed stiletto heels or body-hugging blouses or jeans. All their concerns are concentrated on Islamic clothing! For these ‘well-meaning’ gentlemen and ladies, my answer is straightforward. Yes, we do feel hot in hot weather with these extra pieces of cloth over our bodies – but we could do without your pity, because we have chosen this for ourselves for the sake of Allah (swt). Physical comfort is not the priority here, mental comfort is. Hijab makes us feel pure, protected and dignified. By sacrificing many earthly attractions in order to please Allah (swt), we feel a certain sort of contentment that adds to our confidence and empowers us to face the hostile world boldly. Hijab is not a tool for dominance of men over women, it is an embodiment of modesty borne out of religious conviction.