I hate that I have to write this post but I guess I should have seen it coming. I am after all a 20 something Malay-Muslim woman and after all, isn’t this the favorite topic of the people in my generation?*sarcasm*
I need to write this for my own healing and for anyone else out there who have been questioned for their decisions around hija (…Why do you wear it? Why don’t you wear it? Bleurgh. *again with the sarcasm*)
First off, a little context: A year ago, I started wearing the hijab. I had never worn it full time before that except when attending religious classes on Sundays. I decided to start wearing it for several reasons:
1) I saw Yuna rock the hijab. (btw, she is an amazing musician and I have loads of respect for her)
2) I thought it would be a symbol of my willingness to start understanding and investigating Islam deeply.
3) I couldn’t give a shit anymore about how my hair looked.
I had multiple reasons for wearing the hijab. By the way, just as a sidenote, I am generally suspspicious of Muslim women who only give one reason for wearing the hijab (e.g. to please my husband and Allah swt!). I am calling BS on that. Human beings are complex – nobody does something with just one reason in mind, myself included.
When I first started wearing the hijab, some friends who knew me from before asked if I was going through some special stage in my life or rite of passage. I told them no. I should have told them I was going through a phase of my life where I was questioning everything I learned in Islam and concluding things for myself from my own research. But most people just want short answers so I told them no.
Thank God, most of my friends were pretty cool about it and didn’t ask many questions. Sometimes, I am left wondering how in the world it was possible that I travelled halfway around the globe and met people who just took me for who I am – hijab or no hijab.
When my mother and aunts found out, they were very happy for me. I wasn’t sure why – I suspect they assumed that me putting on the hijab was a signifier for me to become ‘more Muslim’ and/or less radical. For the record, they are wrong. I will never stop believing in anti-oppression, believing that women deserve better, that racism sucks and that capitalism is evil. I also refuse to shut up about my beliefs. If this makes me ‘radical’, what does it make Prophet Mohammeh s.a.w? I know he was a proponent of women’s rights as so many Muslim men loooveee to remind me when I teIl them I believe in feminism. I also know he actively worked towards anti-racism and other social injustices in his lifetime. If being ‘radical’ is contrary to being Muslim, I’m not sure what this contemporary belief means for our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. When I die and (inshallah) go to heaven, I’ll ask him what he thinks about this.
My partner, C, was supportive – as he always was. I’ve been with this man for 5 years now and there is nobody else except maybe Allah s.w.t who I feel accepts me fully as I am, who respects and supports all my decisions. C encouraged me to explore wearing the hijab and was there for me for the whole year ahead as I walked around in the world with hijab on.
Which brings me to the next point.
For a whole year, I wore the hijab pretty much full-time when I was in public. It got freakin hot and almost damn near impossible at times especially in the summer in Vancouver and when I was visint family in Singapore. But I persevered.
The funny thing was…I never thought that the hijab was permanent for me. To me, it was something I wanted to explore. It wasn’t something I was committed to100% for the rest of my life. But I don’t think this was clear to a lot of other people in my life who transitioned with me during this past year.
Last year, I travelled back to Singapore for Eid. I remember we were visiting an aunt when she asked me about whether my hijab was permanent or temporary. My mother jumped in before I could answer. She told my aunt ‘Of course it’s permanent!’ I just stood there pretty shocked. I didn’t know how to feel at that point. I still don’t.
I decided not to wear my hijab when I travelled back to Vancouver. At the airport, one of my uncles teased? said? exclaimed? ‘Oh, looks like you’re back to being European now you’re going back!’ I calmly told him I decided not to wear it because I didn’t want to be pulled aside or harassed for ‘random checks’ by customs officials. My aunt, his wife (herself a hijabi) was nearby and looked at me incredulously. She couldn’t believe that hijabis were subject to that treatment. In my head, I was thinking ‘Is it just me or did 9/11 not happen?’ Being (visibly) Muslim and crossing borders is no joke. I have to remind myself that border crossing and the fears and anxieties that come along with it are regular realities for me but are actually uncommon for most other folks. It was really hard for me to remind myself because I just felt so misunderstood after that comment.
I left Singapore that day feeling…fragmented. I always suspected that people never fully understood me – I am turning out to that odd radical feminist everyone would politely humor at family gatherings. But when I realized that my family misunderstood me, it was… painful.
Anyway, I returned to Vancouver and decided to do more research on hijab. The more I read and discussed with my Muslim friends who had similar experiences, the more I realized how incongruous my decision to put on the hijab was with my values of being a Muslim.
My parents had always raised me to think of hijab as a choice. I am thankful for that. Without that upbringing, I would never have had the courage or common sense to do my own research and come to my own conclusions about hijab. So here they are:
1) I realized I don’t need to wear the hijab to be a ‘good Muslim’ (whatever that means). I basically realized through my research that being a good Muslim does not equal hijab. Most people assume that hijabis are good, decent people but I know better. I know some hijabis who are one of the worst, most unself-aware, gossipy, backbiting, indecent people. When I realized this, I realized that my belief was incongruent with my actions. I refuse to reduce my faith and my journey within Islam to a piece of scarf on my head. Being Muslim does not stop at hijab for me – it is so much more. A way of life, a philosophy, a belief system in justice and kindness….not just hijab.
2) Everyone loves a hijabi and nobody loves a sinner. Apparently, everyone was in love with me when I decided to put on the hijab but when I decided to take it off, I received resistance. This resistance would often come from the same people who told me that the hijab was just a piece of cloth. If it’s just a piece of cloth, why can’t you accept me with hijab or not? I am the same person underneath.
3) I do not appreciate the heightened scrutiny of my body with the hijab on. Some people believe that hijab was designed to protect women from the male gaze. I guess those people have never lived in Vancouver in 2013. I have literally been the victim of so many dirty looks, unwanted stares and stare duels while on transit. I was so shaken up by one incident recently and this has been one of the catalysts for me deciding to remove my hijab. But what if I’m just being oversensitive or self-conscious you say? Frankly, I know how it is to feel unsafe in public, to have to deal with dirty looks and polite or impolite stares from strangers. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling in fact, it kind of sucks. And having to deal with it mentally all the time while I’m in public is ridiculous. No one should be treated that way. So if I can remove myself from that amount of mental anguish, I will take it thank you very much.
4) ‘Haya’ or modesty was only emphasized in terms of what I wore, not how I carried myself or how I thought. This was the main reason for me removing my hijab. I sincerely believe in modesty in actions, thoughts and behavior. Contrary to popular belief, hijab does not make one modest. Haya makes one modest. Haya is not hijab. They are not the same thing although they are frequently conflated together. (Here, I really have to give a shoutout to all the religious ‘teachers’ I had who consistently told me this. Also to my community in general for upholding this belief without question. Way to go, people.)
It started to really annoy me when I was policed for little ‘transgressions’. For example, I was wearing a ¾ sleeve top once in Singapore and my aunt asked me why my sleeves didn’t cover my wrists. She then told me that when she was younger, she used to do the same. I don’t get it – do Muslim men consistently get aroused by looking at Muslim women’s skin? Or is it just hijabi skin that arouses them? Or maybe it’s just when they’re in the mosque that they get so distracted by the beauty of women while trying to pray that we are not even allowed to pray in the same space or near them (and therefore women regularly get sidelined with subpar praying spaces and dirty toilets to take wudhu)? Why do we keep allowing this idea of men’s arousal to dictate women’s behavior and dress? Something is wrong here.
Conversely, Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab seem to be able to wear whatever they damn well please. My sisters and lady cousins leave the house wearing shorts and miniskirts with their long silky hair flowing in the wind…. and get the occasional grunt of disagreement but I can’t wear ¾ sleeves when wearing hijab? Have my parents/aunts/uncles given up on my sisters and lady cousins as ‘sinners’ or do they just actually sense that I’m the shmuck who would take their ‘advice’ to heart and dissect each word over a year later?
I’m not asking for them to be policed either. What I am asking is for basic respect which doesn’t seem to apply to women and girls. Stop telling us what we can or cannot wear. Stop blaming sexual assault on what we do or do not wear. If men get aroused by the skin on my wrists, how is that my fault? Why is the modesty of the man not in question? Why is mine?
Sometimes I think that if I could have chosen to be born the way I wanted to, I would not have chosen this body. There are just so many damn rules that are made up to oppress me…as a woman, as a brown woman, as a Muslim woman. I can’t keep up and I just want to be me. I just want to wear what I want to wear. I just want to be respected as a person – not as a woman, or a man or a scholar or whatever. Just as a person. Why is this so difficult to do?
The more I read and reflected sincerely, the more I feel that Allah s.w.t is not as rigid about the hijab as some Muslims make it up to be. At the end of the day. I have to answer to Allah swt and that’s it. No one else. One of my friends told me ‘God will judge us based on our efforts in anything and not whether we happen to be in the right camp, or not.’ *much love to you ST* For now, I am content with the amount of effort I have put into trying to understand this issue. I’m not saying it’s enough…I’m just saying it’s enough for me, for now.
So how is life without hijab?
Well, I don’t get dirty looks or get into stare duels with strangers on bus anymore. I feel more anonymous now… I don’t stick out like a sore thumb. When I meet someone new, I can sense they are not judging me by my hijab (instead, I am back to getting lots of ‘Where are you from?’ or the more insensitive ‘What are you?’ questions). I don’t feel the burden of having to constantly explain why I wear the hijab, what haya means and then get into debates with people I hardly know about terrorism and/or why Muslims in x or x country are oppressing other religions. I am not pushed to speak for Islam and Muslims all the fkn time anymore.
That being said, I do miss wearing the hijab. When I open my closet, I look at my scarf collection over the past year and I dream about an ideal world where I would be able to wear it one day and not the next with few questions.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in an ideal world. And neither do you.
Mostly, I’m just glad I can run my fingers through my hair again.
Dear Allah swt…I know you can hear me. I have felt your presence before and I feel closer to you now more than I ever have. You have been so kind to me and blessed me with so much but I am most thankful for your blessings of my courage, persistence and resilience. Please give me the strength to continue and be assured with this decision. You have given me lots of questions and I will try to find the answers. Please give me the courage to stand true to my beliefs and my search for congruity and answers. Please give me strength to withstand others’ judgments of me. Please let others learn to accept me for who I am. More importantly, please let me be OK with just being me.