Sunni Sister/March 26, 2006
Hijab. Hijab hijab hijab hijab hijab.
I might end up deleting this, so if you come back for it and it’s gone that’s why. Maybe I just need to get it out of my system. Hijab. I’m not planning this as some comprehensive (or comprehensible) post on hijab. Just random hijab thoughts, stream of consciousness, and not completely sensical. Are you still with me? Or I might turn this back into a password protected post. We’ll see. Until then, hijab hijab hijab hijab.
Some Stupid Experiences I’ve Had
1. You know how we all love to say that it’s the followers of Dawatus Salafeeyah and Wahabees who are so mean to the rest of us? I’ve had those experiences, but I’ve also had the mean thing from “progressive Muslims” and spoofees. One time, I went to a certain bookstore owned by progressive “sufi” Muslims. I wore hijab and a jilbab that day. This is back when I was still in love with the Muslims (vs. just loving my family), even though I was starting to have those feelings eroded. But I thought these people will be so friendly. The store clerk (owner?) didn’t like me. His distaste for me was obvious on his face. He looked at me like I was garbage. He looked at me and talked to me like I was a moron. He had the look on his face that you get when you eat something and the realize it has a bad aftertaste. He was talking to this young confused woman who was talking — very loudly — about Imam Ghazali and her own bisexual love affairs. That was okay. My checkered pink hijab was not. I forget what the young lady’s connection between the esteemed imam and her misbehavior was, but even then I was floored by the gall. I had prayed next to this young lady once. She couldn’t be bothered to keep her hair covered in prayer (partly, perhaps, b/c she didn’t *know* how to put the scarf on correctly — b/c she had made a lame attempt at it before letting it fall to the floor), yet she was holding forth on the imam like the expert her professors at NYU told her she was.
A woman came in the store. She had these beautiful long dreadlocks flowing down her back, and a peach colored duster vest with matching palazzos. She had a scarf wrapped around the crown of her head like a headband. “Salaam ‘Alaikum!” she declared to the room at large. “Wa laikum salaam,” I said. She looked at me, scanned me from head to toe. Her nose wrinkled up, her eyes narrowed. “Wa laikum” she spat at me. The shmutz on her shoes. “Wa laikum.” You are not a real Muslim. I give you the greeting reserved for people who aren’t Muslims.
Later, at the masjid next door, the women ignored me and looked at me like trash. Even a tunic with jeans and a scarf was too radical for them. Some were angry that I wouldn’t hug or shake hands of men — men that I didn’t know, but even if I’d met them before, I wouldn’t have hugged them. Only the brothers bothered to have any respect. I always got along better with men than women. Getting along with women has always been a struggle for me. A sheikh visited from Kuwait. He hadn’t known what he was getting into. The loneliness and bewilderment in his eyes was plain. When he saw me, he started to cry and utter prayers. “He’s so happy to see you,” someone told me. “He wasn’t expecting this.”
After the store owner / clerk had seen me at the masjid, he no longer looked at me or talked to me like I was trash or an idiot embarassment. I was one of “them,” even if I did persist in the oddity of a scarf (the rest of the women wore see through gauzy dupattas when praying or, more commonly, Albanian style kufis — men’s hats). The funny thing was, I only felt emboldened enough to wear the scarf around Muslim gatherings at that time. The rest of the time, I wore it tied at the back of my head, sort of a turban. Is it Muslamic or is it a bohemian NY artiste fashion statement? Only I knew for sure.
After world events, after the RAND report, after the “woman led prayer,” this particular group of people would be lauded in non Muslim and certain Muslim media alike as tolerant, peaceful, loving, encompassing. But to me they weren’t. They have the same struggle to be truly accepting as any other sub-group of Muslims, and we do them and ourselves no favor by pretending it isn’t so because they are “accepting” of homosexuals, non Muslim “sufis,” women led prayer, or any other innovation or philosophy from outside of Islam.
2. I went to another dergah, persisting in the belief that people who voluntarily take on the label of “Sufi” are going to be more loving and tolerant of others, even after the above experiences. If all the talk is about love, doesn’t it follow that the attitude is? I learned that it doesn’t necessarily… Again, the narrowed eyes, whispers, sisters turning their backs on me, but this time it was the men as well. I didn’t know that covering the ear lobes and the neck was such a radical statement among Muslims, but at this place it was. One of the community leaders really seemed to take a dislike to me. The look on his face as he walked in the door and saw me is seared in my memory.
My friend’s mother went to this place often. She wears jilbab and hijab, but is “different” enough in other ways that the core community wants to accept her different-ness. She adds cool factor, I guess. Her own mother in law would drop in when she was in town, and knew many people there. My friend couldn’t stand her step-father’s mother, and the feeling was mutual. The mother in law, perversely, wanted to win me to her “side” in this family dispute; at the dergah, she stuck to my side like glue. I remember her chattering non-stop and wondering when I might be left alone, when she started in on my clothes. “Why are you wearing that?” she said. “You don’t have to dress like that just because you are married to an Arab.” Modern jilbab originated not in Jordan or Egypt, but Istanbul, but we forget the history of our own clothing and call it an “Arab garment.” She spoke for some of the women there, voicing their “discomfort” with me, deriding my choice to cover my ears and neck, and to wear a coatdress of convenience, instead of searching high and low for a peasant skirt without slits (this was before they were in fashion) and a loose top. Jilbab is dress n’ go. Western clothing can be a trial. But, she said, the women there wanted to know why I had to be different. Why did I have to choose this?
There was one brother in this dergah who did not have narrow eyes — for me or for anyone else. His face shone. From my position in balcony, a symbolically raised area behind a waist-high wooden banister where the women stand, I stood across from him. We were both at the end of our respective rows, standing about 10 feet apart. I stood there, but did not particpate, only watched. He had a smile on his face, joy on his face, as he said, “La illaha il Allah!” over and over. He gave this smile to everyone there. A lover of Allah. He gave me hope about this place, that there was something good to be learned there, even with the narrowed eyes. I came back because of him.
Two months later, he was killed as he rode on the elevator to his job in Tower 1. In my memory, his face radiates nur. Golden. He haunts me, and I think of his face often.
3. It is often said that women dress for other women. To some extent, this is true. To another extent, it is not. A woman doesn’t wear clothing that emphasizes her breasts for the sake of other women. In any case, no matter what she wears, Muslim or not, veiled or not, there are always going to be women who have something to say about it — positive or otherwise.
One of the women here criticizes me for wearing too much black. She thinks I need to have more color in my abaya choices. My sister in law is so displeased with my black that when she was given the task of sending me clothes, she deliberately used my money for non-black clothing — even though I’d told her to buy black. Back in NJ, some sisters criticized me for not wearing enough black. I don’t wear black to look “like crows,” as it is said in a hadith. I don’t wear it for mourning, or because I think it is the most modest, or for any of the other reasons that Muslim women say they wear black.
I wear black because it’s cool. I wear black because it matches everything. I wear it b/c it’s goth. I wear black b/c I’m from NY and everyone wears black b/c it hides the dirt. I wear it because it’s elegant.
In Front of Your Face
4. I wore niqab once. I am intrigued and put off by niqab. I have a niqab collection, which some people find amusing for a woman who doesn’t actually wear it. I have them in a variety of colors and styles. I have never worn niqab in the US. I doubt I ever would.
Well, I wore it more than once. Maybe three times. I wore it to visit the zawiya of Sheikh Nuh, out of respect. Niqab is a necessity at these times, because there is a lot of nur on these faces, and a lot of these faces belong to young, unmarried people. I wore it the first day of my classes at Qasid, because I’d been told that it was “required.” It was uncomfortable. I returned the second day without it. If anyone had a problem with that, they didn’t say anything. It was one of those “half” niqabs, with an elastic band that you slip around your head under the scarf. I don’t know how any sister who needs glasses can wear these things. It was irritating.
The third time I wore it, Umm Bilal had sent me a headband snap style from Denver. I wanted to go to the beled alone, and I had already learned that the only way a woman isn’t visually disrespected in the beled is if she’s with a man or maybe if she’s in niqab (maybe). At the very least, wearing niqab cuts down on the wolf stares and whistles that you get if you are in plain hijab and jilbab. If a sister or brother naively thinks that the presence of material on her head will prevent her from being stared at like a piece of meat, he or she will be quickly disabused of that notion when visiting a place like the beled. But at the same time, wearing niqab in a place like that can be a preventative measure. It at least reduces the number of men who look at you like that. So I wore niqab to go to the beled.
But then I went to the women’s room at Masjid Husseini and took it off. I was hot, I felt strange in it. It was tight. I didn’t feel like me. Is that because I’m not used to it? Or is it because it’s just not me?
They make jokes that when I go back I’ll be a niqabi. Maybe. Maybe not. There is definitely a good reason to wear it in the summer, and that reason is “dust.” It gets in your nose, and coats your mouth, throat, and lungs. “Dust” sent me to the hospital the last time I was there (because you cough so much, and my coughing caused a migraine of epic proportions). When you cover your nose and mouth, you don’t have the problem. It’s the practical niqab.
Umm Abdullah sent me some niqabs that her sister in law made. They’re custom made for a glasses-wearing woman. If she marketed these things, she’d make a handsome dinar, I think. Little elastic “strings” on the side expand the area between the headband and the veil to accomodate your glasses.
One of my sisters in law, who thinks that a bun and a loose fitting short sleeved tee shirt fits the requirements of hijab, told me that only beautiful women need to wear the niqab. In that case, I most definitely need to be wearing it.
5. I do not accept the idea that a niqab erases a woman. I can understand that some people think this when they see her, but I think it’s a shallow perception. I hate it when people hate on niqabis. Why is that acceptable to so many people, but hating on non hijabis isn’t? I hate it most when I hear people who defend non hijabis turn around and bash women who wear niqab. I don’t have time to hate on any woman. I used to be a non hijabi. I could very well, someday, be a niqabi. At the very least, the Mothers of the Believers, and many other Muslim women I admire, have chosen to cover their faces. How can I hate that? How can anyone?
They say niqab is bad for da’wah. I think that is a weak argument. You could apply that to any aspect of Islamic practice that is incompatible with American / Western life. Niqab has a valid place in Shari’ah and in the history of Muslims. Maybe people who say that aren’t creative enough to work with niqab or work around the problems some people have with it. Maybe using the “bad for da’wah” thing is a cover up for their own complicated feelings about the cloth. I don’t know.
I know sisters for whom the niqab has been a spiritual purification. Lower the gaze applies to women as much as it does to men. “Even when I was wearing hijab, I still could not break the habit of looking at men.” A sister told me this once. “But when I put on niqab, I found that my reminder to lower my gaze was right there, literally in front of my face.” Niqab was for her benefit as much as the benefit of the men she was looking at. It was a reminder to her of her sexuality and her obligation to lower the gaze. It wasn’t about men looking at her. Many of the sisters with us that day agreed with her, saying, “Yes! That was also true for me!”
I went to the masjid a few weeks ago, and there were a lot of American converts there. They’re there during the weekdays, running a day school. One of the women had on niqab. I was so happy to see her. She reminded me of my friends from NJ, and the days back then when I was still in love with the Muslims.
The Bad Hijabi
6. I’m a bad hijabi. There’s always something wrong with my hijab, from a fiqhi perspective. Usually it’s that my feet aren’t covered with socks. I hate socks. I never wear them if I can help it. Sometimes it’s that I wear an abaya that has loose sleeves and I don’t put on gauntlets underneath. Sometimes it’s that I don’t bother to pin it right so that my chin is covered, for I am a believer in the covering of the chin. Sometimes I wear jeans and a top that isn’t quite long enough. Part of me longs to return to my old bohemian artiste turban tied style. Overall, I’m just inconsistent. The only consistency I have is that I am covered to my wrists and ankles when I’m supposed to be.
When I go to my mom’s house, or when I am going out with my non Muslim friends from the olden days, I tend not to wear an abaya or jilbab. I don’t know why. Is it a fit-in thing? When I’m angry about being different (yes), I tend to wear “Western” clothes. Often, I’m not wearing the right thing. If I’m invited to a dinner party or gathering, I inevitably wear the wrong thing. If I wear a skirt and top, the rest of the women are in jilbab. If I wear jilbab, they’re in casual Western clothing, and perhaps, if we’re alone, even removing the scarf. The only time I ever get it right is when I go to a gathering of the students of knowledge — all the ladies there wear abaya or jilbab.
If I had my druthers, I’d most often wear an abaya with jeans. It’s the easiest thing to wear as far as throwing it on. But not always the easiest thing to wear, as far as moving around in society.
7. I rarely take off my scarf in a women’s only gathering. Maybe if it’s just you and me at home, I will, but at a wedding or a party? I’ve learned not to. Before I went to Jordan a family friend warned me about this, but I’d already learned my lesson about this here at home. In Jordan, the people were two ways about me. On the one hand, they loved to show that I was “more Muslim than the Muslims” (oh, it’s the “not a real Muslim” thing again…). She’s American and she wears jilbab! Wowee!
But then, at other times, they would get exasperated with my one consistency. They wanted me not to wear it around their adult sons, or my husband’s uncles. They hate the black. They hate the abaya thing. They wanted me to act out their own ambivalence and ignorance about it. I confess that I smile when I think of how irked they’d be if I wore niqab.
8. When I said “angry about being different,” I didn’t just mean different from the society as a whole. Often, I am angry that I will always be an Other within this Other community. My husband doesn’t understand this, as someone who is automatically afforded a pass because of something he has no control over — his ethnic origins and being born to Muslim parents. So sometimes I get angry because of what they want from me — they want you to be like them, but they also want you to remember that you will always be an anomaly or an outsider or not as good.
I once wore a velvet tunic and jeans when I was out with my mother. We ran across a friend of my husband’s, a neighbor of ours. His disapproval of my outfit was plain as day on his face, and I felt ashamed that he should see me without jilbab or abaya. But why? My outfit was fine — it was loose, long, opaque. The problem is that it was an American outfit, I guess. I wasn’t ashamed b/c he had caught me wearing something I shouldn’t have been wearing. I was ashamed that he might think poorly of my husband because of that, that he might wonder why my husband, who cares deeply about hijab, couldn’t “keep me right” as far as wearing jilbab all the time. I was ashamed that he disapproved of me, because the look on his face reminded me that I’m an Other within Others.
Because even if he didn’t mean it, there are many within the Arab Muslim community who have a double standard for women — they might think it is okay for another Arab Muslim woman to wear jeans and a tunic, but when the convert does it, it’s only proof that we’re not up to snuff.
Used to Be
9. I was a non hijabi for some years. I’m not ashamed or unashamed of it. It’s just a fact of my life, and it’s in the past. I had many reasons for not wearing hijab. I never disliked the hijab; I always admired women who wore it. I stared at them; I still do. I didn’t understand it, that’s for sure. Muslim women are inundated with books, pamphlets, and articles about hijab. Nothing in my life as a Muslim has been outside of this “journey” to the “Traditional Islam” of Ahlus Sunnah. It’s a constant evaluation and re-evaluation as you learn more. I learned about hijab from two groups of people: the Selafis and the 19′ers. Imagine how confused I was. When I began to take my knowledge from “Traditional” Muslims, I was confused about hijab. It’s not the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most anxiety ridden. Everyone has an opinion, regardless of how knowledgeable they are. But there was an absence of written material explaining hijab in the context of this fiqh. Either that, or I didn’t understand it.
I truly did not know if hijab is fardh or not — and this was even after I started to wear it on a daily basis. The one time I tried to bring it up with a scholar, they refused to answer the question. From their point of view, it was an overdone subject. From mine, it was something I desperately wanted a clear and final answer on. We get tired of talking about the hijab and it’s status, but maybe the next time we’re asked about it, we should think of that. It may be that the person really hasn’t found that authoritative, final answer she’s looking for.
10. My “journey to hijab” isn’t that exciting. How could it be, since I started wearing it before I knew if it was fardh or not? I knew that at the very least it was mubah and mustahhab or Sunnah. I just didn’t know if it was fardh or wajib. So why did I start wearing hijab regularly, vs. only when I was around Muslims? I went to Zaytuna. And there I saw sisters who were “Traditional,” who exhibited a diverse range of clothing — hippy, jilbab, Pakistani, Arabic, Western, niqab, non-niqab — but they all had in common the basics of hijab: head, arms, legs covered in opaque and loose fitting garments. I wore it there so I wouldn’t stick out and because I felt comfortable among them — something I had not felt in previous Muslim gatherings, save the tiny band of hearty souls at NBIC. I learned chin-covering from being among them. It started, for me, as a sort of hijab fashion statement. At that time, you’d see the small bands of “Traditional” sisters wearing hijab in a very specific style, and I wanted to “show” that I was from them (well, and I liked the style). Later, I came to a personal reasoning that the area of the chin is not technically part of one’s face, and I only later learned that some scholars say that it is better to cover that area. Later, when “Traditional Muslims” started writing in English about the status of hijab.
And when it was time to leave, I decided to wear it on the plane. And when I woke up at home the next day, I put it on again. And then the next day, and then the next. Maybe I had different reasons, and wasn’t always sure why I wore it, but I did. Because I knew that at a minimum it was beloved. Because it afforded me an easier pass into the community — I was more acceptable. Because I like the look of loose flowing dresses and veils, I do. Because I enjoyed being subversive and screwing with people’s perceptions (square that with being accepted among Muslims). Because as a former goth / punk / hip hopper / sk8 betty / shaved hair individual, I’d never had that much of a problem dressing “differently.”
Is summer a problem? No more than it is for anyone else. It’s not like desert dwellers didn’t dress like this for a reason. If anyone knows heat, it is those folks. Yeah, I’m hot when it’s 95 degrees out. Who isn’t? At least I don’t have to spend bundles of money on sunscreen. It’s not like wearing a piece of jewelry around your neck, to declare your affiliation. It’s doing something for Allah. There are always, always, always going to be sacrifices, big and small, when it comes to following the Diyn of Allah, whether it’s the choices you have for buying and eating meat being limited, or not being able to network with co-workers at the bars and strip clubs, or… wearing a scarf in the summer. It is no more irritating to me than any other item of clothing. I have the slippy, wispy hairs like everyone else. I shove them back in the same way I have to take off a shoe that’s too narrow or has a pebble in it. Actually, my bigger problem is that even w/ the undercap, the scarf often slips too far back - past the hairline. So I have perfected the art of unpinning it, straightening the cap, and repinning it in public, all without ever exposing my head. Then I get on with my life.
That doesn’t mean that when I didn’t finally, finally read Sidi Hajj Gibril’s “The Veil in Islam” in that magazine the Haqqanis used to print, that I didn’t re-evaluate “why.” I had to. So I continued to wear it b/c I understood that it was required. And as more “Traditional Muslims” came out with more articles about it, and as I began to understand the metaphor of the veil as it is used in discourses by the ‘awliya, I began to understand the root of why. People, Muslims and non Muslims, say that the “why” is because of sexual modesty, that it is about social control for the patriarchy, that it is because of identity, that it is the politics of resistance, that it is culture. All of these whys may be true for many people, to one extent or another. But to me, as I listened to my friends and saw how they live their life, as I learned more about the Qur’an and tafsir, as I read the works of the ‘awliya, I came to realize that the best “why” is nothing more than Love. The Beloved asks, or commands, and the lover says “Yes.” That’s all. And, in my experience, far more Muslimaat have Love as their most basic reason for wearing it than all of the other whys combined.
The only problem with Love is that, in my experience, many non Muslims (and some Muslims) don’t get it. Maybe they’re not used to hearing about Love in the context of Islam. Maybe they’ve been so conditioned to the social protest / controlling sexuality arguments that Love does not compute. It’s strange that people can accept “Love” as a reason why we pray 5 times or more a day, and as a reason why we fast, but not why a woman would put a scarf on her head.
So when they ask, we say that it’s because of modesty. It’s easier on us than facing the incredulity you get when you say, “Love.” It is fairly self-explanatory whereas “Love” sometimes requires you to delve into what, exactly, submission of the will is, what the authority of the Qur’an is. And that, my dears, points to a much larger problem as far as da’wah and perceptions of Islam and Muslims than “hijab as a contol feature of the patriarchy” or “hijab is social protest against the autocratic regimes” and all the other nonsense. For the lack of understanding of Love as a reason for something as simple as hijab means that we are not doing the best job possible in getting the Message across.
At the end of all this, I love hijab. I love to see sisters wearing hijab. I love to look at different styles of hijab. To wear it is natural for me. I think about it in the context of “What shall I wear today?” This is not to say that I have not had my moments of wanting to be anonymous and “fit in” in this society by not wearing it, but Alhamdulillah, I have not done that. There are lots of things about being Muslim that make you “stand out,” hijab is only the most obvious because it is the most external. I can’t make hijab about other people. It has to be about God and what He Wants.
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