Learning to wear “good hijab”

Putting on hijab was part of my conversion process. Initially, I hemmed a navy blue square of light-weight poly-cotton material, and tied it firmly under my chin. I wore that with baggy jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, which I left untucked, so that it would sort of cover my butt.

In the ’80’s where I was living in North America at the time, that was more than enough to turn heads, and to prompt endless questions from complete strangers as to “why I was dressed this way.” It also made it nearly impossible to get a job. Going into a store drew immediate attention from the salespeople, who would quickly come and ask me if I “needed anything.” Riding the bus, going for a walk, or even sitting on a park bench would draw comments, nosy questions, and of course, endless staring.

Some converts I knew dealt with this sort of thing by becoming walking, talking advertisements for Islam, turning comments or questions by curious onlookers into opportunities to basically preach to the nonbelievers.

Some converts even argued that this should be regarded as a God-given outreach opportunity. But I just don’t have the personality for that sort of thing. I am not the type who likes to preach to random people, and I found the notion that I should rather distasteful. I found my changed relationship to public space very alienating; I very quickly got sick of basically having to justify my right to be here. The typical interchange (at least, where the questioner was polite and not hostile) went something like this:

“Where are you from?”

“From here,” I would answer, well aware that they expected me to give the name of a Middle Eastern country or some other faraway, “exotic” place.

“But where are you from originally?” the questioner would press on.

“Here. I was born here,” I would respond.

They would look at me disbelievingly, and then usually go on to ask, “But where are your parents from?”

When my answer to that question yielded nothing Middle Eastern or otherwise suitably “exotic” either, some would just give me a “you’re not telling the whole truth” kind of look, and move on. But others would look at me for a moment. You could almost see the wheels going around: White woman, with white parents, from here, wearing a Muslim thingummy on her head. This does not compute. What could be the reason for this? Hmmmm…. Oh, ok, I’ve got it!

And then they would ask, “Where is your husband from?”

When I told them, then the puzzlement would immediately vanish from their faces. They thought that they had solved the mystery. My husband must be making me dress this way. Some of them would actually say, “Oh… so you wear this because your husband wants you to.” And when I would respond that no, he doesn’t tell me what to wear, the looks of disbelief on their faces would be plain. They would look at me as though I was either lying, or too stupid to know that I was being controlled. In a sense, that would be a relief, because I knew that the interrogation was probably now over. They would go on their merry way, preexisting biases confirmed, and leave me in peace. But it was nonetheless galling. Humiliating.

I had become a stranger in the land of my birth. I was constantly reminded of this fact every time I stepped out of the house. I didn’t belong here any more. This was not my home now, even though it was the only home that I had ever known.

Some people would simply assume that despite my “white” appearance, since I was wearing a scarf, I couldn’t possibly have been born here. I received so many rather condescending comments on how well I can speak English. And, so many people claiming to detect a slight accent, and asking me where my accent is from. (As if anyone on earth speaks any language, even their mother-tongue, “without an accent”… but anyway.) I had always done very well in English class in school, even when I was goofing off in the classroom, and my frustrated teachers reluctantly gave me good marks but made up for that by writing comments on my report cards that got my parents riled up, along the lines of “…is not working up to her potential.”

Yet somehow, English wasn’t my language any more, either. I could speak it, but not really own it. Even though I couldn’t speak any other language fluently, either. English apparently belonged to other people now. Not to me.

Looking back, I wonder now why I didn’t realize that this overwhelming sense of alienation that I was developing was really problematic, so I ought to be thinking about what I could do to change direction, as soon as possible. But I am looking back now with 20/20 hindsight. Back then, I was still a teenager, who had just gotten married to a man I hardly knew, without my parents’ knowledge—or for that matter, without the knowledge of the few friends I still sort of had from high school either. I had moved to a new city (which seemed very big and confusing to me at the time) to be with my husband. We were extremely poor, living in a rough neighborhood and having difficulty paying the rent and buying basic groceries.

So, I was very isolated socially; I knew no one there except for my husband. His friends (all male and Muslim) would come over to the apartment, drink tea, and argue about politics in their own language, which I didn’t understand. That was pretty much the sum total of our social life. My family was still pretty upset about my having gotten married behind their backs, so I didn’t dare call them. All in all, my focus was on survival, not on reflecting about where my life was going.

And, I was also in the process of adopting a faith that was usually presented negatively (if not demonized) in the media, so I was in a defensive mode. I already knew enough to realize that media coverage of Islam and Muslims was usually sensationalistic and often biased. This was the early ’80’s, when talking heads in the media were still upset by the 1979 Iranian revolution. In reaction to the often oversimplified media depictions of Islam, Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, I usually dismissed peoples’ negative reactions to my garb as sheer ignorance and prejudice. It did not occur to me at the time that some people might have good reasons for their reservations about hijab.

Most of the nosy or negative reactions I received to my attire at that place and time were from white people (who happened to be the majority of the population there).  But when I encountered Arabs and/or Muslims, I often received a lot of puzzled or negative feedback. This puzzled me a lot at the time, because the books and pamphlets that I had read on Islam informed me that Muslim women must wear hijab. I also wondered why most of the Muslim women that I saw didn’t wear hijab, and why the Egyptian woman I met who did complained to me about how her mother (who lived in Egypt) strongly disapproved of her deciding to put on hijab, and kept sewing dresses for her with shorter and shorter hems!

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had actually landed smack dab in the middle of a heated debate among Muslims about women’s attire—which was really about what social roles women could be allowed to play “Islamically.” The books and pamphlets only told one side of the story; they had been written by conservative Muslim male authors who were trying to convince other Muslims of the “truth” of their own particular interpretations. Most of these authors had been influenced by (or were adherents of) Muslim religio-political movements in Muslim-majority countries that argued that Islam is a “complete way of life.”  At that time, these movements and their interpretations of Islam were usually quite controversial in their countries of origin—as well as in North America.

The books and the pamphlets (and the sermons…) argued that their claims about what women must wear “Islamically” is the only “authentic” view, because it is squarely based on “clear” textual evidence from the Qur’an and the Sunna (as well as the views of legal scholars past and present). They often also claimed that Muslim women’s dress down through the ages in Muslim societies conformed to the requirements of hijab, until colonialist influence in the 19th century. That is, until colonialism, Muslim women everywhere wore long, loose, plain clothing that covered everything except their faces and hands (and possibly feet) when outside the home or whenever they could be seen by men who were not close relatives. And also (some added) Muslim women still dress that way wherever they haven’t been corrupted by “Western” or ungodly secular influences. Rural peasant women, for instance.

This was, of course, a vast over-simplication, though that’s another post. But I what I want to focus on here is how putting on hijab, and learning to wear “proper hijab” was a process for me. A process in which the end results were more than a little predetermined, partly by what information was (and more often, wasn’t) made available to me.

It was under these very alienating circumstances that I increasingly sought out the company of other Muslim women, as well as community. In the various communities that I became involved in, the “ideal” type of hijab varied, depending on sectarian and political affiliation, ethnic background, and so forth. But all of these ideals had one thing in common, at least in relation to me: I didn’t meet them.

Putting on a scarf and wearing fairly conservative clothing was one thing, but learning to wear “good hijab” (as various groups defined that) was another.  And if you wanted to belong, you needed to wear “good hijab.”

I remember attending the same Muslim conference several years running. The first time, I was wearing a dark green headscarf and a long, loose dark green cotton dress with yellow, blue and magenta flowers on it, over wide pants (which couldn’t be seen, as the dress reached my ankles). Modest enough, I thought, especially since it was a hot summer day. However, my attire definitely made me stand out, and not in a good way.

Every other woman was wearing a plain black head-to-toe abaya, a black chador, or a plain, dark or beige polyester headscarf with a loose, plain, dull-colored coat-dress over matching pants. The other women—many of whom were converts—stared at me. I felt like a misfit, and wondered why I had even come. Some of the other women politely tried to make conversation. A couple of them were selling scarves, coat-dresses and pants similar to what they were wearing in order to raise money for refugees from their husbands’ homeland, and encouraged me to consider buying some. But even if I had been able to afford it, none of the clothes would have fitted me.

The peak event in the conference for the women was when we had a chance to meet as a group with a senior scholar who had come from abroad, and ask him our fiqh questions. For that meeting, most of the women who had not been wearing abayas previously either put one on, or put on a chador. I had not been prepared for this, and felt really immodest by comparison. All in all, it was an alienating experience, and I was rather indignant. With the long, covering clothing I had had on, why had I been made to feel practically naked?!?

But by the time the conference the next year rolled around, I had begun to adjust my attitude. What had seemed to me as overly zealous modesty now seemed more reasonable, though I was not yet ready to think about wearing a head-to-toe abaya. I had managed to sew myself a couple of polyester scarves and coat-dresses in neutral colors, and I was wearing them on a regular basis.

When I attended the conference dressed in that way, I had a significantly different experience. Many of those coat-dress-wearing sisters who had been reserved toward me the previous year were now friendly—except for one (convert), who felt the need to draw it to my attention that when I walked briskly across the foyer, she could see my underwear lines through my coat-dress and pants. (!) (She must have been staring quite intently at my butt to notice; I wonder what was up with that.) Anyway, I politely thanked her for telling me, and walked much more slowly for the rest of the day, hoping that nothing was showing.

The next year, I was even better prepared. Over my pants and coat-dresses, I now sometimes wore a loose, wide plain robe, so I dressed like that at the conference. Nobody could possibly spot any underwear lines now. I also had started wrapping my head-scarves so that they covered all of my chest, as well as part of the lower half of my face. That was the most enjoyable conference experience yet. Partly, because my clothing was above reproach, and I fitted in as never before. Even the most austerely abaya-wearing sisters were quite friendly now.

I remember sitting with a group of sisters, several of whom were wearing plain black abayas, and the rest wearing quite conservative hijab, except for one young woman, who had on jeans, a loose shirt with three-quarter sleeves, and a thin, patterned oblong scarf that was too narrow and short to cover her head and hair completely. As two of the abaya-wearers solemnly discussed some point of Islamic belief, she sat and listened with the rest of us, her eyes downcast. She kept tugging at the cuffs of her sleeves, as if she were willing them to become long enough to cover her arms all the way to her wrists. When she wasn’t doing that, she was fidgeting with her scarf, trying to pull it a bit lower at the front of her head without uncovering more of the back.

Later, after the young woman had left, one of the abaya-wearers commented that this is the right way for Muslims to correct the mistakes of others. To not say anything to them directly in front of others, but to set them a good example, so that they would then be moved to amend their behavior accordingly, just as that young woman had been trying to adjust her clothing. Because she could see what “proper” hijab was from the other women around her.

I didn’t say anything. But what I thought at the time was that the young woman had felt really out of place. Sure, nobody said anything to her directly, but we had all noticed that her sleeves were “too short” and her scarf did not cover her head and hair completely. She had felt much the way that I had felt the first year that I had attended that conference. I wondered if she would ever want to come again.

Looking back, all this seems rather silly. We were acting like kids in high school, obsessing about what everyone else is wearing, and worrying about whether our own clothes are “cool enough”—and judging others for not measuring up to our clothing standards. Like in high school, when I can remember agonizing over the fact that although a shirt of mine was the “right” pattern and color, it had buttons, while all the cool kids’ shirts had snaps.

I hadn’t begun to wear hijab due to peer pressure. When I had started wearing hijab, I knew almost no Muslims. But once I had put the scarf on, then I rapidly became alienated from the wider society, so the pressure which began to be exerted from some Muslims to “do it right” fell on fertile ground. I didn’t belong anywhere, I felt, so I had better at least find some sort of home within a Muslim community.

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  1. #1 by MK on June 7, 2012 - 1:10 pm

    Another excellent article. It really struck a chord how first it starts with modesty, then wearing the head scarf, progressing to wearing an overcoat, then an abaya/jilbab then niqab and the ultimate ideal (at least in uber-conservative circles) the unseen, unheard and virtuous woman who stays at home.
    I can totally understand a young Muslim with little access to alternate religious views and in a conservative social milieu going along with this but what I don’t get is why in this day and age of access to so much information why do so many women continue to buy into this?
    Social pressure may play a huge role but not for everyone.
    As a Muslim I find the reasons/excuses given for the above mentioned extremes of modesty highly unconvincing and when all excuses fail: the old conversation stopper loved by authoritarians everywhere– God deems it so. Really? Still not buying it!
    Plus, its a bizarre notion that God wants women to torment themselves like this and this leads to empowerment.
    Surely, this miserable excess of modesty does nothing but create a sham sense of superiority and cultivates wrong priorities: appearance over inner qualities.
    Such extremes do not even look modest in the West–if anything they seem exhibitionist as they look so far from the norm it makes people stand out and not in a good way. Modesty, decency and grace are great attributes to strive for but not like this.

  2. #2 by Chinyere on June 9, 2012 - 4:13 am

    Brava! Oh my gosh…

    I wore hijab for only two years because I couldn’t take the double alienation. Suddenly, I was no longer black. People assumed me to be Arab (with my hair covered, I was also mistaken for Latina…I guess without kinky hair showing, hehe, I’m racially ambiguous), and though I went from minority to minority, hehe, I could deal with being black/Nigerian…I could not deal with no longer being black. I remember on one of my interviews for medical school, the black students all circled around one of my future classmates, the only other black student who interviewed on that day…and ignored me. I wore hijab for all of my interviews, so things have quite changed in terms of the perception of hijab in the workplace. So interesting to read of your experiences. The second part of the alienation was from the Muslim community, where I was invisible until I donned hijab, and then I was an enigma because I was the hijabi out of nowhere. Sisters were polite but were still not interested in me as a friend. I’d have to become them, use my few Arabic phrases just so to fit in, and as a pre-medical student, I just had too much other things going on and faltering emotional health to tend to…

    Oh, hijab.

    Whereas it stressed me out before, I rather like being invisible…

    • #3 by xcwn on June 13, 2012 - 8:43 pm

      Chinyere—That scene at the interview must have been really awful.

      But your statement further down, “…use my few Arabic phrases….” Just lol. If I were to try to count the number of pious Arabic phrases I used to use in a normal conversation with another conservative convert… I don’t know, maybe there’d be enough of them to go the distance to Mecca and back??

  3. #4 by Eileen on June 13, 2012 - 3:04 am

    I too was that poor new convert (college student) who had someone buy them a chador that I HATED and never wore. I had almost strangers that found out that I converted send me hijabs…b/c covering your hair is how you show your true level of religiosity…right?
    Thinking back, I just wanted to hide my insecurities under cloth. It was a ruse, a facade. The insecurities still existed! It wasn’t until I married a wonderful man (Buddhist Atheist) and realized his love for me that I got rid of the monstrously loose clothing (purchsed 2-3 sizes too big) that I had bought in attempts to be modest without donning an abaya. I have a couple of those too (more gifts!!)

    • #5 by xcwn on June 13, 2012 - 8:49 pm

      Leaniepi—A chador? Wow. That’s quite an overwhelming gift.
      And yes, I remember all our attempts to find hijab-compliant clothing for ourselves and our daughters, and how we would buy things that were several sizes too big. The upside of that with the kids was that it fitted them for a good while… the downside was that it made them feel unattractive and weird.

  4. #6 by Global Sisters on June 14, 2012 - 2:32 pm

    I’m sorry I brought this up in another post of yours… I’ve been Muslim for 2 years now, and I start to feel sometimes like I’m only thinking about hijab, how to dress, ect. Do you find that this is kind of like worshiping clothing and material rather than Allah?

    • #7 by ki sarita on January 5, 2013 - 9:24 pm

      Hi global, my perspective is that you really need to examine your emotions regarding the hijab. do you feel “now I can show everyone how religious I am?” do you feel superior to other people? do you feel that now you will belong to the group? Or, does the way you dress actually have a positive effect on your behavior the way your relate to others and the almighty.

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