Hijab and our daughters

The day that I gave birth to a girl for the first time, I felt the weight on my shoulders increase.

When my sons were born, I also felt the weight of responsibility. Most of the time, I was a stay-at-home mother, and I was in a “traditional” marriage (meaning, the baby-related stuff was basically my responsibility), and in a conservative Muslim community in which a woman’s mothering skills played an important role in judgments of her worth as a human being. Of course, I was expected to raise my sons well, and to instill in them a strong Muslim identity, and I took that responsibility very seriously.

But with the girls, it was a whole other level of responsibility. I was expected to raise them well, and to instill in them a strong Muslim identity—which first and foremost, meant policing their bodies. I was expected to raise them to behave modestly at all times, so that they would be reserved, even a bit shy, in all their bodily movements, in the use of their voices, and in their interactions with others. All this was supposed to result in them willingly, even eagerly, “choosing” to wear hijab once they approached puberty if not before, and then keeping it on until the day they died. And, of course, conducting themselves with irreproachable modesty and chastity throughout their lives.

It was not only my daughters’ Muslim identity that was on the line, but mine.

It was not enough, I soon realized, for me to be a conservative, stay-at-home Muslim mother who wore conservative hijab and avoided shaking hands with men and tried to remember to keep her voice down to be regarded as “the real deal” by either my ex’s ethnic Muslim community, or by The Cult. There was a serious problem: I am a “Western woman.” Born of a “Western woman.” Raised in a supposedly amoral “Western” society. Which meant that my daughters were being raised by… a “Western woman.” And, “Western women” were most often used in conservative Muslim sermons, books, pamphlets, and even small-talk as a short-hand for the alleged “immorality” of “Western culture.”

Sure, I had converted. Sure, I was evidently trying to follow the rules of modest Muslim womanhood. But, would I really be able to raise proper Muslim daughters?? That would be the proof of the pudding, so to speak.

My ex’s ethnic community (and my ex) believed that if a mother is “bad”, then her daughters will also be “bad.” Basically, what’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh, later if not sooner. “Bad woman” was a euphemistic term for a prostitute, but it also meant any woman whose behavior had come into question, whether it was because she didn’t obey her male relatives, or she didn’t dress conservatively enough.

Such “badness” was a sliding scale, a slippery slope—it might start off as a bit of independent-mindedness, but it would surely end in fornication or adultery, if not actual prostitution. In my ex’s view, my mother was a “bad woman,” because she did not defer to male authority, and she dated men after my parents divorced. Therefore, as her daughter, I too carried the taint of badness. My daughters would not be free from suspicion of “badness” either, because I was their mother.

To some extent, I was able to shrug off those types of attitudes as mere “culture” (as opposed to “Islam”). After all, doesn’t the Qur’an say clearly that no soul shall bear another’s burden? How was it either fair or reasonable to stigmatise daughters for the deeds of their mothers? (This relates to virginity as a social construction, which is another post.)

Seeking refuge from “groundless” cultural attitudes in authentic Islamic sources and timeless, “traditional” Islamic teachings passed on through isnads and shaykhs, I looked to The Cult for guidance on everything, including of course child-rearing. But in The Cult, we were taught (and often reminded) that a child takes on the nafs (soul, self) of his or her mother.

Therefore, when a child didn’t behave as it was supposed to, this was taken as revealing some hidden character defect of its mother for all to see. This was embarrassing in the case of a boy who, say, fussed too much, talked back to his elders, or didn’t seem to sufficiently focused on his prayers, but such behavior was still partially explainable as a  stage that he was going through, although it would likely be fuel for the gossip mill nonetheless.

But in the case of a girl, especially one nearing puberty, much less an adolescent… “immodest” or rebellious behavior reflected badly on her mother. Especially if her mother was a North American convert: Her mother must not have taught her well. Her mother must not have modeled properly modest dress and behavior at all times. Her mother must not have disciplined her enough. Her mother must have an immodest, rebellious spirit hidden somewhere underneath all those clothes and pious mannerisms, and her daughter has exposed it to public view.

At times, we did sort of half-heartedly question this notion that a child takes on its mother’s nafs, asking why fathers seem to always get off the hook when it comes to their children’s behavior. But we did believe it. This teaching was presented to us as an unquestionable truth of “traditional Islamic psychology” handed down by traditionally-taught shaykhs grounded in the sunna of the Prophet and gifted with the insight that God bestows on his chosen few. It was not possible to question it without questioning the entire teaching that we were receiving.

In The Cult, even little girls were expected to dress modestly, and to wear head-scarves most of the time when in public once they were old enough to attend madrasa (about age 5). Shorts, tank tops, skirts above the knees, sundresses, conventional bathing suits, etc. were absolutely out, even in the hottest days of summer. Dresses or tunics worn over loose trousers, or long peasant skirts to the ankle were ideal.

Part of the reason for this was to train them so that they would “naturally” be willing to wear hijab once they reached puberty. But even more important was the idea that hijab would protect them from the “immorality” of the wider society, by marking them off as Muslims, so that other, non-Muslim kids would supposedly hesitate to (say) flirt with them, ask them out for a date, or pressure them into doing anything that their religion forbids. Therefore, The Cult also encouraged boys to wear Muslim caps, and insisted that they adhere to certain restrictions—no shorts above the knee, no pictures or writing on t-shirts. Boys were also expected to wear “traditional Islamic” clothing at madrasa and Muslim events. But the focus of our clothing anxiety was clearly more on the girls than the boys, and the kids picked up on that quite early.

Accordingly, my eldest daughter was raised with hijab. Even as a toddler, she wore dresses or tunics over pants. I sewed her little matching hijabs to wear when we went to the mosque or to other Muslim events. The rest of the time, she wore sun-bonnets when she went outside the house. I bought her books with Muslim female characters, with the illustrations showing girls wearing head-scarves. I made Islamic clothes for her dolls (and bought her Muslim barbies when they became available).

Most of the girls she was allowed to play with were Muslim from conservative families, families who also looked upon hijab as a non-negotiable obligation for all Muslim girls at the age of puberty. I took her to conservative Muslim women’s gatherings, in part so that she could see that lots of women other than her mother and her mother’s closest friends wear hijab. I went out of my way to make hijab seem fun and creative. Even on our very limited budgets, my closest friend and I would take our young daughters to the fabric store to choose the cloth that would be sewn into their dresses and hijabs. We also took them to hijab fashion stores (once these began to appear in our area), and let them choose fancy scarves, sparkly hijab pins, and so forth.

So basically, she was raised in a hijabi bubble.

Just before she turned eleven, she began to balk. She wouldn’t wear a scarf in public, unless she was going to Qur’an class or a conservative Muslim event. My (now-ex-) husband had a fit, and demanded that I compel her to continue wearing it. I refused, pointing out that she had not yet reached puberty anyway, so it wasn’t an obligation on her, and also, that forcing her would be counter-productive. I hoped that giving her a bit of breathing space would take the impetus out of her rebellion, and that in the end, that she would make the “right” choice, of her own accord.

But I was wrong. (to be continued)

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  1. #1 by Saliha on June 13, 2012 - 4:31 pm

    The older I get, the more I realize just what an extraordinary parent my mother was. Still, she made some pretty big mistakes. Who doesn’t? I held a lot of the mistakes against her for years (mostly in my head) but now that I’m raising children, her mistakes seem miniscule compared to all the things she did so well. It’s helped so much that she’s apologized to me, several times, over the years and explained what lead her to the mistakes she made.

    Sometimes I think our relationships with our children would be so much better if we start to concede some of that power we had when they were young children and parent with a little more humility as they enter the later childhood and teen years. True, they still need a lot of guidance and I’m all about parent as the final authority, but children know us so intimately and their honest assessments of their own needs can be our best guides in how to parent them. Even when they don’t have the words, children do find ways to tell us what they need from us.

    We see our parents as god-like figures. I think part of growing up is realizing our parents’ humanity. There’s got to be some wisdom in finding the balance between letting them in on our human frailties without overburdening them with our personal problems. Sometimes the pain children suffer at the hands of well-meaning parents can be mitigated if the children (especially teens) can put our actions into context. I wonder if reading this blog could bring some healing to your girls. Maybe they could better understand the good intentions that lead you down your path, and the pain you feel at the mistakes that were made.

    It’s clear as day to me how much you love them.

    • #2 by xcwn on June 13, 2012 - 8:32 pm

      Saliha—thank you so much for your comments.
      I am trying to explain to my kids why I acted in certain ways when they were growing up. So far, that has had mixed results (which is another post). It is really hard conveying to them what life was like in the early ’80’s—like, before we had internet or CDs or cellphones… seems like the stone-age to them, I guess.

  1. Modesty, Body Policing, and Empowerment: The Hijab (Part One) « The Phoenix and Olive Branch

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