Managing the female convert body: putting on hijab in the early ’80’s

One of the first things that I was given by Muslims to read about Islam was an MSA pamphlet about how Muslim women are to dress.

It was the early ’80’s. I was a teenager, eagerly reading whatever I could find about world religions. I was particularly drawn to Islam.  R., a friend of an acquaintance took it upon himself to funnel reading materials my way; he saw it as doing da’wah, as I would later realize. R. lent me his English-Arabic copy of Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran, and also sent me a booklet about how Muslim women are to dress (courtesy of the MSA).

Looking back, I am rather weirded out by this. Where on earth was the concern that I know how Muslim women “should” dress coming from? This was the early ’80’s. In those days, in the region where I was living, hardly any girls or women wore hijab. And even at the mosque, Eid prayer or at Muslim gatherings, the majority of women would not be wearing “proper hijab” as defined in that booklet. According to the booklet, once a girl reaches puberty, whenever she can be seen by men who are not her close relatives, she must wear clothing that covers her entire body and head, except for her face, hands and (according to some scholars) feet. Her hair must not be visible. And, there were a number of conditions that her clothing must also meet: Her clothes must also be loose and thick, so that the shape of her body does not show. Her clothes must not be bright or eye-catching. A woman’s attire must not resemble men’s clothing, nor the clothing worn by non-Muslims.

Very, very few women dressed this way. On the contrary. Most Muslim women I encountered once I had converted and moved to the big city dressed in much the same ways as their non-Muslim neighbours, though slightly more conservatively. But few covered their hair, or seemed to worry much about whether their clothing was sufficiently different from what non-Muslims were wearing.

Anyway. I soon began wearing hijab. Even before I converted. Deciding to wear hijab was part of my conversion process.

It was both easy and difficult.

Easy in the sense that I did not find it hard to wear long clothes or cover my hair. I wasn’t into fashion or fixing my hair or wearing make-up, and I already wore long, loose clothing much of the time. I thought that the idea of taking my body entirely out of the realm of the visible and discussable was a good thing. And, while I hadn’t been raised in any religion, I had been exposed to enough Christian imagery to associate veiling with piety and holiness. I wanted very much to obey God.

But it was difficult in many other ways. I was poor, and wearing hijab pretty much ensured that I would continue to be poor and socially marginal. But I was also idealistic, and believed very strongly that God wanted me to do this. So I was determined to press on regardless of the real-life consequences.

I had little money and even less fashion-sense. But I was nothing if not practical in a narrow, focused sort of way. I went to the fabric store, bought a metre of navy poly-cotton fabric, and hemmed it by hand (my grandmother had taught me how to sew when I was five). Then, I folded it diagonally, and knotted it firmly under my chin. Voila–hijab.

It didn’t really suit me, but whatever. The fabric was too stiff, and I pulled it down straight across my forehead, so that it wouldn’t slip backwards off my head, which gave me a sort of Ms. Potatohead-in-hijab kind of appearance. But I was more interested in practicalities (covering adequately, ensuring that it stayed on even in the wind) than in trying to look attractive.

I began wearing hijab, and overnight, my relationship to public space changed. I was stared at constantly. I was harassed. I could not even sit on a park bench in peace, or on the bus. People commented. People asked nosy questions. People yelled, “Aren’t you hot?!?” One time, I was even physically attacked in the street in broad daylight, by a man screaming insults.

I had just gotten married, and my husband was not legally able to work.  I was told quite openly that I would have to take the scarf off in order to be hired. As someone just fresh out of high school with little work experience, I did not have much in the way of marketable skills, and my hijab only made me less employable.

I finally got a part-time job. They were willing to hire me because the customers wouldn’t ever see me.Needless to say, this did not bring in enough money for us to live on. The only way we could avoid becoming homeless was to let a friend of my husband’s bunk in the living room/dining room of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment, in exchange for paying half the rent. We managed to survive like that until the fall term started, and I could get access to student loans.

Looking back, and remembering the roach-infested apartment and the unhealthy, cheap food we ate, I wonder why it didn’t occur to me to just take off my scarf and get a part-time job. Especially since wearing a scarf didn’t make my life as a student any easier either. Very few female students wore hijab at that time, so I stuck out like a sore thumb, and my professors clearly thought that I was some sort of extremist who wasn’t very bright.

But oddly enough, while wearing hijab at that time was very uncommon, taking it off once you had put it on wasn’t common either–at least, not for converts. I very quickly got the idea that taking off hijab was a very serious sin, unless you were literally facing a life-and-death situation. Life was not supposed to be easy after all, especially not for True Believers (TM). Job discrimination, unemployment, poverty, harassment, difficulty getting enough exercise… were not regarded as serious reasons to even consider removing hijab. One was expected to patiently persevere.

It was seldom acknowledged by those who propagated the wearing of hijab in the Muslim community in that place and time that wearing hijab could have some serious repercussions for women who wore it. This was hardly on their radar, because their concerns were in quite a different place–using women’s bodies in order to debate how Muslims and Islam relate to “the West” and “western culture.” And in this, converts’ bodies were particularly important.

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  1. #1 by ReadyThreadSew on July 22, 2013 - 12:30 am

    I find it strange that “being modest” for muslim women in the UK actually means they are actually drawing attention to themselves. I wouldn’t pay the tiniest bit of attention to a woman wearing, say, jeans and a black t-shirt, but if she is wearing a full hijab then I cannot help noticing her because she looks out of place.

    It’s the same for other religions. I used to shop at one supermarket at the same time every week and always noticed the same family. The girls had long, obviously never been cut, hair and wore headscarves and ankle length denim skirts. They looked horribly down-trodden and sad. A tiny bit of research taught me that they were probably Plymouth Brethren. Again, their “modesty” drew my attention to them.

    I can’t understand how “look at how pious I am” can also be seen as modesty.

  2. #2 by Heather on July 24, 2013 - 1:44 am

    You are right, it isn’t hijab. Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah gave a really great interview with Alt-muslimah on what is hijab. It isn’t on-line anymore, but if you want it, I can give it to you.

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