More on converts and hijab in the ’80’s

Looking back, I remember three things about hijab in the ’80’s: Organizations like the MSA, ISNA, ICNA, the MSA-PSG, and others like them were promoting hijab–distributing books and pamphlets that stated that it is an obligation on every girl when she reaches puberty, full stop, and no excuses. But few born Muslim girls or women actually wore it. And, that what hijab actually means for women`s lives was constantly being negotiated.

Few actually wore it, despite—or was it more like because of—those pamphlets and books, as well as the exhortations of the (nearly always male) speakers at MSA-sponsored talks on titles such as `The status of woman in true Islam`or Ìslam the misunderstood religion.` Even those who wore “traditional” dress from their countries of birth–most often, South Asian women–did not seem to be very concerned about whether their attire met those “Islamic” standards that the booklets insisted were non-negotiable. I had never seen such bright and eye-catching fabrics in my life as those women wore–nor had I ever seen middle-aged women wearing such tight clothing (kameez styles in the early ’80’s were really, really tight), or bearing their midriffs anywhere but the beach. Watching the women in the rows in front of me at Friday Prayer wrapping, unwrapping, rewrapping, and readjusting their bright, filmy dupattas during the sermon, I soon learned how to go about wrapping an oblong scarf around my head (not an easy skill to acquire on your own, in those days before youtube hijab tutorials…).

So what exactly was the issue? Why did I, as a teenager interested in Islam (and presumably in R.’s mind, a potential convert) need to know the nit-picky details about a practice that was rare in the part of North America where I was living at that time? (And for that matter, was also not common in most of the countries of origin of the immigrant Muslims, though we did not realize that until later.) Why was women’s dress being presented as such a central part of Islam? And why was there so much pressure on converts in particular to wear it?

The leaders of these immigrant Muslim organizations had particular idealized and often utopian notions of what a so-called ideal Islamic society or community would look like. These notions had little or no relationship to the realities of life in the places that they had grown up, much less to North America. These were 20th century reinterpretations of the Quran and the hadiths, as well as the views of some early legal scholars, which were quite selective, and filtered through their own concerns as immigrants in a supposedly corrupt, amoral society that would swallow their women and children whole it they didn`t act decisively to preserve their identities as Muslims.

This was all theory; it had barely any connection to the lived realities of converts. In the imaginations of these immigrant Muslim men, the problems mentioned in the last post that often came with hijab, or were made worse by it—unemployment, poverty, unhealthy lifestyles, discrimination, social marginalization, and so forth—didn`t really exist. As far as they were concerned, Muslim women would rarely if ever need to worry about unemployment, because it is their husband`s job to provide for them. (Now that I look back, I realize that few of the wives of such men would have been able to work outside of the home anyway, due to language barriers, as well as their credentials from their countries of origin not being accepted as valid by employers here.) Single women, whether never married, divorced, or widowed, were rarely acknowledged—and when they were, (re)marriage was touted as the solution to their problems. Social marginalization was not seen as an issue either, as one`s close friends and associates should be other True Believers (TM) who adhered to Islamic standards of dress and behaviour anyway. And so on.

Muslim women`s bodies were turned into symbols of True Islam (TM). Muslim women were supposedly pure and moral, in contrast to the allegedly immodest and immoral western women. Female converts posed particular difficulties for those who held such binary views of the world—especially the men who led, belonged to or sympathized with the various immigrant Muslim organizations. On one hand, orgs like the MSA were never tired of insisting that Islam is a universal religion, but they also constantly insisted that True Islam and `western culture`are moral opposites. Female converts (especially if they were white) were welcome, because they supposedly proved that Islam is universal, but they were also problematic, because their very existence threatened to blur the supposedly clear difference between The True Muslim woman (who is by definition modest, pure and virtuous) and her polar opposite, The Western Woman (who is by definition immodest, impure and sexually immoral).

If female converts wore hijab, however, there would be no need to rethink this way of looking at the world.

Female converts in hijab (especially if white) also served a useful purpose, with or without their consent—their virtuous example would be used to admonish immigrant Muslim women to also wear hijab.

But although I am coming to understand the underlying logic of this stuff now, I am still horrified when I compare how much attention was paid to issues related to my body, rather than to my mind or soul. There was much less concern about whether I and other female converts knew much about our new religion beyond the absolute basics. We did not have much access to religious knowledge—and in fact, hijab  was the reason often given to prevent us from attending halaqas, learning to recite the Quran with tajwid, traveling in order to study Islam, etc. (Nahida talks about the exclusion of women from the study of Islam in this post.)

Looking back, I can see that putting on hijab in the`80`s had a number of long-term effects. There are the obvious effects, such as hijabi mannerisms I learned that still stay with me, like having difficulty looking people (especially men) in the eye. I have to remind myself to do it, and on stressful days I find it particularly difficult to do, even at work.

Dealing with street harassment daily, I soon learned to not look people in the eye as I walked, and to ignore all and any voices that seemed to be directed at me. When I interacted with non-Muslim individuals, such as a clerk in a store, I would avoid looking them in the eye, because eye-contact often led to endless nosy questions (such as why I am dressed this way, where I am from, where I am from originally, where my parents are from, etc) or what was even more depressing: I would see hate in their eyes. Interacting with Muslim men was also fraught with difficulty, because I knew that eye-contact was often seen by conservatives as flirtatious, immodest behaviour; wearing a scarf and looking men in the eye would be regarded as an indication that I didn`t really understand how a True Muslim Woman ought to behave. I hadn`t perfected the ìnner hijab. I was now revealed as morally inferior; I hadn`t managed to overcome my western immodesty.

Now, years later, I read that a lot of people in North America think that avoiding eye-contact is rude, or racist (when done by whites to people of colour), or shows dishonesty, or a lack of self-confidence. I am trying to look people in the eye consistently.

On one level, this is a bad habit of mine, which can (hopefully) be unlearned. On another, it points to the larger psychological effects of wearing hijab in that particular context.

Wearing hijab was not only difficult in mundane, practical ways, but (I now realize), it wore on us psychologically, because True Hijab (TM) was held up as an unreachable ideal that we nonetheless had to somehow attain. It was never clear when any woman (even an immigrant Muslim, much less a convert) might have managed to attain it—after all, no matter how carefully modest a woman might be in her dress and behaviour, there was always room for somebody to find some whiff of less-than-perfect modesty about her.

True Hijab meant not only dressing but also behaving “modestly”:

not looking at men to the extent possible; avoiding eye contact with them
not shaking hands with men
not laughing loudly, or even softly, in men’s hearing
not socializing with men or in “mixed” gatherings
not having male friends
not sitting reclining or sitting down in a relaxed position where any man might see (not even if you are sick, pregnant or very tired)
not singing, dancing, whistling or playing sports in any place where men might see or hear (of course, dancing and whistling were pretty much forbidden anyway)
and so on

But even these exacting standards were seen by some as insufficient for True Hijab. Some argued that a truly modest woman would only leave her home when rare circumstances made this an absolute necessity, and that when she did so she must cover her face as well as her entire body. Some also claimed that a woman`s voice is awra, and should not be heard by men (other than her husband, or close relatives). The hyper-conservative literature from India and Pakistan that came our way advocated these sorts of views. There was very little written material about Islam available in English then, and so we read it and took it seriously. In these pamphlets and books, frightening hadiths were quoted about how angry God is with women who do not dress and behave with absolute modesty.

In those days, virtually no women wore the niqab, much less secluded themselves in their homes, and we rarely encountered anyone who lived that way, or even expected us to do so. But the spectre of this impossibly perfectly modest woman nonetheless haunted us. We never knew when she would suddenly be invoked in order to reproach us, or to exclude girls or women from something which up until now had apparently been acceptable.  Any man—or woman—could object to almost anything that an individual woman did by saying (or more commonly, insinuating) that she was being insufficiently modest.

But for years, we didn`t realize that the quest for True Modesty was like one of those carnival games that are rigged so that no one can win. We took it seriously. We thought that it was really possible to find a way to live our lives and do everything we had to do, and to do it with proper hijab. We failed to be perfectly modest, and we tried again. We tried harder. And harder.

We tried to turn ourselves into someone else`s idea of a Truly Modest Muslimah. We internalized the ever-watching, always super-critical eyes of the most conservative elements of the immigrant Muslim community, and nothing we did was ever modest enough.

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