I raised my eldest daughter surrounded by hijab. She was taught that the Qur’an and the hadith, as well as the views of Muslim scholars past and present make it crystal clear that wearing hijab is an obligation on every Muslim girl once she reaches puberty—no exceptions. I did my best to present it in a positive way.
And I, and my closest friends, took care to consistently model modesty in dress and behavior at all times, even at home. In accordance with the teachings of The Cult, even in the privacy of our own homes, we wore long dresses, or tunics over pants. We also carefully filtered the TV shows and movies that they were allowed to see, so that (we hoped) they wouldn’t come to see “immodest” dress and behavior as “normal.” But we tried to place these restrictions on our children in such a way that they would not see them as limitations, by making efforts to provide them with “halaal fun”—outings with other Muslim mothers and their small children, Muslim events, Muslim youth camps…. We didn’t want them to feel deprived. Instead, we did our best to ensure that they would be proud of their identity as Muslims, and honored to publicly represent Islam and its values by wearing hijabs (and in the case of the boys, Muslim caps).
So, what happened?
Depends on who you ask.
My ex swears that it was all my fault. When my daughter refused to wear her scarf any more, I should have made her do so. I should have backed him up when he tried to force her to put it back on. And when she began to wear more fashionable clothes, and wanted to go to the mall with her friends, I should have nipped that in the bud too.
My best friend, also a longtime conservative Muslim, used to think that it was because I was forced by circumstances to pull my kids out of the Muslim school and send them to public school, where they were exposed to negative peer influences. And also, because in her judgment, my family dynamics were lacking “Islamically.” But when her own carefully raised (and even more sheltered) teenage daughters dehijabed one by one, she began to rethink the whole “whose fault is this” approach.
Looking back, and trying to understand what happened to our daughters—why they dehijabed, as well as why their present attitudes to religion in general range from indifferent to hostile—I read what other young women raised in similar situations write about hijab, modesty, and what sorts of messages they were given about their bodies. And it is painful reading. With 20/20 hindsight, I can see a lot of what we did to our daughters in these posts:
Nahida writes about “the nonconsensual sexualization of unintending young women” in which the way that girls walk, dress or act is given a sexual significance by others, often even before they have a clue what sex is. As does Saliha, in this heart-rending post about herself as an eight year old non-Muslim girl, eagerly looking forward to going to the mosque with her Muslim friend for a Hallowe’en party, only to be told at the last minute that she couldn’t go because her ballerina costume (the only costume she owned) was not modest.
Nahida also describes how as a result of the sexualization of young girls’ bodies, they are often caught in situations in which they just cannot win. She recounts an incident from when she was six (!), attending children’s Qur’an-classes at the mosque. While it was a hot summer day, and she knew that she needed to remove her sweater, she already also knew that it would be seen as inappropriate if she pulled her sweater off, and her midriff was briefly exposed to view, so she kept the sweater on, even once she was seeing blue and purple. And fainted. And was told off by her mother, for not having had the sense to take off her sweater.
In Libby Anne’s series about growing up in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverful movement, some young women talk about what it was like to be made to wear long, baggy dresses or skirts, and to be constantly reminded that it is their duty to help men to avoid sin by dressing and behaving as modestly as possible. Sarah writes about how her father went a step further, by essentially keeping her under constant surveillance, watching how she dressed, stood, and interacted with others, and intervening in order to admonish her for “standing inappropriately” or to command her to go and change out of clothes that he thought were “too tight” or not high-necked enough.
Reading through these and other, similar posts, I begin to realize that our attempts to ensure that our daughters would wear hijab, and behave “modestly” involved a number of complex issues that we had not really thought through. We had looked at the whole matter in a very simplistic manner, like a mathematical problem to be solved. We were being taught—and we sincerely believed—that hijab is obligatory on girls who reach the age of puberty. We were also taught (and believed) that hijab is THE ultimate proof of a woman’s faith. So, since we believed that the hijab was so vitally important, the focus of our concern was how to ensure that our daughters would wear it, not on how our efforts to save their souls (as we perceived it) were affecting them.
So, what did we end up doing?
(1) We taught them to be ashamed of their bodies. We didn’t mean to. At the time, we thought that we weren’t. Because unlike, say, my ex’s ethnic community, which liberally used words like “shame” in order to reprove small children, especially girls, we hardly ever used the word. And because we thought that we were stressing the identity dimension of hijab, the “be proud you’re Muslim” angle.
But the concept was inescapably there, in the wider community. Our girls (and boys) grew up hearing sermons in which women were described as fitna, as temptations to men. And witnessing adults’ strongly negative reactions to any Muslim woman’s real or perceived shortcomings in modesty, that went far beyond any concern with identity per se. And observing men—and even boys—feeling free to admonish any girl for her poor observance of hijab. Yes, the boys in The Cult sure picked up on this early. Which leads right into the next point…
(2) Hijab was intertwined with female inferiority. I and my close friends strenuously objected to such an idea, of course. We went out of our way to make sure that our daughters knew that today, women in hijab run for seats in parliament, study engineering, own and operate their own businesses, play various types of sports, make art, and so forth. We would show them newspaper clippings of Muslim women around the world doing things like that. But what a gap there was between the occasional newspaper clipping and our daughters’ lived, day-to-day realities. None of the hijab-wearing women they knew did such exciting things; most were stay-at-home mothers, and our daughters quickly picked up on the common conservative Muslim notion that working outside the home is a suspect activity for girls and women.
What does it mean when even a young boy feels free to tell a girl his age at madrasa, “Your hair is showing,” and she reacts by fixing her scarf so that her bangs are no longer visible, while the other children look on? How embarrassed that girl—and all the other girls who saw what happen—must have been.
At times, the girls tried to turn the tables, admonishing boys who had forgotten to put their caps on, but the boys would just laugh, “Caps are just sunna (recommended), but hijab is FARD (obligatory)!” And there was nothing that the girls could say in return. Hijab was apparently a license to any boy or man to express his unsolicited opinion about how any girl or woman was dressed. Or, how she behaved. And it was very unlikely that he would be called out for doing that. Nobody was likely to ask why on earth he was looking at her in the first place, much less taking such an unseemly interest in something that is not his business. Enforcing the boundaries of “morality” was such a good cover for power-plays of this type….
(3) Hijab was used as a way to bully. Overt bullying, such as when a girl or woman was publicly admonished, or given nasiha, or behind-her-back criticism and gossip, which she would sooner or later get to hear about. Naturally. And not only girls and women by boys and men. Girls and women would also often get into the act. Our daughters grew up seeing people act like this. Hearing us, and others, minutely picking apart girls’ and women’s clothing choices or behavior. Hearing gossip that was circulating about their own mothers, their own sisters… or themselves. And undoubtedly picking up on the fact that their mothers dreaded such gossip, and that it hurt us greatly.
(4) We essentially removed from them the sense that they really had a choice. Sure, they could choose the color of their dresses, or whether to wear a jilbab or an abaya. If they’d wanted to really stand out, they could have opted to wear a niqab and gloves. But they knew that it was unacceptable for them to choose not to wear hijab. Unacceptable not only to their parents, siblings, and family friends, but also to other conservative Muslims outside our immediate circle.
At the time, we didn’t think that removing choice was such a bad thing. After all, believers don’t have a choice about whether to obey God, do they? Why give your children the illusion that they can “choose,” when choosing to disobey God means choosing to go to Hell?? Don’t responsible parents guide their children the way they should go?
We didn’t think about the wider implications of what we were doing, and how this would likely be perceived by our daughters. That in effect, we were teaching our daughters that love and acceptance (or even tolerance) of them in their families and community was definitely not unconditional. That they would not be loved, accepted, or even tolerated for who they are, if they did not have the correct clothing, and did not behave with exemplary modesty.
For me, it took dehijabing (which is another post…) to experience the scalding pain, the devastation of realizing that many people you have known for years, and who seemed to like and respect you, never really knew or cared about you at all. Never really saw you, even. It was your headscarf that they saw and liked and respected, and when that is gone, then there is nothing left, as far as they are concerned. It is as if you as a person were never there.
(5) We gave them a double consciousness. That they always need to be aware of how the way they dress and behave will likely be perceived by others. That they needed to be careful in front of men. That when they were in public, they needed to be careful not only of men, but also of what sort of an impression they might be giving non-Muslims about Islam. We tried not to make this sort of thing too much of an issue with our daughters, but our actions likely spoke a lot louder than our words. We ourselves were very self-conscious about how we might be coming across in Muslim gatherings, or in any public space, and our kids picked up on that.
What we didn’t inculcate in terms of a double consciousness, the wider society did. Particularly after 9/11, their visible Muslimness came under unprecedented scrutiny. While we tried to protect them as much as possible, we couldn’t prevent people from staring at them, or non-Muslim kids calling them “terrorists” in the playground, or shield them from all the negative images of Muslims in the media. What a heavy burden for a child to carry. They were not allowed to simply be themselves, to make mistakes and be fallible. That they had obviously Muslim names and a father from a country that had recently achieved notoriety in the media was hard enough on them; being hyper-visible Muslims every time they ventured out of doors was probably too much.
We didn’t mean to make our daughters feel ashamed of their bodies, or inferior, or silenced in the face of religious bullying, or under constant, pitiless scrutiny from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But unintentional or not, that was the result.
I have no idea how to begin to mend the damage we did.
I do know that attempts to explain that “not all Muslims see things that way” fall on deaf ears.