Hijab– the Perenial Argument

The Convert Connection

No person can approach Islam without considering that glaring badge of belonging– the head-covering of women. My comments in this post refer to the physical expression of hijab– the headscarf. I won’t post evidence for it or against, nor will I cite sources supporting my position. Each person is free to research and accept what he/she wishes to accept with regard to the meaning and/or necessity of  hijab.

There are two reasons hijab is such a constant and controversial subject. The first is that it carries multiple meanings that many women fail to understand. The second, and perhaps more obvious, is that hijab makes a visual, obvious and unspoken statement about a woman’s religion.

Rather than take a position for or against, I take a position at the intersection of the figure-eight, at the center, between the militant hijabis and the most liberal of liberals.

All are correct. All women are…

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An American Hijab

A hijabi reading this will be the first to object to my title: An American Hijab. There is no such thing as an American hijab, as opposed to an Arab or a European hijab. Hijab is Islamic, and it should be recognizable as such, no?

No. Muslim women can be identified and categorized according to how they wear hijab, and that’s been true for decades. Nationality, culture and degrees of self-determined religiosity are all made evident in a woman’s style of hijab. Obvious examples are the cornflower blue coverings of the Afghan women, with their mesh facial screens, or the all black coverings of the Saudi women, with full or partial face veils. Apart from those two examples, many variations exist, and all are considered appropriate by those who wear them.

The root of  this variation is in the generality of the admonitions within the Qur’an. No where does the Qur’an say clearly, “Cover your hair, arms, and legs loosely, and don’t wear make-up. Cover these parts in plain, black cloth.” The most that can be determined is that the breasts must be covered, extending to the parts between the navel and the knee. Only the Hadith address how and what to cover. Here is where we find the idea that only the face and hands can be visible while a woman is out in public. Most Muslims regard Hadith as more authoritative than the Qur’an, though they’d never admit to that.

I need not cite evidence for any position here; it is well-documented. I do want to draw attention to the fact that differences in style and fashion of hijab lend testimony to the flexible requirements regarding it within the literature. Many Muslims do not want to grant leeway or liberal interpretation of their texts, yet look around. The very fact of hijab’s variability is proof that its expression is of spirit, more than of concrete specification.

When I first converted and started wearing hijab in Saudi Arabia, I was advised to stop wearing make-up on my face. The idea of hijab is to cover one’s beauty. The hair is covered by the scarf, and the facial beauty should not be enhanced with eye shadows, mascara and lipstick. In practice, however, few women refrained from make-up altogether, though no one piled it on as if they were going to a party, but if they were going to a party, they did pile it on. Then, they covered their faces as well as hair, in obedience to the spirit of hijab. All women wore the black abaya while out in public. Once they arrived to their home or place of the party, the outer covers were left at the door.

The Saudi model took hijab to an extreme. Even amongst each other, or at work, no Saudi woman wore sleeves that did not reach  her wrists, nor skirts that did not reach her ankles. Expat women followed suit. The feminine awrah– the sexual parts that needed to be covered in the spirit of hijab– included everything except the face and hands. Religiosity could also be expressed by covering the face, hands, and ankles, as well. Neighborhood madrassas often required students and teachers alike to wear face veils, gloves and black socks to and from the school, and in the mosques. Modesty is a requirement from Allah, written in the Qur’an, and no one did it better than the Saudis.

I’ve always believed that the Saudi model of hijab was a bit robust, but I became accustomed to it and regarded it as normal. Imagine my surprise, when I visited Syria (back in the days before Syria was raped and pillaged)  and saw a different sort of hijabi “uniform.” The women wore headscarves, not always black, and an overgarment, not always an abaya, and often not black, but their skirts ended just below the knee, and their lower legs and ankles were visible! Moreover, they all dressed like this in public, so I realized that the lower leg was not part of the awrah in Syria!

In Egypt, women’s dresses displayed even more variation in both style and color, while many women didn’t even wear the headscarf. In Malaysia, the scarves and long dresses often matched, in plain pastel shades, sometimes with beaded decoration.

Only in America, however, many years later, did I see the concept of hijab stretched to its fullest limit. American Muslims wore face make-up, and patterned scarves. The wore belts, and tight jeans, and blouses that showed the outlines of their breasts, yet their hair was thoroughly tucked under scarves or turbans. Many of them took pride in wearing this “hijab”, making it fashionable with color, design and style.

For some years after my repatriation, I tried to accept this model, in keeping with my belief in the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I never did wear a head cover in America, though, except when at the mosque. My Saudi indoctrination with respect to the spirit of hijab always reminded me that arms, legs, waists and shapes could be just as sexually stimulating as hair, and therefore should not be accentuated. American Muslimahs seemed to think that as long as every strand of hair was tightly constricted under their head coverings, their limbs and shapes could be enhanced.

Lately, I’ve seen photos of hijabi fashion shows, believe it or not! There is even a Facebook page called, “Haute Hijab.” While a hijabi need not be dull or dreary while observing the spirit of hijab, the term “fashionable hijab” is  a contradiction in terms.  Let’s remember, however, that within the spirit of hijab, variation is not only permissible, but expected, according the cultural aspects of each Muslim population. What doesn’t make sense is that hijab be recognized as “beautiful” or “fashionable,” because those concepts do contradict the spirit of hijab.

(I might add a personal inclination. I’ve always seen men’s hair, shapes and muscles quite attractive, especially when uncovered, or covered tightly. Shouldn’t the spirit of hijab also extend to them? Well, it does, but it stops short.)

 

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My Conversion Story– Addendum

I forgot to mention a rather important event that pushed me towards conversion.

It began in the months before I signed a contract to work in Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Hospital and Research Center. As I was preparing to leave, early in 1986, my mother took me to her evangelical Christian church to meet a Lebanese Christian priest. I was supposed to make his acquaintance so that I could learn firsthand, from an Arab, the differences between Islam and Christianity, with the superiority of Christianity assumed.

A dark-haired, dark-eyed man with an easy smile and quiet demeanor, he welcomed us. The visit did not last long, as I had no questions for him, but I scanned his bookshelf, and was impressed to see copies of the Qur’an in Arabic and English, along with other texts with both Islamic and Christian titles. I decided I would ask this man questions if I needed a Christian approach. I took his mailing address.

Months later, or maybe the next year, as I’d resettled in Riyadh and was studying Islam and considering conversion, I learned about the Council of Nicaea, which occurred in  325 AD and  chose trinitarian Christianity as official, banning the unitarian Christianity at odds with it. I also learned that Jesus never called himself God, nor taught the Trinity as it is taught today. Additionally, I learned that the major religious seasons, as well as virgin birth story, were derived from a previous mythology.

Since I learned all of this from an Islamic perspective, I decided to write to the Lebanese priest at my mother’s church, and ask him specifically about these points, whether any of it was true. I wrote. I waited.

Several months passed. I thought he hadn’t received my letter, but finally I received his response. It was a short, half-page letter, acknowledging that I had, “done my homework,” and wishing me success in whatever path I chose.

Stunned, I read the letter repeatedly. This was not the letter I’d expected from a Lebanese Christian priest active in an evangelical church. I had been ready to accept whatever proof he could offer in support of Christianity.  Though I liked Islam, I liked Christianity, too, and felt comfortable in it.

Rather than being reassured,  I was shaken by the probability that what I had been taught from childhood as inviolable truth was not so true after all. That letter opened the gates of conversion unexpectedly wide.

I felt as though I had been catapulted into into a vast emotional desert (corresponding to the actual desert of Saudi Arabia), with a three hundred sixty degree circle of possibility. The tether of Christianity had been severed.  “I guess I’m going to become a Muslim,” I thought. How could I continue believing in Christianity after learning that much of its doctrine had been manipulated, even invented, by men? The tension of the opposites took hold and caused me great pain for while, until I learned to hold it.

I went on to study, pray, write and ponder Islam, and how I could live as a Muslim.

The priest’s letter was an important building block of my conversion story. I’m surprised I forgot about it while writing my first post, but I probably forgot it because its shock was not pleasant, and set me on an uncomfortable course. Conversion is not always easy, not always natural, not always even appropriate. Only from the perspective of thirty years can I say it was ultimately the right path for me.

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The Convert Trap

Evidently, American converts face difficulty integrating into an accepting Islamic community.  It’s bad enough that Islamic practice often conflicts with the American cultural milieu. Community provides the cushion and the impetus for all successful adjustments, yet instead of finding open arms and willing teachers, American converts face a paucity of learning opportunities, and sometimes then doubt their faith as genuine. Some suffer manipulation and deceitful behavior from Muslims who should know better. The most unfortunate of them face rejection from family members, as well.

I say “evidently” because I’ve rarely seen this. I believe it, however, on the strength of many, many accounts I’ve read from Muslim converts scattered all over the country. My own conversion experience is singular, and because of it,  I daresay I can address this situation with some insight.

If I were to address those who are about to say shahada, I would advise:

1.)  Most importantly: find a supportive Muslim community and integrate yourself into it as a potential covert. If you are not welcomed and nurtured, find another community, even on-line. Though face-to-face community is best, on-line community has become and important adjunct, and, in some cases, a life-line for those who cannot find community in their daily lives.

2.  Consider all the implications of living your life as Muslim. What will  be expected of you from Islam, your new sisters and brothers, and what you will expect from yourself.

3.  Learn as much as you can, but be careful of your sources. Check and re-check what you learn with other sources to avoid being duped into the agenda of unscrupulous religionists.

4. Learn elementary Arabic, for the purpose of reciting prayers.

5.  If you are a woman, consider whether hair-covering and modest dressing is something you believe in or are willing to do in the West.

6.  Learn the requirements of polygyny. Get to know polygynous families if you are drawn to this family structure.

7.  Do not inform your family of origin if you value their support and would suffer from their rejection.

8.  Do not inform your family of origin if they love you and would suffer needlessly from your conversion.

9.  Live Islam in secret until you can enter a more favorable situation.Learn to admit and live with the compromises you may make,  especially if you live in the West.

10..Do not get married within a year of becoming Muslim. You need an adjustment period, and a foundation upon which to make a good marriage decision.

This list of tips is my own personal list, because I’ve used them all, and I’ve maintained my sense of feeling Muslim for nearly thirty years, even though I haven’t always lived a proper Islamic life. I haven’t lost my family or my religion, but I’ve made compromises that some people would not want to make.

I decided from the start that I wanted to be Muslim and I didn’t want to lose my American family of origin, nor my American culture. Balancing those two incompatible states produced cognitive dissonance which persists to this day, but I choose it, rather than risk losing my family and culture as well as my adopted religion.

You may not agree, and my not want to consider these tips, but maybe you’ve never heard anyone speak like I do about the conundrum of being an American convert in America. Maybe these tips are the breath of fresh air you’ve been needing. Allah knows best.  May Allah accept my intention to help Western converts coordinate Islam with Western culture when the two can be seemingly incompatible. An American way of practicing Islam is always a work in progress.

 

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My Conversion Story

I’ve been asked to write my story. Immediately, I thought about the day I said shahada in Anis’s apartment. Then I thought about the day I said it in front of a Saudi sheikh,  making it publicly official. Both accounts need writing, but my story does not start there.

Did it start when I first heard the Travel Prayer on my first plane ride to Riyadh in 1986? That moment told me to investigate Islam, but my story does not start there.

Did it start when I discovered that drinking alcohol is haram–forbidden–in Islam, and I wanted to find a religion that prohibited drinking? No, the story starts earlier.

Did it start when I prayed to God to get me out of a relationship with an alcoholic cocaine addict, and I would find a religion I could follow, as an expression of my gratitude? No, the story starts earlier than that.

All of the above events occurred based upon two previous situations, both connected to my family of origin. The first is that my family was fractured, religiously speaking. My mother and father had arisen from different traditions, although both believed in Christianity.  My father did not believe in any organized religion, and therefore never attended services or mass unless compelled to do so by weddings and funerals. My mother attended church regularly, and dragged all four children every Sunday, even in the worst of snowstorms. No one ever fought about it. We knew our parents had differing religious orientations, but we all knew that we’d be free to choose our own religious path in adulthood– as long as it led to Christianity.

The other situation was that my parents became very strict when I hit adolescence. They effectively culled me from my peer group, forbidding me to take part in most of the social activities that shaped my peers. I became an unpopular girl, not because of any personal fault, but because of parental restriction coupled with my placid nature that didn’t dare confront them, except secretly.

I became adept at leading a double life. I gave myself permission to do, say and believe anything I wanted, as long as it did not invade the space of my family life. My peers, on the other hand, became even more connected to whatever their family and culture taught them. None of them would have considered challenging their social upbringing, let alone their religious upbringing, because they felt happy there. None of them led secret lives, because they had no need of duplicity. They felt accepted and integrated and ready to forge a path in life according to the guidance of their parents, teachers and religious leaders.

As I matured, I became less connected, less accepted, less well integrated in my social and religious surroundings. My introverted nature made alienation not only bearable, but finally comfortable. I considered myself a free agent except for the most basic of life’s demands. I had to support myself, satisfy my sexual nature, and indulge my artistic nature, while holding spirituality on the periphery until I really needed it.

By the time I needed it, I was well into my thirties, and primed for a radical step in another direction. If I had gone to a Buddhist nation, I would have become Buddhist. If I had gone to a Hindu nation, I would have become a Hindu, but I went to a Muslim nation– Saudi Arabia– and I became a Muslim.

None of this is to say that my conversion came easily or comfortably. Those days caused me great pain. Becoming a Muslim was the objective expression of the internal admission that I really wasn’t going to be like other American women of my age and class; I really wasn’t going to achieve the landmarks of a socially admirable orcomfortable  American life; I wasn’t going to have a husband, children, and home in same sense that my mom had, or any other woman of my age and class.

Then, there were the core principles of Islam against Christianity– the divinity of Jesus and his death on the cross as a redemption for the sins of mankind. I believed that, never questioned it, actually, until I started studying Islam. Even after learning that Jesus never called himself God, or that the virgin birth evoked classical mythology, I couldn’t shake the notion that I would go to Hell if I renounced the story, just as I’d been taught.

Oh, yes, great pain accompanied my conversion, almost as though it were a birth of sorts. I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Here, I would simply like to assert that the conversion started twenty-three years before I said shahada, before I was even aware of Islam as a world monotheistic religion.

I suggest that most, if not all, Westerners who convert to Islam had been primed for it. Years of disconnection and/or downright abuse from their culture of origin had prepared them to look at a way of life not generally available in the West, a way of life that would ask for significant changes in personal as well as social behavior. Who would voluntarily accept those challenges unless having been profoundly disappointed in the culture of origin? Should My Conversion Story be retitled Our Conversion Story?

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Riyadh Still in my Heart

Nineteen years after my repatriation, I am finally able to return to Riyadh. I’ve got someone who is able to secure my visa, I’ve got a place to stay, I’ve got the time and the money, and even my health is still good enough to make this trip to the other side of the world, to the place I called home, to the place of the most eventful, romantic, dramatic and emotional periods of my life. I’ve pined after Riyadh for all these years, I’ve written about it in this blog, I’ve voiced my intention to go back someday, and that day is now this day.

Instead of planning a trip to Riyadh, I am planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon? I’ve never felt any particular affinity for the Grand Canyon or for any other landmarks here in the Unites States. How did I get so sidetracked?

Well, I’m getting fussy in my old age. I fly business class for international trips. That’s expensive, even with discounts. I have arthritis, and I’m fat, though I go to the gym and might even quit overeating one of these days. I no longer jump on a plane with little preparation, like I did in my traveling years. I no longer even wish to jump on a plane without preparation. I’m also fussy about destinations, these days, no longer interested in countries  that are cheapest to visit simply because they are cheapest. Italy and Saudi Arabia are the only international destinations that get my attention now, though I’d love to see Thailand again.

The United States has many lovely places to see.  I’ll enjoy a photography tour of the Grand Canyon. I might even enjoy it enough to plan more trips to US destinations.  Flights are short and cheap to anywhere in the US (compared to international travel). There aren’t many time zones to navigate, so jet lag isn’t such an issue. As a senior citizen, I think I’ll enjoy seeing more of my own country, but I still plan to see Riyadh again.

Now that I can go back to Riyadh,  after years of not being able to do so, I’m specifying that I want to go back for Ramadan, not the chilly winter or blazing hot summer or even the Haj season. Ramadan is the month to be in any Middle Eastern country, especially if one is Muslim. Yes, I still intend to go back to Riyadh, but I want to go next Ramadan, inshaAllah. Next Ramadan…2018…and I’m planning for it. InshaAllah.

 

 

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I Quit

Last week, I quit the Tajweed class I had joined. I attended half a dozen classes and learned– or, shall I say, re-learned– basic principles of Tajweed. The teacher is an Egyptian woman who knows her stuff and knows how to teach it. The class was great, but I suddenly lost enthusiasm for tajweed and everything Arabic.

For the first time in my life, I wanted to take a break from all things Arabic.

At least I realized that my need for a break has nothing to do with Arabic but with the circumstances of my life, specifically, my Arabic family that continually behaves in ways clearly dysfunctional regardless of whether they live in Arab or American society.

At first, I felt guilty leaving a class that benefits me and gives me joy.

I hadn’t been studying, however, and Tajweed needs consistent study. When I lived in Riyadh and attended classes daily, I studied every day, sometimes for hours.  Here, in America, I do not live in an Islamic or an Arabic atmosphere, and I must confess and admit that my attitudes are profoundly influenced by my surroundings.

Would I like to change my surroundings to encourage more participation in Islamic practices? Yes. Why do I not do so?

Here I must reveal a situation of cognitive dissonance that has nagged me ever since I repatriated nearly twenty years ago.

I live with my mom, who is ninety-one years old and an evangelical Christian. She is a lovely woman, who has cared for me, my father (who passed nine years ago) and my siblings. As a Muslim, I am instructed to take care of my parents. Does not Heaven lie under the feet of mothers? I remind my Muslim readers: “Abu Huraira reported: A man asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, ‘Who is most deserving of my good company?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said ‘Your mother.’ The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ ‘The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your father.’ ”

Add to that the early teaching I received from my father, who often told me, “When your mother and I get old, you will take care of us.”

My mother, in her selfless way, always scolded him, saying, “She will have her own life!”

My mother deserves to spend her last years in comfort. She still takes pleasure in caring for us now, as she did when we were small!

Three years ago, she lost her sense of taste and smell, yet she still exerts a supreme effort to plan and cook a tasty meal for my brother and I once a week. This example of her devotion to her family is one of an infinite number she has offered over the course of our lives.

Here we are, she at ninety-one, and me at nearly sixty-seven years old. We live in the house my father built for us thirty-nine years ago, the house that she has cleaned, fixed, decorated, and enjoyed since the day we moved in, the house that is her home. If I were to live elsewhere, she would have to give up this house. Living here with her is my way of honoring her. Of course, I also benefit financially, but that is not so important any more. I can afford to buy my own house.

My weakness, my proclivity  for peace and harmony before honesty, has permitted me to live more as a Christian, like her, than a Muslim, like me. During the weeks I went to Tajweed class, I didn’t even tell her I was studying Tajweed, because she would then know for sure that I am no longer a Christian, as she had taught me. I used to tell her I was studying Arabic, at the mosque instead of the university. She had her suspicions, but true to her generous nature, she kept them to herself.

During those weeks, my extended Arabic family gave me no end of bad behavior. Some day I may write about all of that, but not today, not now. The point now is that I was trying to study Tajweed with one hand tied behind my back, and my family swatting at the other hand. I needed a break.

Cognitive dissonance has been my companion for most of my life. I have often lived knowingly with contradictory beliefs and behaviors. I have often tried to reconcile them, and when unsuccessful, compartmentalized them. I rarely gave one up in preference to the other, and I won’t do so now, but I need a break.

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