My conversion and early years as a Muslim occurred in Saudi Arabia, where hijab was mandatory for everyone, whether we believed in it or not. Even non-Muslim women were well-advised to wear hijab while visiting certain neighborhoods of Riyadh. Scarves and abayas were always black, with maybe some nice black embroidery along the edges. Non-Saudi women could get away with wearing colored scarves, pale shades and pastels only, with matching embroidery. I wore hijab willingly, because I wanted to comply with local customs, and to be recognized as a Muslim woman; I wanted to move around the city inconspicuously, drawing no attention from anyone.
I’d studied the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the English translation, and I was not convinced that head covering was required. On the contrary, I was convinced that women were free to interpret those verses according to their personal conclusion. Living in the Kingdom, however, called for conformity above personal expression, so I covered everything, sometimes face and eyes. I even wore black gloves and black socks on occasion, when I knew I’d be encountering women who’d scold me, were they to see my white hands and ankles. Yes, women did scold me, usually at the mosque or at the madrassa. They believed that every inch of a woman’s skin must be covered in black while outside the home.
My Arabic was never fluent enough to challenge those reproaches, but who was I to challenge them, anyway? According to my own understanding, those women were entitled to their interpretations as I was entitled to mine.
Hijab never gave me any cause for psychological stress while in the Kingdom. I even got used to the physical discomfort from wrapping my head in black when the temperature rose so high you could fry an egg on the hood of a car.
Hijab never gave me distress while in the United States, either. I simply didn’t wear it (except for prayer) and still don’t. Though I never doubted the permissibility of going about bare-headed, I still give thought to the reasoning behind the practice. In fact, the reasoning behind the practice holds more importance for me than whether or not it is required in Islam. Living outside the Kingdom, personal choice becomes an important variable in whether a woman covers or not. Personal choice in any matter necessitates careful examination of the options.
Head-covering served to brand women as Muslim, and therefore unavailable for flirtatious activity or harassment of any sort. The idea is to downplay the “adornments” of women. Hair, boobs, curves, eyes, lips, hands, legs, skin… all of those can be categorized as “adornments,” and therefore, the glove-and-sock wearers are as justified in their practice as the head-coverers are in theirs.
Should cultural attitudes regarding modesty factor into a woman’s decision as to which parts of her body are the “adornments” to be covered and withheld from the gaze of men? Obviously yes, if you subscribe to the flexible interpretation of the texts, as I do. In the Kingdom, cultural attitudes prevailed; the woman who covered even her eyes, hands and ankles caused no stir on the streets of Riyadh. If she’d walk around like that in my American community, someone would call the police.
Here in the United States, boobs and crotch are the ultimate private parts, with curves coming in next, but hair? I don’t think so. Do you think so? OK, so cover it, but don’t ask me when I’m going to start covering mine.
As for curves, I don’t have them anymore, but my body is still draped in clothing so loose you cannot see where one part stops and the next part starts. My gray hair poses no distraction for anyone. I’m modest, I’m safe, and my appearance does not invite attention from anyone. What’s not Islamic about that?
I know I am in the minority. Most Muslim women in the United States cover their hair voluntarily, even proudly. In fact, the hair-covering seems more important than any other kind of covering. I’ve seen many women who would’t let even a strand of hair fall out, yet their faces are enhanced with cosmetics, their jeans are form-fitting and they might even wear belts. Scarves in this country are brightly colored, patterned and layered. I daresay my bare-headed appearance qualifies as more modest than most of the Muslim women whose hijab screams, “Look at me!” I conclude that hair-covering carries multiple meanings, and modesty is not one of them.
Herein lies the difficulty with understanding head-covering as it is practiced in different cultures. It is rarely about modesty, and only superficially about religious requirement. Mostly, it is about announcing to the world that, “I am a Muslim woman.” It’s a public display of faith, and as such, it makes perfect sense. I understand myself and others much better from this perspective. I am not comfortable with public announcement of my attributes, be they physical or spiritual. I do not like to advertise for anyone or any position. That means I don’t put bumper stickers on my cars, I don’t wear clothes with logos stitched to pockets, and I don’t cover my hair.