Wearing my Faith on my Head

Women were not allowed to choose whether to cover or not in Saudi Arabia. In other countries, however, the practice became a personal choice. As such, women needed to give some thought to whether or not they would cover when outside the Kingdom, and why or why not. I always envied the women who accepted, without question, that hijab was required in Islam and that they would do it, no matter where they travelled.  I am not of that mentality.

My rejection of mandatory head-covering opened up all kinds of possibilities for how I would continue the practice outside of the Kingdom. I daresay every woman should consider that hijab is not required in Islam. Then, she will need to examine the issue from many perspectives, as I have done, and her decision will carry the weight of conviction instead of the automatic response of obedience to external authority.

I knew I would not wear hijab in the United States because it would bring me trouble within my family and work situation.  Also, hijab is uncomfortable at times, and it destroys my hairstyles. Hijab has nothing to do with Allah, but everything to do with society (in my private, humanistic way of thinking). Where and why would I wear it at all, outside the Kingdom?

The obvious reason would be to announce to the world that I am a Muslim woman. That motive attracted me, as I was pleased to be a Muslim and wanted to be recognized as such, so I decided to wear hijab voluntarily during a three week vacation to the Far East.

I went on this vacation with another American woman who believed in wearing hijab all the time, so I knew she would be a good support in my effort. In Thailand, the first leg of the trip, I felt uncomfortable because of the humidity, but apart from that, I was amused because fellow travelers and hotel employees did not recognize me or my friend as Americans, or even English speakers.You see, with our Arabic clothes, our hijab and our physical appearance– my friend was black and my face could pass for Arab in those days– no one pegged us as Americans, even fellow Americans, unless they heard us speak. One of the bellhops even said to us, “MashaAllah, you two ladies speak such good English!”

We enjoyed Thailand immensely. Hijab did not interfere in the least with my  delight in our activities and places we visited. In fact, announcing to the world we were Muslim had the effect of changing our relationships with everyone with whom we came into contact. Fellow Muslim travelers said, “Salaalmu Aleikum,” which was nice, and fellow Western travelers ignored us. Those who recognized our American accents gave us quizzical glances, and one person engaged us in a lengthy diatribe about the superiority of Jesus over Mohammad. We listened politely, defended our choices, and left in peace. I completed that leg of trip satisfied with the experiment, and open to the possibility that I would wear hijab voluntarily, sometimes, to show that I am a Muslim woman.

However, the next two stops– Malaysia and Singapore– gave no respite from the discomfort of heat and humidity. My headscarf, with my long sleeves and skirt, started to make me nauseated.  I have always suffered from nausea, headaches and even dizziness when overheated, so I took off the scarf. My physical relief was immediate, and my psychological relief followed. My appearance no longer announced anything to the world except that I was a female– an ordinary, middle-aged female of dubious nationality, traveling with with a black Muslim friend.

I had felt like an imposter while wearing hijab outside the Kingdom. I was not wearing it for the same reason others wore it. Muslim women wear it because they feel it is required. I was wearing it as an experiment, not because I believed in the practice as a religious requirement, but because I wanted other people to see that I was Muslim. I was wearing my faith on my head.

When not wearing hijab, no one would guess that I was Muslim. No one said, “Assalaamu Aleikum.” In fact, fellow Western travelers in the tour groups did not ignore me as they had when I wore hijab. They chatted with me easily, as if I were one of them, but I was not one of them.

At the conclusion of the experiment, I learned that I was just as much an imposter wearing my faith on my head as when not wearing it at all. Whether I wore hijab or not, I was presenting myself as someone other than who I was on the inside. Hijab really is the defining exterior identifier of a Muslim woman. Without it, a woman is simply not Muslim while in public. With it, she is not anything else.

The important criterion, then, for women like me, is how we want to present ourselves to the world outside our homes. I confess: most of the time, I do not want to present myself as a Muslim woman in any Western country. I want to appear nondescript, ordinary, unremarkable, forgettable, maybe invisible. That is the real reason I do not wear hijab in the United States, and the reason I liked wearing it in Saudi Arabia.

However, when I go to the mosque, I want nothing more than to present myself as a Muslim, so from now on, I will wear hijab when going to the mosque.

Many Muslims will see me as hypocritical. I’ve noticed a peculiar attitude towards hijab. Some of us think it is difficult to wear, but that once we bridge the personal reluctance, and place that scarf over our heads, we must never, ever take it off. I once knew a woman who wouldn’t wear hijab until after she’d made Haj, because she “knew” she’d never be able to remove it after that. I worked with a woman who wore hijab only during Ramadan. She endured all sorts of comments and questions about why she’d wear it then but not during the rest of the year. Her response was that Ramadan was a time of renewing one’s religious commitment, and the hijab reminded her to do so every day.

I thought she was brave and sincere, maybe more so than the women who wore hijab as tight as underwear but painted their eyes and lips, and powdered their skin.

On the other hand, who am I to judge another woman’s sincerity with regard to religion? I am one of the eye-and-lip painters. I am one who puts on scarves and takes them off, and gives them much more importance than they are worth. Because hijab is the exterior banner of Islam, it gets the attention from everyone, yet one’s observance of the five pillars are much more important than wearing hijab. How many of us conflicted women obsess over hijab, yet let prayer times slip away unobserved?

After all, who pays attention to whether or not a woman prays, let alone prays five times a day? Who sees whether a woman has paid her zakat, or made her Haj, or fasted Ramadan? Who cares? No one cares because no one can see these more important aspects of being a Muslim woman. I’ve concluded that hijab carries exaggerated importance only because it is visible.  My experiment proved that one’s reception in society is drastically altered by whether or not one wears it, regardless of the invisible, personal reasons for doing so. I’ve concluded that the practice of wearing hijab must necessarily combine personal considerations and impersonal, psychological and the sociological, religious and the secular. A woman who is conflicted about wearing it must realize that all of these aspects come together in it. She must define her position first within herself, and then find a way to comfortably practice or not practice hijab, or do it some of the time but not always, or never, except for prayer.

Most of us make peace with ourselves and hijab, and this is why we see so many variations in how women wear it. I’ve now realized how and why so many of us wear hijab in so many styles, and why some of us paint our eyes and lips, and others do not, and some of us wear belts and some of us wear loose skirts, and some of us wear bright colors, and others wear subdued colors. Outside the Kingdom, a woman is free to define hijab for herself, to wear it in combination with the rest of her demeanor, to present herself as a person who includes Islam as part of her identity.

Perhaps I have been too severely affected by my experience of hijab in Saudi Arabia. There, hijab comprised more than covering one’s head. Head-covering and abaya-wearing was law– all of us had to do it, whether we wanted to or not– but it was considered only a first step in the development of religiosity. The next step would be complete omission of cosmetics. The step after that would be face-covering. These steps were to be adopted as one became more and more devout. The covering materials would become more and more opaque. The degree to which a woman covered her body would signal the degree to which she had become devoted to Allah and all the myriad recommendations for the faithful observance of Islam. The final stage in covering would be to wear black gloves and black socks, so that no part of the woman’s body or clothing would be visible. She would even keep her mouth shut, speaking only when absolutely necessarily, and then, in a low voice. The most “religious” of women wore this costume even in the presence of non-Muslim women, on the off-chance that the non-Muslim women would criticize an aspect of the Muslim woman’s appearance.  I was raised, Islamically speaking, in this environment, so you can imagine my surprise and confusion when I repatriated to the United States and saw so many different styles and presentations of the head scarf. I spent years thinking about it, trying to reconcile the Saudi model of hijab, with its connection to religiosity, and the Western model, with its mark of individual expression. I now conclude that one’s style of hijab (in the West, anyway)  is not about religiosity except in the most superficial of ways. It announces to the world that one is a Muslim.

It says nothing about one’s degree of religiosity, devotion to Allah, observance of the five pillars– nothing at all. As such, its style is irrelevant. Therefore, I will never again criticize a woman who covers incompletely, provocatively, or colorfully. I will never again assume that a woman who is unrecognizable due to black coverings is a devout Muslim. Most importantly, I will no longer question myself when I wear hijab to the mosque but nowhere else, and I will continue to paint my eyes and lips, with or without hijab. I’ve finally made my personal peace with hijab.