A Piece of Cloth

Rain splattered against our bedroom window on a chilly spring weekend morning. I burrowed deeper under the thick cotton comforter, tightened my arms around my husband’s trim waist, and rubbed the lingering wetness of tears on my cheekbones off on his soft sleep T-shirt. That morning, I didn’t want to be comforted or to comfort.

I tucked my chin in, considering how to initiate the conversation with Sameer. For the last hour, we had drifted in and out of quiet conversation, light sleep and silent contemplation. This was as good a time as any, I thought.

“Jaan,” I murmured the Urdu endearment, “I’ve been thinking about something…”

Sameer shifted next to me so he could look at my face.

“The hijab,” I stated. “I’ve been thinking about putting it on.”

He blinked, pushed the covers back and sat up.

“Why?” he asked, startled.

I silently picked at the edges of the white and green covers and turned my head to look out the window at the branches shivering in the rain. I didn’t know Why. How could I explain to my husband why I was considering the hijab when I couldn’t explain it to myself yet?

The idea of the hijab had sparked during a trip to Medina, the oasis city which is home to the second holiest mosque in Islam. A few months before that rainy morning conversation, I had boarded a plane from Boston, desperate to escape the city where my year-old-daughter had suddenly died, on a hunt for solace in my faith and a holy city.

Every day of my trip, I sat at a different spot inside the vast marble mosque, surrounded by women dressed in flowing garments of different colors, cuts and textiles, representing styles from all over the world. Like me, every one of them had a cloth draped over her head to tuck her hair away from sight. I marveled at the beauty and variety of their hijabs: wide, cotton, printed dupattas from South Asia that covered the hair as well as most of the upper body, elegantly coiled Turkish scarves, long, thin, black silk Saudi tarhas wound tightly around the head, practical pastel Syrian elastic two-pieces fit snugly over the hair, shiny Indonesian triangular scarves fastened at the chin.

How would it feel to wear the hijab? I had wondered as I gazed around me. Perhaps thoughts of the hijab had been a welcome distraction from the constant, cutting pain of loss. Perhaps there had been an element of shielding comfort from tortured What ifs? as I had wrapped the hijab around my head in Medina, a sense of wrapping a dressing tightly around a wound to staunch the grief that seemed to bleed unceasingly out of me. But the surprising impulse to keep the hijab on had remained even months after our return to Boston. I was tentatively beginning to poke at Why when I began the conversation with Sameer.

The hijab is a piece of cloth. Does it matter if a Muslim woman wears the hijab or doesn’t?

You can’t control me and you can’t define me with my hair,” declared Mariam, an Iranian artist who, along with her friends, burnt her hijab and shaved her head as part of country-wide protests against decades of repression by the Iranian regime.

For a piece of cloth, they are ruining our education,” said Muskan, an Indian college student who insisted on wearing her hijab despite a state ban in schools which was upheld by an Indian high court.

In America, where I have lived for over two decades since moving from Saudi Arabia for university, I have the privilege of choice when it comes to the hijab, a luxury not afforded to millions of Muslim women like Muskan or Mariam. But having grown up in a country where the hijab was mandated, choice has changed the nature of considerations attached to the hijab instead of erasing them entirely.

As a girl in Jeddah, I was the first among my friends asked to put on the cloakish abaya, due to the height and curves I seemed to gain overnight when I was eleven years old. My friends and I hadn’t considered the abaya an imposition, it was simply what was done in a place and time where public dissent wasn’t even an idea. Back then, every adult woman was required to wear the long robe and to wrap her hair in a tarha. We considered the garments to be marks of our grown-up status. We browsed through racks which lined the walls of the noisy, open-front stores in the bazaars. We picked from plain, practical abayas that tied securely at the front to exquisite silk ones, with flowing bell sleeves and colorful, delicate embroidery at the edges. I had two abayas I alternated between, but my well-off friends had several, some designer brand, so they could dress up or down as the occasion demanded. We often wore them with the front open, to show off the T-shirt and jeans or Pakistani shalwar kameez we wore underneath.

Though the abaya didn’t bother me and was unavoidable even if it had, the tarha requirement to cover hair was observed less diligently by myself and the women in my life. My mother and her friends wrapped it around their heads when they visited the holy cities but otherwise the tarha was loosely drawn over their hair. My friends and I hung ours fashionably around our necks when we could, our hair styled and on display. If the mutawwas approached in bazaars, warnings of which would be carried down the side streets on market chatter, we quickly covered our hair before loosening the scarf again after the stern men in their white robes had passed.

When I left Saudi Arabia to attend university in the US, I wore what typical American university students did—jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers—and left my hair uncovered. Just as I had in Saudi Arabia, I followed the clothing norms of the land with little thought as to what, if anything, was implied by the parts of my body I chose to cover or reveal. Some family and friends in the US chose to wear the headscarf because they believed it was an integral part of their faith. Other Muslim friends considered the hijab optional and wore loose, long clothing or dressed fashionably without showing skin. Yet others thought the focus on modesty expressed through clothing was overblown and focused on the spiritual side of their faith. At the other end were friends who didn’t practice the religious rituals but still identified as Muslim. These views were a microcosm of the diversity of beliefs about the many practices of Islam held by the nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world today.

I was caught somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. I considered the hijab a religious requirement that was far down my list of priorities. I focused more on the positive values and behavior that my faith encouraged. The hijab would come much later, if ever, I had thought.

I understood my husband’s confusion. I too had been discomfited by the stubborn persistence with which the hijab returned to my thoughts since the trip to Medina.

My husband turned to me, a frown creasing his brow, “Why make yourself visibly Muslim?” he asked. “It’s not safe. Why draw that kind of attention to yourself?”

Safety was one reason I had not seriously considered adopting the hijab in the past. At best, I risked inciting biases that would taint social interactions. At worst, I could jeopardize my or my family’s safety. Unable to answer my husband’s questions, I gave a slight shrug, shook my head, and allowed the conversation to fall away.

The hijab is a piece of cloth. Does it matter if a Muslim woman wears the hijab or doesn’t?

It mattered to the Muslim family killed in London, Ontario during their daily evening walk last summer by a hate-consumed white man who intentionally mowed them down with his pickup truck. The murder happened a couple of hours drive from where my parents live in Toronto, to distant relatives of my husband’s. On many nights, as I smooth my children’s hair away from their sleeping faces and watch the reassuring rise and fall of their chests, I think of the nine-year-old son who survived the attack to discover his family of five had been wiped out because his mother and grandmother were identifiably Muslim with their hijabs.

It matters to the Muslim women in many European countries for whom it is illegal to dress as they wish if that choice involves covering their hair,  face or  body. In Switzerland, I would have been encouraged, even mandated, to wear a face mask during the worst of the pandemic but prohibited from doing so if it was a choice made out of religious conviction. In Austria, my Jewish or Sikh colleagues could continue to wear a Sikh turban or Jewish kippah, but I could not wear a hijab as a schoolgirl under laws banning religiously symbolic clothing. On many French beaches and local pools, I could be fined or asked to leave if I wore my aqua-colored full-body swimsuit. Bans on religious symbols disproportionately affect Muslim women in Western countries and restrict their education and employment opportunities. Yet, these restrictions are ironically justified as an effort at women’s empowerment. It is, in fact, more common for countries to restrict what Muslim women can wear in terms of religious garb than it is for countries to impose requirements.

It matters to Muslim American women, like my circle of friends, who noted the accepting response non-Muslim women who chose to continue wearing masks after pandemic restrictions were lifted received. Muslim women in the West who choose to cover their hair or faces rarely experience similar empathy despite sharing similar motivations for freedom from societal expectations of beauty and scrutiny from the male eye.

It matters because Muslim women’s decisions, particularly about their dress, are questioned and judged, no matter where in the world they are, by fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In Pakistan, as I sipped hot tea while reminiscing and laughing with cousins I had not seen in years, one asked, “When will you start covering your hair, Nada? You know it’s not a choice.” In Maine, as I walked out on a dock to kayak with friends, a Muslim girlfriend in an attractive red bathing suit raised disapproving eyebrows at the black leggings under my tunic swimsuit top and asked, “Why would you wear that?” When a woman in hijab walked by us in Boston’s bustling Faneuil Hall, a non-Muslim acquaintance laughingly declared, “Thank God you don’t dress like that!”

We are saving you from Mahsa Amini’s fate, chide Indian and Chinese nationalists as they strip away the hijab yet pile restrictions on their Muskans regarding freedom of movement and access to education and work. We give you the protection Muskan needs, declare the Afghani Taliban to their Mariams as they enforce similar limitations alongside the mandatory hijab. We regulate what you can wear as you work and study to give you freedom, claim European governments. Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic and extreme Islamist political agendas globally.

A year after the initial conversation with my husband, I broached the topic again.

 “It’s not a requirement in Islam,” he stated.

“You may not think so. But I do,” I argued.

The literal meaning of the Arabic word is ‘barrier’ or ‘partition’ and encompasses principles of modesty for both men and women in Islam. Over time, the term has come to refer to the covering of hair by Muslim women and its usage twisted to put the onus of codes of dress and behavior purely on women in many Muslim societies.

The relevant Quranic verse has various interpretations, some of which underline there is no explicit mention of covering the hair. Many Muslims, including my husband, close to 50% of Muslim women in North America, and sizeable percentages in Muslim countries, believe that the hijab is unnecessary or optional.

I delved into the meanings of the Arabic words used in the verse and studied the historical context where head coverings for Muslim women have been a part of overall attire over centuries. I want to believe that covering my hair isn’t something I need or want to do. But as hard as I try, I can’t convince myself.

My non-Muslim friends are surprised to discover both that I am considering wearing the hijab and that my husband would prefer I didn’t. Stereotypes of the controlling Muslim man forcing his female relative to wear the hijab are firmly entrenched in Western cultural media. Though this situation is a reality for many Muslim women, others have the opposite experience where they must override the objections of fathers, brothers, sons and husbands to wear the hijab.

“I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it,” my husband declared during one of our frequent discussions on the hijab which followed the first.

“I know. But this isn’t only about you. It’s about what feels right for me. I want to do this,” I pushed back.

The hijab is a piece of cloth. Does it matter if I wear the hijab or don’t?

As a teenager in Saudi Arabia, I hadn’t developed the maturity to question authority or standard practice.  Back then and there, hair was a mark of a woman’s beauty; its power had to be limited by concealment. I sometimes lifted the tarha from around my neck and wrapped it around my hair when I noticed my father was visibly uncomfortable with the leering or disapproving stares directed at my uncovered head. He never asked me to, but I didn’t want to discomfit him with other’s judgements.

I haven’t worn the hijab in the US because I didn’t have to and didn’t want to. But here, hair is also one marker of a woman’s beauty, which is often exploited and valued far above her intelligence or skills. How would my life be different, I have wondered, if I didn’t, as I was once told, “present well”? Would I make healthier choices for my wellbeing if I stripped away the weighty expectations of feminine appearance with the hijab?

One afternoon, I stood in front of a wide mirror in my room, scarves piled on my bed, as I wrapped a plum-colored hijab around my hair, adjusting the cotton edges into a flattering shape for my face. I pulled it off my head and tried a bright mint one with small pink polka dots, trying to smile as brightly as the colors at my reflection. I unfurled that hijab and settled on a light pink silk scarf; the smooth material fell loosely around my face. At the grocery store, I was conscious of my sweaty grip on the handle of my tote, my inability to make eye contact with the woman standing next to me in the dairy aisle, my overly-eager smile for the unsmiling cashier. Was he being less friendly to me than to the person ahead of me? Did I imagine the woman’s second glance at my scarf? Was that man frowning at me or simply preoccupied? As I unloaded the groceries into my car, my back turned in a dark parking lot, I was uncomfortably aware of being identifiably different, targetable. By the time I parked in front of my home, the energy required of and anxiety intertwined with being an ‘other’ had drained me.

“Why has this become so important to you?” my husband asked when I told him I had ventured out wearing the hijab. “Why now?”

An answer has been unfurling over years, one which has as many textures, cuts and colors as the slowly-growing collection of hijabs in my closet.

A part of it is spiritual connection. Acts of worship, including prayer, offered unparalleled solace after my daughter died. I was drawn to the idea of tucking my hair under a bright scarf before I stepped out of the house as an act of submission to God. I have learned to live without my daughter because of my belief that God has a plan for me that is beyond my understanding. The hijab feels like a part of that plan. I want to practice the act of accepting what may sit uncomfortably in the beginning but becomes a part of me over time, just like grief.

A part of it is gratitude. During the terrible initial years after my daughter’s death, I focused on the comfort of my marriage, the joy of my family, the security of my home, the invisible strength to put one foot in front of the other. Putting on the hijab felt like a personal thank you from me to God.

A part of it is confidence. Compliments I received on my looks through my late teens and twenties eased the insecurities of my youth. Confronting my vanity by considering the hijab required an effort at self-examination I wasn’t prepared to make back then.

As I turn forty, purportedly the age when maturity is attained according to Islamic tradition, having birthed five children and buried one, I am grounded in a stronger sense of self-worth and hard-won confidence in my abilities and strength.

A part of it is identity. I spent nearly a decade pushing my Muslimness as far back as I could, cognizant of the scrutiny and prejudice I would attract in a post-9/11 environment. I skipped prayers when I was in public so no one would see me pray. I apologized when I declined a drink with colleagues, making weak excuses and joining them in their laughter as they cajoled me to try a little.  I wore attractive outfits when I went out on weekends with my girlfriends to attract admiration like they did.

Not wearing the hijab had been the easier thing to do.

But as Islamophobia continued when Obama was reviled by many for his supposedly Muslim faith, and grew stronger during Trump’s years of pushing the Muslim travel ban, I became tired of hiding an increasingly vital part of myself.

A part of it is rebellion. I chafe under the many labels and -isms society insists I pick sides with. An independent, outspoken Muslim woman with complex views and deep passions who is committed to her increasingly unpopular faith and who chooses to wear the hijab despite her husband’s discomfort feels like a deliberate, satisfying explosion of stifling societal expectations.

“Why don’t you wait?” my husband suggested another time.

Waiting won’t vanquish either of our discomfort at the idea of my wrapping a piece of cloth around my hair as a statement of my identity and faith. Waiting can’t dissolve the fears for our family’s safety, as Islamophobia proves to be a powerful political tool and its expression gains acceptance around the world.

Waiting for change never alters the status quo, an unfortunate reality for minorities and women globally.

A few months ago, after nearly a decade of conversations about the hijab, my husband surprised me. “You know,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of you covering your hair, but if it’s something you need to do, I’ll support you.”

Only I stand between myself and the hijab now.

Can I embrace a visible, constant reminder of the faith that has pulled me through life’s challenges but will confirm how deeply ‘other’ I am? Am I prepared for the possibility that I may one day have to fight for the right to enter an educational institution or work in a government role? Will the courage I need to take up the hijab spark a cycle of resilience and grit that builds a better version of me, or would it leave me weakened under the daily strain of forced smiles and clipped interactions? Can I bear the exhausting burden of everyday responsibilities the hijab comes with – to explain and justify my choice constantly to those who don’t agree with it and others who don’t understand it, to be infinitely patient with questions that often reveal people’s biases against me, to be the Muslim representative everyone would expect me to be?

The hijab is a piece of cloth, I try and tell myself.

But it’s not.

  1. Sandell Morse on

    I love this essay, so well written and passionate. I am an 84 year old Jewish woman and I understand the push pull of tradition in a patriarchal tradition. I also understand the mystery of ritual, the way it comforts without our knowing how or why. I will carry this essay in my heart.

  2. Linda A Lotz on

    Thank you for sharing so much of your. Faith and experiences here in the West and your home in Saudi Arabia. My Muslim women friends also experience negative looks too often. remembering how my grandmothers -of German and English backgrounds- alwayYswore a scarf or hat when they left their homes. I feel a need to remind fellow Americans to look T picture of Ellis Island with men and women wearing scarves or hats.

  3. Farah Habib on

    A great read. The narrator’s reasons for considering the hijab nuance the conversation around this topic. Feel like I need to share this with others.

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