I was once held captive behind the imaginary bars of a cage created by none but my very own sense of inferiority. The fog of self-defeatism and the anxiety of a weak self-esteem were far worse than the fear of being publicly frowned upon for wearing hijab.
My early encounter with a tacit disapproval of hijab and its subtle mockery by the so-called educated gentry around me gradually eroded the already vulnerable faith I had in the piece of clothing, which was supposed to mean, much more than the ‘modernist’ bias against it.
I inhabited a world of contrast between religious values and secular notions in which the former were constantly suppressed by the latter. My lack of knowledge about Islam and hatred to the false cultural practices often associated with religion reinforced the inferiority complex that was crippling me deep inside. I was in a continuous anxiety and constant anticipation for even a slightest validation of what I believed and practiced; hijab and Islam. At other times, my self-flagellation was manifested by a fluctuation between defensiveness and being overly apologetic.
Many Women’s Dilemma
Years later, having rediscovered the true teachings of Islam and reconnected myself, this time, with the genuine concept of hijab, I came to a painful realization that many Muslims today are suffering from the very same dilemma that I grappled with for years: a sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem. And this is not in spite of, but because of, their seemingly association with Islam in a world where religious values have no place. The more I observed and spoke with people around, the more convinced I became that this unfortunate phenomenon had deeply plagued the Muslim mind and therefore paralyzed many of its potentials.
When I first ditched the headscarf, the simplest way to describe hijab, I had a sense of temporary satisfaction for I believed I was entitled to freedom of choice. Nevertheless, it was a choice against my conscience, which at the same time was fighting, for its right; to be heard and understood. I swallowed the irony down my throat, thinking that the guilt was simply a phase that would go away. Despite knowing it was wrong, I could not resist the temptation of wanting to be glorified or at least, equally accepted by a so-called elite society I grew up with, in my early teen years.
Falling into the lure was made easier by the ‘subservient’ mentality and attitude I held towards the western lifestyle. Later on, I found out that many Muslim girls have a similar struggle; they want to do the right thing in many aspects of life, but the bombardment of contradicting values into their surroundings is so strong that they eventually have to admit defeat and join the crowd.
Some later revert, while some stay with their ‘choice’ of adopting an un-Islamic way of life, only to find themselves constantly battling with their inner voices and hoping that the uncomfortable sense of guilt will one day be brushed away.
Re-embracing hijab was only my first step. The next one was to find out why and how such crisis of the mind happened so that my Muslim sisters would not fall into the same trap.
A long quest and contemplation have led me to the main culprit, which is weakness of the ‘immune system’ within a Muslim as evidenced by ignorance or lack of knowledge and understanding about Islam. This flaw can be attributed either to an individual himself, to the false cultural practices of Muslim communities, or propaganda by the media which creates perpetual confusion.
While Muslims in the west face the challenge of proving themselves peaceful, law-abiding and civic-minded as to counter their questioned patriotism, the misconception equating Islam to terrorism and the Islamic hijab being a sign of women oppression and subjugation to men, Muslims in the other part of the world are psychologically crippled by a feeling of inferiority and hence the desperate need to identify themselves with the west emerges.
In third world countries, the western world and civilization is regarded as the epitome of success and human accomplishment and it seems to constitute an absolute benchmark for the rest of the world.
Craving for Social Acceptance
Many Muslims today are the product of a modern culture imported mainly from the west and an education system designed to accept and glorify western philosophies, cultures and achievements. The consequences of cultural invasion and a systematic, gradual domination of the mind are far-reaching and more malignant as compared to physical suppression because of their subliminal nature and ability to uphold a conqueror’s desire without force.
I attended different institutions where hijab was neither banned nor was it anathema. In fact, half or majority of the female students had the Islamic hijab physically visible on their bodies. There were unspoken rules however, which were all in line with western values, of how one should look and behave to acquire a certain status and approval. Those without hijab were extraordinarily aggrandized, ‘silently’ regarded as more beautiful and brilliant, and therefore universally more representable through their apparently positive image and portrayed self-confidence.
On the other hand, those who express their values through a visible hijab were subtly penalized mainly through neglect and inattention, or at times mockery. Labels like being conservative, traditional and even backward were not uncommon. Once there was a photography session for the university magazine, in the classroom. The photographer, who obviously was a Muslim, casually announced that female students without hijab and who were wearing ‘appropriate’, meaning western clothes should come forward to be in the front line.I attended different institutions where hijab was neither banned nor was it anathema.
In fact, half or majority of the female students had the Islamic hijab physically visible on their bodies. There were unspoken rules however, which were all in line with western values, of how one should look and behave to acquire a certain status and approval. Those without hijab were extraordinarily aggrandized, ‘silently’ regarded as more beautiful and brilliant, and therefore universally more representable through their apparently positive image and portrayed self-confidence.
I cringed at his words for they only reflected a self-defeatist attitude and a slave mentality, which constituted perhaps only the tip of the iceberg. His hidden message could not be clearer: those resembling westerners were more representable and would give a better image for the learning institution. The lecturers inside happily agreed and began dragging the so-called appropriate models to the front bench. The rest of the class, mainly comprising of hijabis and some of whom I personally knew to have been performing academically better, were mercilessly pushed to the back row, perhaps to make them less visible so as not to tarnish the university image!
Imagine how damaging such crime is to the psychology and self-esteem of young Muslims ladies who, at that point of life, are possibly struggling with the question of self-identity and craving for social acceptance.
We Are Part of the Problem
Inferiority complex within Muslim society is manifested in various facets. The most noticeable is the way Muslims desperately imitate an alien culture and lifestyle while despising, and being highly critical of Islamic teachings. The negative connotation attached to hijab is one example.
In Muslim-predominated countries, things can get very complicated and confusing because those who look down upon hijab and Islamic values are adherents of the very same faith. This group of people generally comes from the highly educated stratum, seems to live in constant denial and attempts to hide their inadequacy by impersonating western characters whom they deem superior and first-class. In this context, the abandonment of hijab has little to do with the idea of women subjugation rather it is purely an expression of subservience to the western taste and desperation of the weaker to emulate the stronger.
Another group of Muslims on the other hand communicate their sense of insecurity by way of being excessively sensitive or defensive when facing questions or challenges as regards to Islam. They perceive every inquiry, change or new idea as threat and thus vocally despise anyone who dares question a practice associated with Islam or contest a so-called Islamic idea, even when it is still unclear whether the subject matter is genuinely Islamic or merely cultural.
Fear of the unknown and unfounded phobia of anything western drives them to defend what they believe as sacred, usually scaring away the rest of the world. Hijab in this context is often interpreted in its most extreme and severe form with minimal compromise. Anything lesser is deemed evil and sin.
The third faction is overly apologetic while discussing Islamic teachings or when trying to explain this religion in the face of misconceptions. In doubt and hesitation, they attempt to find an impossible balance between appreciating what is clearly Islamic and meeting challengers’ expectations. The lack of confidence in Islamic teachings and external pressure make this group feel as if they owe the world an explanation and apology for doing something against the norm.
In reality, there is nothing to be sorry for. Showing remorse only reveals a deep-rooted inadequacy, thereby reinforcing the doubts and suspicion of adversaries.
At the end of the day, what humans yearn for are acknowledgement, approval and prominence. The Quran has revealed a verse, which deserves much contemplation: “Whoever desires honor, power and glory, to Allah (alone) belong all the honor, power and glory.” (Fatir: 10)
The human natural thirst for such qualities is beautifully acknowledged but Allah softly reminds us that only by following His path and faithfully identifying ourselves with Him alone, we will deserve the status and reputation that we so crave for. The opposite is nonetheless true; searching for honor and recognition from any other source than God and His teachings will only bring disappointment, disgrace and humiliation.
My experience with hijab- a detachment followed by a most humble moment of re-embracing it- has repeatedly reminded me that this unique feature of Muslim women is a huge honor. Being not merely about a piece of cloth on your head, hijab symbolizes the beautiful concept of grace and decency, which represents a state of humans being highly civilized and cultured.
It does not only elevate the status of women by spiritually embellishing their natural God-given physical elegance, but simultaneously sends a revolutionary message to mankind; by adopting modesty, women are to be treated with full respect far from either subjugation or bodily exploitation. They are on equal terms with men and so ought to be judged by their mind, personality, virtue and competency.
By practicing hijab, I now hold the pride of identifying myself with Islam and rejecting any sense of inferiority or the need for imitation to prove my self-worth or win anyone’s pleasure. Hijab and my faith in God have liberated my mind from the desperation of the ‘brown sahib’ mentality and all other sorts of psychological manipulation, and my heart from the perpetual anxiety that once imprisoned me.
First published: March 2014