My understanding of Islam and my encounter with hijab (the Islamic dress code for women) are perhaps much different from others.
While many people first learn about hijab in various ways when they embrace Islam after being guided to the right path, I, however, have been a Muslim all my life.
Also, hijab was never something new to me as I had been brought up in a Muslim family and more or less a Muslim society in Malaysia.
Being raised in such a beautiful tropical country where the light of Islam have been shining ever since Arab traders first came to the land and captured the hearts of its people with their beautiful Islamic preaching, even before the first Portuguese man arrived to conquer the nation, I can say that most Muslims around me, no matter how ignorant, have had some sort of emotional attachment to Islam.
This went back along the historical route to the Muslim Sultans who were ruling some parts of the land and the many Islamic laws they introduced.
However, when the Portuguese, Dutch and British occupied the land, our ancestors were killed, enslaved, forced to accept completely alien life styles and value systems, and finally many were deprived of the guidance and harmony that Islam had brought to them.
Avoiding Tensions in My Early Years
Spending my early years of education at a private Islamic elementary school, many Islamic concepts were at tips of my fingers. I knew by heart almost all what was there in the Islamic subject syllabus and even started memorizing few chapters of the Qur’an since I was young.
Several years later I decided to move to a public school where non-Muslims and Muslims freely mixed. There, I had two best friends, a Christian catholic and a Hindu.
We were good friends. However, never did any of us bring up the subject of religion for fear of being insensitive and disrespectful to each other.
It was also here that I began to develop a sense of inferiority as a Muslim due to my lack of adequate knowledge and deep understanding of Islam. Veiled and pious students were perceived as ‘backward’ and ‘less intelligent’ among the students and sometimes even among the teachers.
Even though I had two best friends who were very kind and supportive, I tried as much as possible to avoid questions about Islam.
My perception of Islam was rather poor. This was because of the mentality and atmosphere of the society I was living in.
Despite the multi-racial and multi-religious nature of Malaysia, many of us were falsely led to believe that religion was something personal and that no one should talk openly about it, otherwise tension would occur.
Also, within the Muslim community itself, superstitious beliefs, racial obsession and conservative tendencies which had nothing to do with Islam were rampant.
These altogether gave me the impression that Islam and my adherence to it should be nothing more than merely practicing daily rituals.
I saw Islam only in masjid (mosque), on the prayer carpets, and in some other deeds like charity and listening to Islamic talks. Other than these, I did not see much of Islam in my surroundings.
During these times of confusion and intellectual destitution, I wore hijab, but honestly, it was mere blind obedience. The cultural sentiment supporting ‘a decent way of dressing’ was strong in our society so most girls feared being criticized.
Some, however, rebelled and took a totally opposite approach. I could say that even up to 70% of my Muslim friends wore hijab; probably less than half were doing it with proper Islamic understanding. And I, unfortunately, was simply following the crowd.
Obsessions… Taking Off the Veil!
After completing my elementary school education (with excellent results and I was the best student! How I wish I had pride in Islam and my hijab at that time!), I was offered a place in an elite boarding school. I became excited as I saw a bright future awaiting there.
The school was one of the best in Malaysia, and only students with excellent academic achievements were offered places. I eagerly accepted the offer, not knowing what was ahead of me…
My early years in the elite school were full of educational activities, fun, prestige and pride. My obsession and thirst for knowledge were fully satisfied, and I began mixing with Muslim students from different backgrounds, mostly rich and so-called ‘modern’.
Without realizing, I was brought into a world of material obsession, false pride, counterfeit self-esteem and arrogance. Conscience almost had no place in the ‘elite’ society and religious inclinations were considered taboo, outlawed and sometimes even became the laughingstock. Hijab was silently seen as ‘second-class’ and a sign of lowliness.
Peer pressure was immense and I did everything possible to fit in with the society and its trends. I knew I had to act ‘modern’ and ‘elite’ to be accepted, although deep inside, I could feel that there was something wrong with the way things were going.
Finally, I decided that my hijab was not so important anymore and I gradually took it off, though on certain occasions I tried to wear it.
Having left the hijab, my feelings were mixed. I felt free to some extent, and that I was no longer restricted to anything but on the other hand, continuous guilt overwhelmed me.
Without hijab, I began to feel vulnerable, unprotected and undignified, despite the fact that I was doing so well to fit in, and I was highly accepted by my friends.
Again and again, I pushed the feelings of guilt away from my mind as I tried to believe that I was simply going through a new phase in life, and that I would eventually get used to life without hijab.
… To be continued.
First published: May 2014