DALLAS – Picture this – a fancy hotel and spa in the spectacular Texas Hill Country, beautiful people lounging by the fabulous resort-style pool, and, finally, a Muslim women hanging poolside in her full-body covering bathing suit.
One of these things is not like the others. Yet there I was, last summer, sporting my three-piece suit, hijab included, while I soaked up the sun and enjoyed myself like everyone else. And although the fun and relaxation were the best parts of the trip, there was one small yet significant experience which makes me smile when I think about it. And do you know what else? That experience had everything to do with what I was wearing.
“I love your suit.”
So said the lady lying out next to me when she caught sight of my getup. What’s more, she demanded to know where I’d purchased it and how much it cost. She said donning modest clothes at the pool – rather than the ubiquitous one- and two-piece bathing suits many women secretly loathe due to how much of their body is exposed – would be a welcome relief and would make her swimming experience much more comfortable.
You see, as a hijab-wearing woman, I’m accustomed to standing out and being a bit different from the rest, but I’m most certainly not used to people commenting positively about my clothing style.
To be fair, most people don’t have anything to say about what I wear, but I’ve gotten a few ugly comments to be sure. So when this woman singled me out to compliment me on my full-coverage bathing suit, especially in a moment in time when my clothing choice was in even more distinct contrast to those around me than usual, it was surprising to say the least.
But since then I’ve had a few more experiences which now lead me to believe that not everyone in the Western world is totally sold on the idea that a covered woman is somehow oppressed or put upon as a result of her Islamic faith. In fact, the uplifting comments I’ve gotten about my swimsuit or my hijab have had nothing to do with religion. Some women simply recognized the practical benefits of how I dress and appreciated them for what they are.
Case in point: I was recently rushing to pick up my children from my gym’s childcare facility. In my haste, I nearly missed the lady who was waving at me to get my attention. Confused but intrigued, I directed my attention to her.
“Where did you get your hijab?” she asked.
To be honest, I was caught so off guard that she even knew what my head covering was called and how to pronounce it correctly that I almost forgot to wonder why she would even ask. After all, this is not a run-of-the-mill question for me. If anyone ever asks about my hijab at all, it’s usually something along the lines of, “Is it weird wearing that thing on your head?”
So when this lady actually asked me how and where to find hijabs, I was struck. As it turns out, her friend was suffering from cancer and lost her hair as a result of her chemotherapy treatments. In her desire to help her sick friend, this woman had decided hijabs were the answer. As she explained, she often saw so many Muslim women with attractive scarves she figured she’d go to the source when it came time to look for one. As it turns out, I was the source and I was happy to help.
And again, the need for a hijab had nothing to do with religion; it would fill a practical purpose. Much the same thing happened when a woman I encountered at my neighborhood pool appreciated my swimsuit. Unlike the woman at the Texas resort, this particular lady wasn’t interested in the style for her own comfort, but rather for her health. She told me she suffered from skin cancer, but her traditional bathing suits and all the skin exposure that comes with them were keeping her out of the water and sun. She said she had considered buying a full-coverage bathing suit but was worried she’d seem out of place at a beach or public swimming pool.
However, she said when she observed me enjoying the water with no care for what others thought she was encouraged and asked about my suit. Once again, my modest Muslim styling had appealed to someone’s practicality and allowed them to look beyond the religious reasons behind my clothing.
I believe these three encounters were important for many reasons.
For one, they opened my eyes to the fact that not all women are aghast at what I wear every day, or what those clothing choices represent.
They also opened my eyes to a new way that Muslim and non-Muslim women can relate to each other in a very real, meaningful way.
Of course, I do not expect non-Muslims to don the hijab or even think it’s religiously necessary. But if someone can see practical, everyday wisdom in the style of dress in which Allah has commanded me to adhere to then that can only be for the good.