One of the hardest aspects of Islam for many people to accept is that of hijab. This is even more true for a woman living in post-9/11 America.
But I was not one of those women. In fact, hijab was one aspect of Islam that attracted me in the first place. So much so, in fact, that I began wearing hijab –to a degree– when I was not even Muslim yet.
When I saw women covering their hair, it said “serenity” to me; it said, “This woman knows she is beautiful, and no one else needs to think so for her to feel that way.”
In stark contrast, I had lived my entire life obsessed with how I appeared to others—and namely, to men. So long as men found me desirable, this meant I was.
After a particularly trying time in my life, I decided that what I needed was to re-examine myself and my way of interacting with the world at large. Enter hijab, stage left.
As a Christian, I felt no need to dress modestly because my church never taught us it was important. “Sure, try to be good. But you will never succeed. We are sinful by nature. It’s your heart that God is interested in; your actions are your own business, and Jesus’ blood covers your sin”, they taught us.
But I recall that during times of intense spiritual nearness to God, I would feel inclined, for reasons I did not know then, to cover my head. This, I learned, is not a strange thing, but quite common. Consider the “prayer shawl” of some traditions within Christianity.
Later, I walked away from Christianity because attending Bible college opened my eyes to what the religion truly entailed, and it was not something I could swallow. That same year, I had gone to India as a missionary and came home completely unsure who I was or what I believed.
But one thing stuck with me: I felt most near to God when I sat alone, humbled, and covered.
When a World Religions 101 professor encouraged us to try a social experiment regarding religion, I decided I would wear “hijab”. Of course, I didn’t know the rules, so I just wrapped a shayla-type scarf (long rectangle of fabric, wrapped around and pinned) like I saw other women doing online, put on my t-shirt and jeans, and went to class.
When the experiment ended, I didn’t want to remove my hijab, but my friends were getting uncomfortable and pressured me to, so I did.
Fast-forward to August 2009 and I have officially converted to Islam. All the women I know are giving me their hand-me-down shalwar kameez and abayat. None of them fit me, tall and chunky as I am, but I try my best to squeeze in, my ankles showing and my curves, too.
Enter my husband, a sheikh from Al-Azhar, leading a masjid in Brooklyn and now suddenly I was expected to be at the pinnacle of hijabi status. No more colorful scarves, no more tight, ill-fitting clothes. Now it was all abayat and huge, square swaths of fabric folded into a triangle and pinned under the chin.
As the years went on and I become ever more zealous, as converts often do, my dress became even more severe. I began only wearing black hijab, having been falsely told that this was closer to piety.
By the time we moved to Egypt to be close to his family, I was already wearing niqab.
But one thing became more and more evident: I did not feel nearer to God the more I covered my body. I felt holier-than-thou, and I couldn’t breathe—literally.
The height of my suffocation came one hot, dry day in our village.
I had walked to the medina to buy some fool and falafel (boiled or fried fava beans) for breakfast and, as was the custom, the men at the stand gawked and laughed with one another about the amrikiyya (American) in the balad (village). One actually began following me after I bought my goods, calling after me, in Arabic, “YOU’RE NOT FROM HERE, ARE YOU? YOU’RE A FOREIGN BEAUTY, YES?”
I had had enough.
I decided that I would begin covering my eyes, too. It was my green-brown eyes that always gave me away, even when I didn’t speak. For weeks after this, I stumbled where I went, unable to see clearly, but happy that men were now too frightened of my wraith-like figure to attempt to speak to me.
My personality was finally erased. I had become what all the books my husband gave me told me I should be as a Muslimah: invisible, silent, gliding serene-like through the world, hiding my true nature until I was safe in the comfort of my home, windows tightly-shut, curtains drawn.
Some months later, I came back to America to give birth to my son, and I removed my niqab, happy that American men didn’t so much as smile at me, let alone try to flirt with me. But I still wore abayat only, and still wore dull, drab colors, so as to not cause attraction with bright, happy colors. When we returned to Egypt later, I maintained that style and tried to just ignore the men who pestered me.
When my divorce was final—Alhamdulillah—I came back to America a broken woman. I had lost my identity as the sheikh’s wife, and with that, I was finally free to dress how I saw fit.
I gave away all of my abayat and began wearing long, knee-length dresses over leggings, coupled with a muted but happy hijab and a weather-suited cardigan. Had I only pulled down my headscarf a bit, I would have blended in perfectly with the hipster fashion trend of baggy clothes and muted tones.
I could finally breathe again, in every sense. Gone were the days of feeling like a monkey on display to be gawked at, try as I may to wrap myself further and further away from non-mahram men. Sure, people still stared in my small town, but my clothing did not scream “Flirt with me, Muslim brother!” or “I’m a foreigner!”
It was a long road, and I am sure I will evolve even further down the road, but I am so grateful that I was able to allow myself to adapt to my true feelings. I have found a style of hijab that suits me without having to sacrifice my personality or culture.
While covering my body is important, to a degree, it’s not the most important thing in my life or in my relationship with God.
Now I am happy when people—and yes, even male people—smile at me. I smile right back, inviting them to Islam with the warmth my smile conveys.
I wear happy colors because my religion has given me peace and happiness. And because my eyes and my hands and my face are not fitnah. I am not fitnah.