Wednesday, December 18

My Hijab Post, Attempt 1

There is something about writing honestly that is especially terrifying for commitment-phobes. It's as if your messy room/closet (and how okay you are with the strange organization you find in your own messiness) is broadcast to the world, irreversibly. The incoherence, the lack of organization or tangible progress--all of it becomes real when we share what we really think. Writing about one's own spiritual journey (and its dynamic manifestations) can be exponentially more difficult than writing about race-relations in the US or explaining why you would campaign for a candidate who contradicts many of your core values. But some conversations--even internal ones--need to be written if for no other reason than to examine where we are today.

Browse the interwebz, and you will find posts similar to the one I am writing here. Most recently, I came across, "I am not a hijabi." The author wrote that entry seemingly without censorship, and overall, to me, it felt like a collage of emotions, realizations, social commentary, disclaimers, and pleas--nearly all of which I recognize in myself. But it did not, nor did it attempt to, write my "hijab post" for me. We write for ourselves.


I assume my spiritual journey began before I was even born. Sure that may be in the creation of humanity in some primordial, pre-universe "moment." It could be upon God Willing humanity into existence (the moment, if there was a single moment, of, "'Be!' and it is."/"كُن فَيَكُونُ").

I can also trace my path back to those of my grandparents--the choices they made. For instance, I know my paternal grandfather was a progressive Muslim for his time. Under British colonial rule (until 1947), South Asian Muslims struggled to advance economically and in society in general, treated as less than second class subjects. My grandfather became the first Muslim to graduate from an engineering university from his area, and his own spiritual journey led him to learn Farsi--the dominant language of Muslim scholarly work available to him at that time. Educating women was far from a priority then. My grandfather drew criticism from his peers for insisting that his two daughters (both of my aunts) pursue education, disregarding gender in this matter. To this day, that choice--his persistence during those years as his daughters grew older--to keep all of his five children in school, transferring to better schools whenever possible, through colleges/universities, despite his own economic hardships, factors into where I would be born more than half a century later.

My maternal grandparents made their own defining choices as well. Colonialism spared no one. My maternal grandfather was a social worker and teacher who eventually worked for the UN in the late 1960's...which got him kidnapped. This was after South Asia rid itself of the British; however, the region my grandparents lived in was called, "East Pakistan." Another form of colonialism evolved for Bengalis under Pakistani government. As the situation escalated towards full out war--and the independence of what is, today, Bangladesh--my maternal grandfather was kidnapped and taken to [West] Pakistan. A few days later, my grandmother, mom, and her three siblings were also taken to one of the internment camps near my grandfather. I only recently realized that all of my mom's "camp stories" were actually about internment camps and not the marshmallow roasting kind. In "camp," uncertainty permeated every moment of their lives. Yet the hundreds of families in those camps decided to create makeshift schools, continuing education for their children despite not knowing what could happen before the end of each day. Many families attempted to escape the camps, risking their own lives as well as those of their young children, to return to Bangladesh. Similar to American history's "Underground Railroad" out of slavery, these escapes are harrowing tales that often did not end well. One of the most emotional stories my grandmother has shared with me is her decision to not attempt that escape. She focused on the safety of her young daughters--my mom and her older sister. This decision, and those in the camps, also factor into where I would be born.

And where I was born does matter, today. While Islam is not limited by geography, being non-Arab and Muslim is relevant. Being born in a land that fought away from Pakistan--which literally means, "Land of the Pure"--the same Pakistan that was intended to be an official "Islamic State," is relevant. Being an American who was born in a land of "The Other" is relevant. All of these factors affect my spiritual journey, to degrees I am still realizing. Colonialism and other variations of power-oppression realities, their pervasiveness, is relevant in my investigation of what "hijab" is, should be, or could be, for me.


My mom started covering her hair for her religious beliefs when we lived in California in the early 90's. "Hijab," was still not a word in my vocabulary. Culturally, South Asian Muslims cover their hair out of respect--including to show respect to an elderly woman (grandmothers). The genders of the people to whom you are visible is not very significant. This was what I had observed growing up between SoCal Bengali dinner parties and trips back to visit family in Bangladesh. We also cover our heads upon hearing The Call to Prayer (adhan) out of respect/remembrance--sort of like "taking moments of silence to remember..." And we usually cover in order to participate in community activities at masajid (mosques/Islamic centers). These are rituals of culture. I followed them, thoughtlessly, including to cover my hair with an urna (sash/dupatta) matching my salwar-camises to Sunday school in Orange County.

My mom underwent her own religious awakening in those years and decided to try to force me to cover my hair on my first day to sixth grade, in a public school. Islam and culture were indistinguishable to my young mind. I appreciated neither, but I was too docile to articulate my objection. So on Day 1, with an elaborately-laced, cream-colored scarf tied around my head into a knot below my chin, I stood in front of my new middle school waving at my mom as she walked away. When I was sure she had left, I found the nearest place to purchase snacks. I bought a giant Hi-C drink, and I spilled it all over the scarf I had taken off. This would be my excuse when I came home after school, head uncovered. I had planned it.

My mom saw right through my flimsy excuse, and we had a very contentious argument about what I still had not heard was called, "hijab." I think my dad had intervened on my behalf that night. I don't recall much of what was said by anyone, except that I admitted that I just didn't want to cover my hair. I was just comfortable with my English enough to try to make friends instead of being the quiet South Asian girl good with math. Culture, religion, etc., were clear obstacles to my being able to feel normal. I would still be the first girl to memorize and recite assigned verses of Qur'an in Sunday school; I would still cover my hair in "cultural/religious spaces;" I would still keep an extra sweater in my backpack through sixth grade to put on right before walking through the front door on days the Pakistani "maulavi" (Qur'an teacher, basically), whom my parents hired to tutor me and my younger brother twice a week, would be found waiting in our living room. I did the rituals, with quiet reluctance.

The way my dad taught me about Islam I still juxtapose against my mom's approach to this day. My dad taught me (since before I can actually remember) that Islam is natural. Years later, I would learn about the fitrah, or instinct/nature. He taught me that each creation has a natural compass with which Islam can be seamless. I didn't put much thought into this lesson back then. I was still trying to speak "American enough." I didn't believe I'd ever look the part (and I certainly did not "look American"). With all the classes we take in our K-12 education, none--even in diverse Southern California--teach immigrant children how to adjust to their new statuses as minorities, as "The Other."


In sixth grade, I'd spend weekends rollerblading under the California sun. In seventh grade, I found myself in South Dakota. My family had moved. Any social/personal/developmental progress my 11 year-old self thought I had made crumbled to nothing. If I thought I knew what it was like to be a minority before, I was proven wrong in the northern Midwest.

But by the time I turned 13, I had learned to appreciate people--whatever they offered--regardless of how different I was from them. Living in the Black Hills of South Dakota changed me. I think there, I began thinking more about this fitrah business. God Knows I had the time.

In eighth grade, I decided I wanted to do something for God. Something out of gratitude, for showing me things I was not aware of before. Things like the color green. Or the kindness in a stranger's smile. I had become aware of being alive through these previously invisible details. I had to show some kind of gratitude.

My mom was still covering her hair. I decided I'd do this hair covering business, and maybe God would understand my intention was solely to convey this deeply felt gratitude towards Him.

There was no thought of gender, religiosity, culture, or Qur'annical support for my choice. As far as I knew at that time, there was no word for it. I just felt like doing something, and I did it. And the last two weeks of eighth grade became my first days of trying to explain this choice to my peers--my first audience.


I was 15 years old, a junior in high school, when we watched the Twin Towers fall, on the classroom TV screens. September 11th, 2001, is a day that marks a pivotal point in the lives of most people--and I have yet to meet a Muslim in this country whose life was not redefined from that day forward. All Muslims, through guilt-by-association, found themselves in false positions of authority, to explain terrorist attacks carried out by people we knew as little about as our non-Muslim classmates.

It was on that small TV screen on that day that I first saw teenage Muslim women with their heads wrapped in scarves, reasonably upset and speaking somewhat incoherently in their New Yorker accents. I never seemed to have noticed "hijabies" in the seven years we lived in California. There weren't any where I lived in South Dakota. I had spent almost three years defining my head-covering choice as I wished to my peers, educators, and neighbors. And suddenly all of my definitions were put on trial.

I started using the internet to learn more about other Muslims in America from seeing their images on TV. This is how I learned the word, "hijabi." It would seem like I was one of them. Or so I had decided then.


I was 17 years old when I walked on to the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate student. I still remember the first "hijabi" I met. We remain Facebook friends, though our lives have changed a great deal since that first greeting of, "Salam," in 2003. Through her, I found my first Muslim community as a "hijabi."

What happened in the years I was in Minneapolis, learning to navigate the Muslim communities, cliques, and other groups, is still difficult for me to sort. I remember diving in headfirst, feeling inspired to attend as many halaqas (study circles, kind of the Muslim version of Bible study groups?) as possible. At some point, some friends and I called it, "halaqa-hopping," (like "club-hopping") when we attended more than one per night. All of them were led by Muslims older than ourselves. Honestly, it's hard for me to remember much of the details today because I intentionally blocked out so much of those memories in the past few years. It seems a haze of fiqh (jurisprudence) classes, classical Arabic grammar rules, all-nighters of standing in prayer on Saturday nights at masajid, even when Ramadan was months away.

In that time, I somewhat unconsciously became more Arabized. I've realized this in hindsight, and it's just bizarre to still examine. It could be my close friendships with other Muslim women my age who happened to be of some Arab decent, that just spilled from learning about their cultures into becoming more like them. I don't know exactly when I forgot that I was South Asian. And this realization I still find disturbing. It has nothing to do with the friendships I continue to value with the same people. They did not Arabize me. I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but I know it involved choices on my part.


The problem with--the most disturbing aspect of--whoever I had become in forgetting my own South Asian background was the fact that I had begun placing Arab cultural practices above those of my own, in the name of Islam. And because most of my closest friends were Arab Americans, or were South Asian Americans who were doing what I was doing, no one was there to course-correct (or even point out what I was, in fact, doing). I was insulated in groupthink in a way that seems almost comical now. That scarf that was once knotted beneath my chin, a label-less personal act of spirituality, had become decorative hijab pins coordinated with shapeless abayas. I let my pre-Minneapolis nose piercing (a South Asian practice) close to conform to Arab understanding of Islam. I even stopped doing my eyebrows (I'm cringing as I write this) to conform. Zabiha-only diet, anasheed over all other forms of music, no eye-contact with men--I conformed to what my new community seemed to have approved as Islam. I attempted to follow every rule I came across...and in this way, I drifted farther away from that concept of fitrah. During these years, I did not question the belief that "hijab," as interpreted to me by others, was canonically mandated as an article of faith in Islam.

Even though my parents first taught me to read Arabic at age 3, even though I was raised by generations of progressives focused on education, I was still letting other people think for me--and thus, define me.


But "hijab liberates women." Right? Or so I had explained thousands of times.


Trips to Middle Eastern countries reminded me that I was very much not Arab. Seeing the way non-Arabs, particularly South Asians, and most particularly, Bangladeshis, were [and still are] being treated contributed to my wondering what I thought I knew, exactly. I had to question my assumptions. What am I really a manifestation of?

Trips back to the Black Hills of South Dakota reminded me, increasingly, that something was just not right. When the details that inspired me--all the colors, the beauty I found in the universe and human beings--seemed less important than whether or not I was portraying Islam properly to a non-Muslim audience, I knew something needed to be fixed.


Somewhere along the way, I had become a mascot. I was not liberated--this "hijab" increasingly became a symbol of a self-made prison cell, and that's what I started seeing every time I passed by a mirror. Being "hijabi" felt like a sentence I had to live out--a burden I had to bear so long as there was an audience watching.

This audience was [and still is] diverse. It is comprised of people who identify with many and no religion(s). It is people to whom I am related, and it is strangers in grocery store aisles. It is anyone whom I perceive to have expectations of me, who may ask me to explain why I appear the way I do, or why I don't appear the way they expect me to appear. This audience is the entire world. And I've learned that as crazy as it sounds, I am not the first person to talk about this perceived audience--because I am not the only Muslim woman who has felt this mascotdom overtake her life.


During my growing internal realizations, I continued to listen to women argue for and against hijab. And less often--mostly because I couldn't take it seriously--I even listened to men debate hijab. These conversations were typically heated, from every topic like "the threat of secularization" to "the zealousness of the Salafists." Everybody seemed to have a superior understanding of my head covering.

I think I was afraid to join the conversation. I was afraid of the label, "feminist," being hurled at me--by Muslim men and women, alike. And when my thoughts were even less sorted than they are today, I knew there would be no going back once I began to express what I was thinking/feeling.


Today, I know that the first feminist I ever met was my dad. At this point, if on this very evening, Patriarchy manifested as a house, my dad would burn it to the ground...and he'd check the ashes to make sure none of it survived. He understood patriarchy before and better than I did. He had seen it before my birth, in South Asia and northern Africa, in society and in family. He saw the struggles of divorced Muslim women in patriarchy up close. And he knew he didn't want to raise his daughter trapped inside of such a monster.

Today, my dad and I watch Melissa Harris Perry on Saturday mornings together and talk about legislative threats to women's reproductive rights in the United States. My dad is one of the most Pro-Choice people I know. And from him, just this year, I learned about his father's progressive choices to educate my dad's sisters all those decades ago.


Liberation cannot be achieved completely, in my mind. It is a goal to aim towards--and the progress along the way defines our lives. Liberation can neither be contained within, nor threatened by imposition of, a piece of cloth.

A woman who covers to exercise control over how her body is regarded can be doing so to liberate herself in a hyper-sexualized world that objectifies human bodies and disregards the soul within. Her liberation can be facilitated with any color or length of fabric, regardless of whether or not she wants to call it, "hijab" (let alone if other Muslims "approve" of what she believes is "hijab").

But despite her agency--the fact that she is the one choosing her manifestation--is she not still bound to the gaze of others? Does covering around non-mahram males liberate you from the male-gaze or is it a way to accommodate the male-gaze (thus enabling it)?

In most of the world, Muslim women have a choice to cover or not cover. In places where how Muslim women can or cannot dress is encoded into law (Saudi Arabia and France both actually do this, as well as an increasing number of other nations), going against such laws will likely be more liberating than abiding by them.

Liberation manifests differently (putting on more layers, taking off layers) in different parts of the world. And liberation manifests differently in different people. We all have perceived laws we are trying to break in order to actualize our senses of agency. Who would not say that they are, "raging against the machine," or "fighting The Man," in some personal way? Every person has a custom mountain range of struggles.

So is it possible that being "hijabi" actually has little to do with Liberation?
I write this as a question because I am actually still wondering.


I initially did not start covering my hair because of some belief that it was mandatory. I did believe it was a mandate for a few years (those undergrad years). And then I started to step back and wonder if the generations of Muslims interpreting hijab as a mandate (scholars and non-scholars, men and women) were too embedded in patriarchal societies. Have generations of patriarchal thought biased interpretations of Islam? Of what is often defined as, "hijab?"

If I recall how this works, what I just expressed above, to many Muslims, will exude only arrogance and ignorance on my part. What does she know? Is she a scholar? Does she even know who the scholars of Islam were and the discipline within which their interpretations were made? Basically, do I have the authority to question authority?

These are the thoughts that keep me and like-minded Muslims from writing blog posts like this one at all. There is an immediate invalidation response that steamrolls over the prospect of individual thought. So obviously I'm not about to walk into a masjid and participate in a discussion about hijab, despite having worn it for 15 years of my life in a variety of demographic scenarios. Most Muslims today, from my observation, are not ready for an honest discussion when we still glorify certain scholars as The Scholars of Islam. Nevermind that it may be somewhat bid'ah (a word I learned from those same Muslims) and somewhat verging on shirk (straying from monotheism).

Somehow, the Muslims demanding "daleel" (evidence) for anything you may have to say get to negate your actual experiences. It doesn't bode well when a man asks for evidence or the source of my authority when I am describing my observations having worn (defended, explained, contemplated) the very hijab he believes is mandated upon me. And I have almost always not had the time and energy to explain all the fallacies of the very situation. And with some Muslim women, the "discussion" does not go any better; it comes down to (in)validating experiences (hers negating mine, etc.) or the same, "But where is your daleel? ARE YOU A SCHOLAR?!"

Discussing hijab is #TheWorst. Just wear it. Don't talk about it unless you want to be torn to pieces by other Muslims. This is what I've gathered so far. And quite frankly, I didn't know I was signing up for this when I chose to cover my head as an eighth grader in South Dakota.


Today, I look at a world with a history of power struggles. Is there an inch of this place that has not been colonized to subjugate a people? I look at my languages, my food, my behaviors, and, yes, my clothes, and wonder how pervasive colonization has truly been.

The past few years, my reading has focused on Islam spreading to South Asia and the role of patriarchy. I've been trying to understand what the region was like before Islam was introduced. Did women cover their heads with the aanchal of their saris? If they did, why? Was it to specifically address the male-gaze, or was it about socioeconomic class/status? How was modesty encoded into the culture prior to Islam? Is there really such a thing as "prior to Islam" if Islam is as innate as the fitrah? If all humans have always had this fitrah, how do indigenous cultures embody Islam? What are their norms of gender roles and definitions of modest behavior? Do those norms/definitions dictate dress?

We can probably assume that women have been second-class citizens throughout the world for thousands of years. We know that Islam was used in the Arabian Peninsula to stop female infanticide and give women property rights and the right to divorce--things Europe would not see until only a few centuries ago. Islam was the most progressive ideology when the Qur'an was Revealed to Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him). He was an outspoken advocate for women's rights for his time. And most Muslims I've met identifying themselves as progressives, like me, believe he was one of (if not the) greatest feminist to humanity. Islam was feminism back then. Most Muslim progressives believe that we, as Muslim generations since, have failed to keep carrying that torch into modern times.


All of the above seemingly unrelated topics factor into whether or not I cover my hair before leaving home (or Skyping, videochatting on Google, etc.). It is never a simple choice. My closest friends today know that I haven't committed to "hijabing for life" anymore than "officially de-hijabing." I'm not sure such a decision is even possible on my part. The implications of either (and what is between them) seem to increase in quantity every day; there seem to be no "conclusions" to derive. Maybe with agency--a version of liberation--comes the burden of having to make choices, every time. I know I have strayed far from the simple choice I made that first time all those years ago, before nuance seemed to exist at all for me. But maybe being more aware of my choices is a way to return to the fitrah-centered Islam that I once found.


May The Lord of all the worlds Guide us all, with Mercy and Compassion.
He is The Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.


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EA said...

After all of these years, you are still going strong. Good for you. You are still fondly thought of in my heart.