Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Benefits of Hijab: Scripted Sayings vs. The Reality

From the moment I decided to start wearing hijab, I, like many other Muslimahs, became the public face of Islam. I am asked hundreds of questions about Islam and/or Arab culture. I am expected to explain the history of the Israeli-Palestinian, conflicts in the Middle East and what every Muslim on the planet thinks about a given issue. As complicated as those questions may be there is one simple question which people never fail to ask- why do you wear hijab/the veil/”that thing on your head”/the scarf? After I provided an “official” answer about why I was wearing it- per the Quran, modesty, distinction as a Muslimah- I proceeded to highlight the benefits of wearing hijab. I would launch into a scripted but passionate explanation about all of the perks that go along with being a hijabi.

One day I listened to myself and I began to pick apart my own arguments with examples I’d seen in the Muslim community and in my own life. I was going on and on about the benefits of hijab but in the back of my mind I knew that my life was more complicated than I made it sound. If I’m honest I’d be forced to admit that subconsciously I was trying my hardest to make the life of a hijab-wearing Muslimah look appealing to non-Muslims (and even to non-hijabi sisters.) Somewhere along the lines I must’ve read an article or a book on hijab and decided the answers someone else provided were the best. Who knows, maybe I was trying to convince myself. So, what are some of the common answers I used to give? Let’s take a look.

Hijab protects me from the harassment of men. They do not look at me like a piece of meat or treat me like an object.

Believe it or not, there is some truth to this statement. On the average men do not hit on me when I’m out in public. They don’t whistle or make obscene gestures towards me. On the average they do not “hey baby” or ask me for my number. They either see the hijab as an off limits sign, don’t know how to approach someone like me or figure it’s too much work. However, I don’t think it’s true as a general statement to say that hijab makes me 100% exempt from the treatment other women receive while out in public. I think it depends on the situation and the person who's doing the approaching:

-I’ve been approached by non-Muslim men who pretend to be interested in learning about Islam so that they can get close to me or at least get my number.

-Even though I’m in hijab I’ve been solicited by men who are looking for prostitutes.

-I’ve come to the realization that some men have a fetish with Muslim women who wear the hijab and/or niqab. They wonder what's underneath all those clothes and apparently it turns them on. Non-Muslim relatives of mine have told me that sometimes men like things left to the imagination. A woman who is all “covered up” is seen as challenge.

-I’ve had Muslim men catcall me or try to get with me. (And I don’t think it was for the purpose of marriage). One time I was catching the bus to work and two Muslim men held up traffic as they tried to offer me a ride or at least get a telephone number. The fact that I was wearing an abaya didn’t seem to dissuade them in the least.

And then there's the Somali mall. If you ever been to the Twin Cities or lived there then you know, hijabs, niqabs, abayas, gloves or burkhas do not prevent a sister from being heckled, stared at or even touched sometimes...

When people (non-Muslims) see me in hijab, they will see a righteous, pious woman who is committed to God. They will be drawn to Islam as a result.

Hmm, I don’t know about that. From the studies I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had with people, it seems that when people look at us they think the following: She’s oppressed, she’s backwards, she doesn’t speak English, her husband/brother/uncle/father made her dress like that, she’s not very educated etc. Some people are repulsed or even afraid!

Not a lot of people look at us and automatically see a righteous woman who is consciously striving to please her Lord. In fact, people are surprised when I tell them that I chose to dress this way and that I am doing so to please God. They're shocked when they discover that I converted to Islam, don’t come from an “Islamic country”, have no Muslim family and made the choice to “dress like this.”

It seems like once people have had the chance to get to know me (and interact with me) only then do they start to think, Oh, she's a person who's striving to be religious. Whether they understand it or not is another matter...

The hijab forces people (esp. men) to move past the physical and to focus on my mind; my intellect.

In the right situation, yes. As I mentioned in the previous example, when it comes to non-Muslims, the majority of them are already convinced they know who we are. And one of the things they think is that we are not very educated (read: not very intelligent). Again, think about the surprise people express when they see a hijab-wearing Muslimah who is educated, articulate, and intelligent.

When it comes to Muslims (generally speaking of course), as much as we would like to believe this statement to be true, I have my doubts. I don’t think I need to discuss the sexism that exists in our community (check out the Muslim blogosphere.) Sisters are fighting to make their voices heard and for positions in key organizations. Sisters are tired of simply cooking for masjid functions or supporting the brothers. And we’re tired of being regulated to the back of the masjid to be heard from no more.

No, not all Muslim men are sexist. There are brothers who do appreciate us for our intellect. We thank them. Now it’s time for you to get out there and challenge the other brothers!

Muslim women wear hijab as a sign of modesty and purity. It is a symbol of their chastity and dignity.

Ideally yes. Realistically no. We all know that there are Muslim women who wear a scarf (and I say scarf deliberately rather than hijab) but have cleavage hanging out, painted on jeans, see through garments etc. The only thing they are hiding is their hair (or part of their hair). And believe me; I say this not as a judgment but rather as a statement of the facts. One day I was walking to work and as I approached the corner I saw three guys with their neck stretched out, looking at someone who was around the corner. I heard them saying, “Dayyum, look at all that ass!” Much to my surprise they were checking out a Muslim woman who was wearing a scarf but had on ultra-tight jeans with a fitted shirt. I try not to judge people- esp. women when it comes to wearing hijab- but I didn’t think those guys were looking at her and seeing a woman who is modest and pure; a symbol of chastity and Islamic dignity. (And I am not fully blaming her. I could write another blog about the objectification of women etc.)

The other thing is that there are women who wear hijab (and I do mean ‘proper hijab’- whatever that means to you) whose behavior does not reflect its purpose. The way I see it, hijab is more than just the clothing you put on, it’s also in the behavior, and how a woman carries herself. Unfortunately, there are hijabis who curse like sailors, hijabis who are loud and rude in public, hijabis who are flirtatious, and so on. A friend of mine once told me that she knew a non-Muslim guy who had a hijabi “girlfriend”. My friend was trying to explain the purpose of hijab, modesty etc. to him but he thought it was a joke. He told my friend when it came time to have sex with his “girlfriend” he just lifted up her skirt and “did his thing.” He’d never seen her hair but he was “getting it.” (And I say this not be crude but to be honest about what’s going on out there).

If iman is not cultivated but sisters are urged to wear hijab, what do you think will happen?

By wearing the hijab, I am freed from the body image issues that exist in American culture. As a hijabi, I don't need to worry about suffering from Bulimia or Anorexia or similar illnesses. Unlike non-Muslim women, I am not influenced by the media or society’s definitions of beauty.

WRONG! While I have not seen statistics on bulimia or anorexia in the Muslim community, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t practicing Muslimahs who suffer from either disease. The reason I say this is because I have been around Muslim women and have listened to them complain about their weight- even if they are slim. I’ve also know that in certain Muslim cultural communities the ideal woman is fair-skinned and skinny. What happens if a woman is neither?

Even though we are Muslim many of us are still subjected to the same messages about beauty that every other woman in society is subjected to. (i.e. we are taught to hate the way we are designed and to spend exorbitant amounts of money in order to change ourselves). Our men (Muslim men) are influenced by the larger society as well as we are. I know sisters who husbands have put pressure on them to lose weight so that they can fit into the American body ideal. (I personally experienced it in my previous marriage). It's not a secret that some Muslim brothers are looking for walking perfection in a hijab. True: I know a sister whose husband placed it in their marriage contract that she had to work out a certain number of days and do everything she can to maintain her weight. (Even after kids).

I think it’s rather foolish of us to think we won’t be influenced by our environment. Unless you’re living like the Amish, it’s going to be there. I think ideally we’re striving to get to a place where our main focus is developing internally (with less focus on the external). We’re trying to abide by the Islamic principles we read about and are exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) I just don’t think the majority of us are there yet. That includes me! Hence the outside influence.

I love hijab and I never regret the decision to wear it. I am so happy! I'll never take it off.

For some Muslimahs the aforementioned statement is true. However, I have to admit (and I know I'm not the only one) that I have my ups and downs. For the most part I absolutely love wearing hijab. It has become like a second skin to me and most of the time I could not fathom the thought of taking it off. Generally, I feel so feminine and so proud to represent Islam. Then there are days when my iman is not as high and though I still wear it, it's difficult. Sometimes I feel unattractive in it. I look at myself and I see a strange, foreign lady staring back at me. Those days are rough. I have to ask for Allah's assistance and do little things to lift my morale.

I'd also be lying if I said I never thought about taking it off. Especially in this post-9/11 world with the spike in hate crimes directed towards Muslims and the overall discrimination we face. The other day I was telling my husband that he does not feel the sting of racism and discrimination directed towards Muslims in the way that a woman wearing hijab does. Without a doubt, people KNOW I am Muslim when they look at me. By the same token, they don't know he's Muslim unless he tells them. They just see a Black guy with a beard who has a "funny name." From time to time, the staring, the rudeness, the stereotyping, and discrimination starts to get to me. But alhamdulillah, my saving grace has been that I remember the blessing that is involved. I rememeber the more difficult something is, the more reward you're getting for it.

But you have to know, it's difficult being the public face of Islam every single day. You have to be a really strong person. Among many other reasons, some sisters don't feel like they can do it anymore and they take their hijabs off. While I don't think they should give up so easily, I certainly understand. I pray, in time they will make the decision to try and it again- once and for all.

In Conclusion

I am not saying that some of the statements listed above are not true for some Muslimahs. And I am not suggesting that we air all of our dirty laundry to people when explaining the benefits of hijab. I just don't think it's good to try and sell a dream or to be deceptive in any way. And I feel like, in some respects, many of us are just regurgitating statements we've read and heard over the years without seriously thinking about what we are saying. I personally decided that I would tell people my reasons for wearing hijab but I would also share the complexities (and ups and downs) that come along with it. I'm all for being real and I think people respect you more for that.

Besides, the biggest benefit I've gotten from wearing hijab has nothing to do with other people or their understandings of Islam. The best and most important benefit is the closeness I feel to ALLAH by doing something he has commanded- no matter how difficult it is at times. That's enough for me.


Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

"I just don't think it's good to try and sell a dream or to be deceptive in any way." And that is why so many of us are writing and communicating now sister. Our intentions have to be on point. And though you may not know, brothers are facing similar issues themselves, even with dresscodes. They just haven't been open about it yet. But soon I'll talk about Muslim mens' insecurities too. Thanks for coming through the other day.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis:

I usually just tell people that God commanded us to cover in the Quran. Most people are satisfied with that answer.

Very nice post sister; you put a lot of thought and time into writing this piece. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


Good post..........I am with Sifiyyah I simply say God commanded us to wear it

Samira said...

Wonderful and honest post. You have such great insight!

Abdur-Rahman Muhammad said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Jamerican Muslimah,

You know it is a funny thing. Recently I've begun to re-examine so many of the little standard answers I used to have for these questions.

This piece is very honest and thoughful, not to mention elegantly written. Most appreciative.