I was forced to defend the Hijab, and it was only then that I felt I understood the true significance and beauty of the philosophy that I was subscribing myself to. I grew increasingly confident, more self-assured. For the first time in my life I felt that I was being taken for who I am, my abilities and talents – the person within.
Growing up in the “secular” society of the United Arab Emirates, there was usually no concept of Hijab. The little that did exist was solely for cultural purposes. The local girls adorned themselves with beautiful and transparent sheilas, through which one could easily make out the effort and time that went into the complicated hair styles. Naturally, it would also help to attract the right sort of men, from the right sort of families.
The importance of prayers, fasting and other pillars of Islam had always been stressed upon during my upbringing, but the ideology of Hijab was somewhat lost. I remember thinking to myself during many nights in Muharram, why was the Hijab so important to the household of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? No one in my family wore it but we were all fine and happy. “Who will marry this poor girl? The mother should’ve been a little responsible” was a discussion that once ensued from my family members after distant relatives had come to visit, whose women all observed Hijab. Yet as much as it was denounced by members of my own family, there was this attraction I felt towards the Hijab that I still perhaps cannot explain. I couldn’t help but marvel at the innocence that poured from those who wore it.
While that visit by the Mohajjabah relatives (as we had come to acknowledge them!) was still fresh in my mind, a weekend religious school opened its doors to the children of the Shi’a community of Abu Dhabi. It was just two hours, twice a week, and my Mum had me along with my two younger sisters enrolled at once.
It was a different world in there. My teachers all wore beautiful scarves that covered their entire head, ears and neck. They walked around gracefully in their long coats, abayas and chadors – self-assured, self-righteous and so confident. I was never judged or reprimanded for not covering my hair and we had open discussions about the practicality, limitations, pros and cons of wearing the Hijab in today’s modern and overly Westernized society.
A change had soon begun to take place. I remember huddling together with my sisters at night talking about Hijab when Mum thought we were asleep. It usually came down to, “Yeah, we’ll wear it someday… when Mum allows us.” By that time, my Mum was a full-time Hijabi, yet why she chose for her daughters not to do the same came down to one word: society. There was the all-important issue that surfaced each time the issue of Hijab propped up: No one marries a girl who isn’t beautiful, and you don’t look half as beautiful in a scarf as you do without it.
The defining moment came soon after this, as I sat at a restaurant table with family, bored as always with the adults talking about things a child has no concern for. And then I saw it. A woman with long, silky, beautiful hair, like that seen in shampoo ads, walked up the counter as the gazes of the men nearby followed her from one end of the restaurant to the other. I felt her discomfort from where I was sitting, and it was then that something clicked. It may have been coincidence, or something that was bound to happen as a result of attending the weekend religious school, or perhaps a bit of both. But I felt Divine intervention and to this day I wonder if things would have followed the course my life has taken had this not happened. When we got back home I picked up my Mum’s scarf, my hands quivering with excitement and uncertainty – yet I felt fully resolute that I had to do this. And just like that, I put it on, walked up to my Mum and said “I’m doing this.” To my surprise she was extremely supportive, and my sisters joined in as well!
Things didn’t get much easier once I joined the “Mohajjabah Club”, although school was somewhat less of an obstacle as I went to an all-girls school. As much as I wanted to wear the Hijab, I cannot deny feeling a little embarrassed about appearing different. At that time I did not even know how to wear the scarf properly! Usually the scarf would go in one direction and I’d be going the other; it was a struggle. At the same time I was experiencing the natural changes a girl goes through at the age of thirteen, and was very insecure about my self-image. I was tall, wore a big pair of round glasses and thick silver braces and quite uncomfortable with the whole idea. I knew I wanted to do this, but I just wasn’t looking as graceful as any of my teachers and others I had seen, and not at all like the women on Al-Manar! I would take off the scarf on major family events like at weddings. At parties too, I would go in wearing the scarf but somewhere in the midst of the enjoyment, it would disappear. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and the acute sense of guilt was undeniably there.
A tiny voice inside my head would constantly nag me, making me feel even more uncomfortable and inadequate. I wanted to look good, and the Hijab wasn’t helping, but somehow I didn’t look or feel any better without it. Instead I felt more insecure and self-conscious.
My extended family was not much help either. We were labeled as extremists by most, who would claim “Hijab is of the mind” as “Islam cannot be so oppressive.” I used to get extremely emotional with these kinds of remarks thrown at me as I knew the Hijab was not oppressive. It was liberating and had become my gateway to freedom.
I was forced to defend the Hijab, and it was only then that I felt I understood the true significance and beauty of the philosophy that I was subscribing myself to. I grew increasingly confident, more self-assured. For the first time in my life I felt that I was being taken for who I am, my abilities and talents – the person within. With this new-found self-confidence, I began to take part in social and communal activities without shying away from offering all that I could. I did not even notice that by doing this alone I was in some way showing my community that the Hijab is not a hindrance and that one can do everything alongside it, if not more.
Over the years I saw a transformation within my family and community as a whole. Alhamdulillah – and I say it with immense pride today – there isn’t a single girl in my family who does not wear the Hijab. A Hijabi is no longer looked down upon as being someone who has given up great opportunities in life to live in confinement and oppression.
By the grace of Allah, I was fortunate enough to find a life partner who appreciates and values the Hijab I wear. I don’t know what I would have done had he been the opposite, as it takes great faith, resolve and will-power to struggle against one you recognize as your partner in life.
My wedding created somewhat of an uproar in my community. We decided I would be a Hijabi bride; although the event was segregated, we knew that there will be people who would take pictures from their mobiles, and uncles, brothers and husbands may come and go for various reasons. I wasn’t going to risk my Hijab on what was to be one of the most important days of my life. I wanted my wedding to be like the one you dream of – one which is blessed by Lady Fatima Zahra (peace be upon her), attended by the Imam and with Allah’s countless blessings showered from the heavens upon the bride and groom.
“This is your wedding day!” “You could just not wear the scarf on this special day and just look pretty.” These were some of the comments I received on my wedding day. But with my Hijab I did feel pretty, and I did feel like a princess. I knew I looked beautiful and I enjoyed the milestone the way I wanted to. It also set a precedence amongst the girls in my community, as one wedding after another, there were Hijabi brides who wanted to ensure they did it right on the first day of their new lives. It rings true, you take one step towards Allah and He takes a thousand steps towards you, making everything so much easier.
Kaneez Fatima is a graduate of London School of Economics, from where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Business. She is currently working with PressTV and is a student of Islamic philosophy in Tehran.