Ok, so, I started to write about the etymological roots of the word “Allah”(God), but then I realized that not everyone is a word geek like me (I will probably come back to it thought because it is after all interesting and informative). So asked myself, “Self, what is the first question (and often the only question) people ask you about your religion?” Then self said, “Hijab!”
Whatever you call it—hijab, scarf, garb, head wrap, turban, and some more insulting things that I will not mention here—it is the first thing people notice. I am kinda tired of talking about it, explaining it, defending it. It is not the most important part of Islam or Iman (faith). But western attention focuses so much of what it knows about Islam on the way Muslim women choose to dress that it is important to continue to talk about, explain, and defend.
The day to day questions I receive from perfect strangers about my hijab can range from innocent to downright mean, but what all the questioning boils down to is: “Why do you wear that?” And my first thought of course is to give a smart-alecky response like: “Oh, I love to wear converse because they give me that I don’t give a crap look that I love so much.” But then I rein myself in—I know they are referring to the gorgeous accessory I use to cover my hair—and I respond by rote: “For Modesty”.
Two words. That’s all. It sums it up, but falls short.
If I gave the full answer/history/misconceptions to passing strangers, I fear I may be committed or burned at the stake :/ (In the small southern cities in which I have resided, Muslims are scarce. So, the lack of knowledge is understandable, but unfortunately xenophobia is rampant).
So let’s get down to brass tacks with my longer, but still short-ish explanation of hijab.
No! not another definition! Yes, kind reader, another definition.
Hijab [he JAB] (n)- 1. A piece of cloth that covers the hair and neck often accompanied by loose fitting clothes worn in public for modesty by some Muslim women. 2. a piece of cloth that reveals innocent enough ignorance sometimes accompanied by bigotry when worn in public.
Don’t be hatin’ on my perfect plum hijab, you just jealous.
To the western world the hijab that some Muslim women wear has a connotation of oppression, male-dominance, female silence, suffering, and subordination. You know- all the dark and shady things that have come to represent The East in The Western psyche.
*Point of contention/personal pet peeve: Islam is not an Eastern religion, sure it started in The East, just as Judaism and Christianity did, but it is absolutely a world religion. However, the hijab is normally tied up in the Western mind with all that is Eastern.
For most Muslims, the scarf and modest clothing represent strength, piety, confidence, a sense of self-worth, and a women’s right to demand respect from the opposite sex.
For me, when I first encountered Islam, I was of the Westerner thinking in regards to women dressing modestly, for no other reason than this was some kind of programming to which I had been subconsciously subjected.
However, as a young woman, I knew the crushing insecurity that came along with being put on display at all times; as a subject to be critiqued. I know I was expected to mold my appearance for unattainable approval. I became increasingly frustrated by the harassment and disrespect I received as an American woman dressed as a typical American woman. I was perceived as available, and was so rarely treated like a lady, no matter how I acted or what words I spoke. Sure, some women enjoy this kind of attention, but it was not for me.
Then I did something weird. I listened. I listened to a Muslim woman answer my very own question of “why do you wear that?” And the answer was so obvious and attuned to my own nature that I was shocked when she said, “So, that I can be recognized as a woman who is to be respected and not harassed, so that I can protect myself from the male gaze, so that I don’t have to be on displayed for all to see, instead I can share myself privately with whom I choose.”
When I found out what hijab was really about, I wanted to allow myself these rights. Some argue that women shouldn’t have to cover just to garner respect. I agree, but shouldn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t don’t exist in reality. We can’t wait for the world to be perfect. It isn’t and will never be because people aren’t perfect. All we can do it protect ourselves from the way things are. So, It took time and a lot of courage, but I finally started wearing hijab 11 years ago, and I LOVE allowing myself this protection.