By Saliha Nakito
When I returned to Islam, the religion of our inborn nature, a fierce debate raged about girls observing the hijab at schools in France. (Hijabmeans veil, not scarf. Hijab literally means screen, curtain, partition and concealment. As a verb, it means to conceal oneself or hide from the view. In Islamic Shari’ah, the word means to cover, conceal or hide oneself from the view of ghair-mahram.) It still does. The majority, it seemed, thought that wearing the head-scarf was contrary to the principle that public schools supported by the State should be neutral with regard to religion. Even as a non-Muslim, I could not understand why there was such a fuss over such a small thing as a scarf on a Muslim student’s head.
Muslims contributed a proportionate amount of tax to the state funds. In my opinion, schools could respect religious beliefs and practices of students as long as they did not disrupt the school routine, nor pose a threat to discipline. However, the French faced, apparently, increasing unemployment and they felt insecure about the immigration of Arab workers. The sight of the hijab in their towns and schools aggravated such insecurity.
More and more young people in Arab countries were (and are) wearing the hijab, despite the expectations of many Arabs and non-Arabs alike that it would disappear as Western secularism took root in Arab societies. Such a revival of Islamic practices is often regarded as an attempt by Muslims to restore their pride and identity; both undermined by colonialism. In Japan, it may be seen and understood as conservative traditionalism, or the result of anti-Western feeling, something which the Japanese themselves experienced following the first contact with Western culture during the Meiji era; they too reacted against a non-traditional lifestyle and Western dress.
There is a tendency for people to be conservative in their ways and to react against anything new and unfamiliar without taking the time to see if it is good or bad.
The feeling still persists amongst non-Muslims that Muslim women wear the hijab simply because they are slaves to tradition, so much so that it is seen as a symbol of oppression. Women’s liberation and independence is, so they believe, impossible unless they first remove the hijab.
Such naivete is shared by “Muslims” with little or no knowledge of Islam. Being so used to secularism and religious eclecticism, pick and mix, they are unable to comprehend that Islam is universal and eternal. This apart, women all over the world, non-Arabs are embracing Islam and wearing the hijab as a religious requirement, not a misdirected sense of “tradition”. I am but one example of such women. My hijab is not a part of my racial or traditional identity; it has no social or political significance; it is, purely and simply, my religious identity.
For non-Muslims, the hijab not only covers a woman’s hair, but also hides something, leaving than no access. They are being excluded from something which they have taken for granted in secular society.
I have worn the hijab since embracing Islam in Paris. The exact form of the hijab varies according to the country one is in, or the degree of the individual’s religious awareness. In France, I wore a simple scarf which matched my dress and perched lightly on my head so that it was almost fashionable! Now, in Saudi Arabia, I wear an all-covering black cape; not even my eyes are visible. Thus, I have experienced the hijabfrom its simplest to its most complete form.
What does the hijab mean to me? Although there have been many books and articles about the hijab, they always tend to be written from an outsider’s point of view; I hope this will allow me to explain what I can observe from the inside, so to speak.
When I decided to declare my Islam, I did not think whether I could pray five times a day or wear the hijab. Maybe I was scared that if I had given it serious thought I would have reached a negative conclusion, and that would affect my decision to become a Muslim. Until I visited the main mosque in Paris I had nothing to do with Islam; neither the prayers nor the hijab were familiar to me. In fact, both were unimaginable but my desire to be a Muslim was too strong (Alhamdulillah) for me to be overly concerned with what awaited me on the “other side” of my conversion.
The benefits of observing hijab became clear to me following a lecture at the mosque when I kept my scarf on even after leaving the building. The lecture had filled me with such a previously unknown spiritual satisfaction that I simply did not want to remove it. Because of the cold weather, I did not attract too much attention but I did feel different, somehow purified and protected; I felt as if I was in Allah’s I company. As a foreigner in Paris, I sometimes felt uneasy about being stared at by men. In my hijab all I went unnoticed, protected from impolite stares.
My hijab made me happy; it was both a sign of my obedience to Allah I and a manifestation of my faith. I did not need to utter beliefs, the hijab stated them clearly for all to see, especially fellow Muslims, and thus it helped to strengthen the bonds of sisterhood in Islam. Wearing the hijab soon became spontaneous, albeit purely voluntary. No human being could force me to wear it; if they had, perhaps I would have rebelled and rejected it. However, the first Islamic book I read used very moderate language in this respect, saying that “Allah recommends it (the hijab) strongly” and since Islam (as the word itself indicates) means we are to obey Allah’s I will; I accomplished my Islamic duties willingly and without difficulty, Alhamdulillah.
The hijab reminds people who see it that Allah I exist, and it serves as a constant reminder to me that I should conduct myself as a Muslim. Just as police officers are more professionally aware while in uniform, so I had a stronger sense of being a Muslim wearing my hijab.
Two weeks after my return to Islam, I went back to Japan for a family wedding and took the decision not to return to my studies in France; French literature had lost its appeal and the desire to study Arabic had replaced it. As a new Muslim with very little knowledge of Islam it was a big test for me to live in a small town in Japan completely isolated from Muslims. However, this isolation intensified my Islamic consciousness, and I knew that I was not alone as Allah I was with me. I had to abandon many of my clothes and with some help from a friend who knew dress-making, I made some trousers; similar to Pakistani dress. I was not bothered by the strange looks the people gave me!
After six months in Japan, my desire to study Arabic grew so much that I decided to go to Cairo, where I knew someone. None of my host family there spoke English (or Japanese) and the lady who took my hand to lead me into the house was covered from head to toe in black. Even her face was covered; although this is now familiar to me here in Riyadh. I remember being surprised at the time, recalling an incident in France when I had seen such dress and thought, “there is a woman enslaved by Arabic tradition, unaware of real Islam,” (which I believed, taught that covering the face was not a necessity but an ethnic tradition).
I wanted to tell the lady in Cairo that she was exaggerating her dress, that it was unnatural and abnormal. Instead, I was told that my self-made dress was not suitable to go out in, something I disagreed with since I understood that it satisfied the requirements for a Muslimah. So I bought some cloth and made a long dress, called khimar, which covered the loins and the arms completely. I was even ready to cover my face, something most of the sisters with whom I became acquainted did. They were, though, a small minority in Cairo.
Generally-speaking, young Egyptians, more or less fully Westernized, kept their distance from women wearing khimar and called them “the sisters”. Men treated us with respect and special politeness. Women wearing a khimar shared a sisterhood which lived up to the Prophet’s (Sallallahu`alaihi wasallam) saying that “a Muslim gives his salaam to the person he crosses in the street, whether he knows him or not”. The sisters were, it is probably true to say, more conscious of their faith than those who wear scarves for the sake of custom, rather than for the sake of Allah I.
Before becoming a Muslimah, my preference was for active pants-style clothes, not the more feminine skirt, but the long dress I wore in Cairo pleased me; I felt elegant and more relaxed.
In the Western sense, black is a favorite color for evening wear as it accentuates the beauty of the wearer. My new sisters were truly beautiful in their black khimar, and a light akin to saintliness shone from their faces. Indeed, they are not unlike Roman Catholic nuns, something I noticed particularly when I had occasion to visit Paris soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia. I was in the same Metro carriage as a nun and I smiled at our similarity of dress. Hers was the symbol of her devotion to God, as is that of a Muslimah. I often wonder why people say nothing about the veil of the Catholic nun but criticize vehemently the veil of a Muslimah, regarding it as a symbol of “terrorism” and “oppression”. I did not mind abandoning colorful clothes in favor of black; in fact, I had always had a sense of longing for the religious lifestyle of a nun even before becoming a Muslimah!
Nevertheless, I balked at the suggestion that I should wear my khimar back in Japan. I was angry at the sister’s lack of understanding: Islam commands us to cover our bodies, and as long as this is done, one may dress as desired. Every society has its own fashions and such long black clothes in Japan could make people think I am crazy, and reject Islam even before I could explain its teachings. Our argument revolved around this aspect.
After another six months in Cairo, however, I was so accustomed to my long dress that I started to think that I would wear it on my return to Japan. My concession was that I had some dresses made in light colors, and some white khimars, in the belief that they would be less shocking in Japan than the black variety.
I was right. The Japanese reacted rather well to my white khimars, and they seemed to be able to guess that I was of a religious persuasion. I heard one girl telling her friend that I was a Buddhist nun; how similar a Muslimah, a buddhist nun and a Christian nun are! Once, on a train, the elderly man next to me asked why I was dressed in such unusual fashion. When I explained that I was a Muslimah and that Islam commands women to cover their bodies so as not to trouble men who are weak and unable to resist temptation, he seemed impressed. When he left the train he thanked me and said that he would have liked more time to speak to me about Islam.
In this instance, the hijab prompted a discussion on Islam with a Japanese man who would not normally be accustomed to talking about religion. As in Cairo, the hijab acted as a means of identification between Muslims; I found myself on the way to a study circle wondering if I was on the right route when I saw a group of sisters wearing the hijab. We greeted each other with salaam and went on to the meeting together.
My father was worried when I went out in long sleeves and a head-cover even in the hottest weather, but I found that my hijab protected me from the sun. Indeed, it was I who also felt uneasy looking at my younger sister’s legs while she wore short pants. I have often been embarrassed, even before declaring Islam, by the sight of a woman’s bosoms and hips clearly outlined by tight, thin clothing. I felt as if l was seeing something secret. If such a sight embarrasses me, one of the same sexes it is not difficult to imagine the effect on men. In Islam, men and women are commanded to dress modestly and not be naked in public, even in all male or all female situations.
It is clear that what is acceptable to be bared in society varies according to societal or individual understanding. For example, in Japan fifty years ago it was considered vulgar to swim in a swimming suit but now bikinis are the norm. But in Islam we have no such problems; AllahI has defined what may and may not be hared, and we follow.
The way people walk around half naked (or almost so), excreting or making love in public, robs them of the sense of shame and reduces them to the status of animals. In Japan, women only wear makeup when they go out and have little regard for how they look at home. In Islam, a wife will try to look beautiful for her husband and her husband will try to look good for his wife. There is modesty even between husband and wife and this embellishes the relationship.
Muslims are accused of being over-sensitive about the human body but the degree of sexual harassment which occurs these days justifies modest dress. Just as a short skirt can send the signal that the wearer is available to men, so the hijab signals, loud and clear: “I am forbidden for you”.
The Holy Prophet (Sallallahu`alaihi wasallam)once asked his daughter Fatima radhiallahu anhaa, “What is the best for a woman?” And she replied: “Not to see men and not to be seen by them”. The Holy Prophet (Sallallahu`alaihi wasallam) was pleased and said: “You are truly my daughter”. This shows that it is preferable for a woman to stay at home and avoid contact with male strangers as much as possible. Observing the hijab, when one goes outside, has the same effect.
Having married, I left Japan for Saudi Arabia, where it is customary for the women to cover their face outdoors. I was impatient to try the niqab (face cover), and curious to know how it felt. Of course, non-Muslim women generally wear a black cloak, rather non-chalantly thrown over their shoulders but do not cover their faces. Non-Saudi Muslim women also often keep their faces uncovered.
Once accustomed to, the niqab is certainly not inconvenient. In fact, I felt like the owner of a secret masterpiece, a treasure which you can neither know about, nor see. Whereas non-Muslims may think they are life imitating caricatures when they see Muslim couples walk in the streets, the oppressed, and the oppressor, the possessed, and the possessor, the reality is that the women feel like queens being led by servants.
My first niqab left my eyes uncovered. But in winter I wore a fine eye covering as well. All the feelings of un-ease when a man’s eyes met mine disappeared; as with sun glasses, the visual intrusion of strangers was prevented.
It is an error of judgment to think that a Muslim woman covers herself because she is a private possession of her husband. In fact, she preserves her dignity and refuses to be possessed by strangers. It is non-Muslim and “liberated” Muslim women who are to be pitied for displaying their private self for all to see.
Observing the hijab from outside, it is impossible to see what it hides. The gap, between being outside and looking in, and being inside and looking out, explains in part the void in the understanding of Islam. An outsider may see Islam as restricting Muslims. Inside, however, there is peace, freedom, and joy, which those who experience it have never known before. Practicing Muslims, whether those born in Muslim families or those returned to Islam, choose Islam rather than the illusory freedom of secular life. If it oppresses women, why are so many well-educated young women in Europe, America, Japan, Australia, indeed all over the world, abandoning “liberty” and “independence” and embracing Islam?
A person blinded by prejudice may not see it, but a woman in hijab is as brightly beautiful as an angel, full of self-confidence, serenity, and dignity. No signs of oppression scar her face. “For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts within the bosoms, that grow blind,” says the Qur’an (Al-Hajj 22:46). How else can we explain the great gap in understanding between us and such people?
(published with permissions from Al-Madinah magazine, Vol 04 Issue 04)