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essay | 4.24.17
For many white American Muslim women who’ve chosen to wear the hijab, their skin color becomes insignificant – no small thing in a country where race plays a major role in how we interact with each other. I didn’t start wearing the hijab until halfway through my pregnancy in 2015, and that’s when people stopped asking me where my family was from. I was always assumed to be Greek or Italian, or even, sometimes, Native American. However, once the hijab was pinned over my ear, people didn’t care to know anymore. Instead, they asked:
Why do you wear that on your head?
Believe me, it’s not the question that stuns me. I’ve had my answer memorized since I was eight years old and my mother chose – her decision, completely – to start wearing the hijab: My religion asks me to. Sometimes that’s enough. I have faith and I’m loyal to it. Wouldn’t the answer be the same if a Christian were asked about attending church on Sundays? Or a Jew observing Shabbat?
This one gets me. Every. Single. Time. Again, it’s not the question that I doubt. It’s the furrowed brow of the person asking, the slight shake of head, the crossed arms.
Islam asks that women and men dress modestly. The parts of our bodies—men and women—that are required to be covered are referred to as our awrah. In an Islamic hadith—a proclamation made by our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him)—a Muslim man’s awrah is from his navel to below his knee. This may not sound like much, but in a country where Muslims are a minority, men wearing shirts at the beach or in a public swimming pool aren’t common. The Prophet (PBUH) also stated that “'Allah will not look at the person who drags his garment (behind him) out of conceit” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Abdullah bin Umar, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 674). In Islam, in other words, modest attitude and behavior is just as important as physical modesty. Though all Muslims are warned against arrogance and vanity, Muslim men are especially forbidden to fall prey to their pride.
But, again, just as men are to be spared from their own vanities, women are, too. I’ve learned that my hair doesn’t need to be cascading down my back for me to find beauty in myself. I find the wind in my hijab preferable, in fact, because there are no knots to comb out at the end of the day. My pants don’t have to be short for me to remember how to use my legs. My body is mine to reveal or cover as I wish. Just as non-Muslim women choose to share or not share their bodies in public, I choose to keep mine to myself. In this, I am treasured. It hurts to see non-Muslims regard the hijab as an oppressive symbol forced on Muslim women, because my spirit can’t be oppressed if I’ve chosen, myself, how to represent my faith. In fact, it’s just the opposite: deciding to wear the hijab, within the context of American culture, is liberating.
That question still nags at me, though:
Let me answer it this way: A few weeks ago, my landlord asked me what my husband thought of my decision to wear the hijab. How ironic, I thought, that in America, where women have spent decades fighting for their equal rights as people – and yet still make just 78 cents to every dollar a man makes, according to the US Department of Labor – an American woman basically asked me if my husband had any say in how I choose to dress. She explained to me that she was raised Catholic and was curious about my choice, and I wondered if she’d forgotten that nuns wear habits and devote their entire lives to God. I thought about how unfair it was that I had to defend my religion to her, but I never thought about what she believed in. Not once. I wanted to ask her if she asked her husband’s opinion on her outfit before leaving the house. Instead, all I said was, Does it matter? It isn’t for him.
Oppression is such a harsh word when referring to Islam because the Qur’an specifically speaks out against it, asking that there “be no hostility except to those who practice oppression” (Al-Baqara, 2:193). Islam demands rights for its women, and men are “forbidden to inherit women against their will” and are told that women should be treated with “kindness and equity” (An-Nisaa 4:19). When marrying, Muslim couples like to reference a specific ayah from the Qur’an to strengthen their commitment to one another, and to emphasize how much Allah wants respect and fairness for men and women. The ayah states that Allah created “mates from among [ourselves], that [we] may dwell in tranquility…and He has put love and mercy between [our] hearts” (Ar-Room, 30:21). And if a Muslim couple should get divorced, the Qur’an plainly states that “It is not lawful for you, (Men) to take back any of your gifts (from your wives)” (Al-Baqara, 2:229). The hijab is an extension of this command in respect, a visible reminder that Islam holds women in high regard, and that we are to be protected and cherished.
In essence, certain non-Muslims are guilty of the very thing they accuse Muslim men of: they view Muslim women as somehow less than, and in doing so, they stop listening and rely, instead, on stereotypes. These stereotypes claim that women are too emotional to successfully hold leadership roles, that what women say is often illogical or is worth less than a man’s perspective.
When a woman speaks up, she’s thought to be demanding, pushy, a bully for her own causes. How ironic, then, that newly-elected President Trump publicly criticized a mourning mother—Ghazala Khan—last year for not speaking up at the Democratic convention. Her husband, Khizr, made clear that the president’s lack of sacrifice in comparison to their son’s ultimate sacrifice in Iraq is to be acknowledged. In response, Trump could only attack Ghazala Khan, the mother of a fallen soldier whose picture was displayed on huge screens at the convention, for not finding her own voice. He claimed that “maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say” while her husband made his thoughts heard.
So if women are expected to censor themselves while men are free to speak plainly, then how are our voices heard? Where do we count? How are we measured if not by our free thoughts and un-jailed hearts?
Where is my voice?
The only way I’m heard nowadays is through my double-tongue, the Arabic standing out in my English in a room of my monolinguist friends and family. I’m now only seen as a woman beneath the scarf. This hijab isn’t a mark of possession, though, but rather fidelity. I am loyal to God—Allah—who is, by the way, the same God recognized and worshipped by Christianity and Judaism. I wear my hijab for Allah as I wear my wedding ring for my husband – both are outward signs of commitments freely made. Is the ring on my left hand a symbol of my oppression, too?
Because, when I’m driving and I notice a police car behind me, I feel like a black woman. With my hijab, I feel like a black woman in a headdress. With my baby in the backseat, I feel like a black mother in a hijab. All the way to the grocery store I wonder, is this how black people feel every time they get in a car?
Because, when I’m walking the aisles at the grocery store and speak to my son in Arabic, I feel like a Hispanic woman. With my hijab, I feel like a Hispanic woman in a headdress. With my baby in the cart, I feel like a Hispanic mother in a hijab, and I wonder, is this how Hispanic people feel every time they speak outside of English?
Because most days, I feel so very Arab.
I feel it when I’m at my in-laws’ house and my toddler coughs, to which I reply saha, wishing my son good health.
I feel it when I’m meeting fellow mommy-friends for lunch and the election is brought up and, suddenly, I’ve become the spokesperson for millions of people.
I feel it canoeing through the lily pads of the Wekiva River on a Sunday afternoon, and at Orlando Magic games. I feel it browsing the dollar section in Target – the glares, the mistrust.
I spent twenty-five years in public without the hijab and I’ve been a Muslim the entire time. It wasn’t until the last year and a half that, suddenly, I was made aware of it. I was born to two Palestinian-Muslim immigrants who’ve lived and worked in Central Florida for over thirty years, and this is the first time in my life I’ve had to defend my beliefs to people in the produce aisle. I even talked myself out of the Women’s March in January because I was afraid of the violence it might’ve brought. Now every time I look at my son, every time I make him laugh, every night I hold him and comfort him before bed, I think of how unworthy I am to be his mother.
Because I was afraid.
Sometimes I watch videos of Muslim women from the march teaching others how to wrap American flags like hijabs, and I wish I had been one of those Muslim women. I wish I had marched as a Muslim. I wish I had marched as a Palestinian. I wish I had marched as a white woman. I wish I had marched as an American.
Growing up, my mother used to remind my siblings and me of our day-to-day choices. Khaleekum ala tariq al halal, she’d say, reminding us to stay on the good path. When I was eight years old, I had two bullies, both girls in my grade but far bigger than I was. They made fun of the clothes I wore, the dark hair on my body compared to their invisible blonde hair, the way I I moved like a fish on land when I danced, knowing only the glides and turns of belly dancing. When I finally told my mother about them, she told me to be kind to them. Compliment their clothes, their hair, their lives. Khaleeki ala tariq al halal, she’d say. And I would be reminded to lead and not follow, to persist, nevertheless, even when warned. I paved my own tariq through my American-Muslim childhood, adulthood, and continue to do so now in motherhood.
I wear my hijab in the face of fear and confusion to clarify that I, and those who look, live, and pray like me, should not be targeted as symbols of oppression and brutality. My Muslim brothers and sisters stand with our country, on our American earth, and preach peace to those who will listen. The Qur’an says, “Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong or depart from justice” (Al-Maaida, 5:8). And so, we are reminded to stay on our good paths, and to help those who fall off theirs.
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