A South African Muslimah's Blog

Constructing Identity: Loud Whispers, Lasting Echoes

Covering The Covering October 10, 2008

Filed under: hijab — Safiyyah @ 11:59 pm

A lot has been said about hijab, but rarely are the women who are actually involved in the act of practicing hijab heard. It is often, non-Muslims or Muslim men, who do all the talking. This in an injustice, to the scores of Muslim women out there who are breaking barriers placed for them by both western and Muslim societies. They are out there, in the real world, working hard, making a difference, in all fields. These are not the women we read about in the papers, sullen, oppressed women with no man-given liberties. No these are the women who have seized their god given rights. I am one of those women, a student, writer, activist and Muhajiba. Here is my story.

Firstly, it would be vital to expound exactly what Hijab is, and is not. Google has 2,740,000 hits for just that one word, so I cannot pretend to know all and everything there is about it, but I write this based on my experience, of practicing hijab for over 7 years, and I say practicing instead of wearing, because I believe hijab is not something you just wear, it is a code of living, a sub-category of Islam, another protocol of life. Crucial to the success of hijab, is strong sense self-confidence. Practicing hijab is laying my cards out openly, I am telling the world, who I am and what I stand for. It is the affirmation of the worth of my body and my mind. I am commanding the world to approach me with modesty in tow, and to respect the limits of my anatomy and my space. I am asking the world, no, demanding, that they consider me beyond my appearance. I practice hijab so that my appeal as a woman is shared only with those closest and therefore most trustable to me. But most of all, I practice hijab for my Lord, Al Mu’iz, the Giver of Honour. It is a symbol of my obedience to Him, who created me, and Who asked me, in kind and generous terms, to don modesty, so that I would be marked as a believing women, and would not be troubled. When the One who fashioned me, gave life to me, nurtures me, loves me, is there for me at all times, forgives me when I err, runs toward me when I step toward Him, nurses my wounds and is closer to me than my jugular vein; asks me to do something for my own benefit, how can I but not happily comply? I can write thousands of words about the logic and rationale of it all which are definitely true and motivating reasons, but at its core, hijab is submission to the will of a Higher Order, which humbles me yet raises me to lofty heights.

Technically, hijab is the covering of the body in modest clothing, with only the face, hands and feet uncovered. How much further a Muslim women will take the act of covering, is between her and Allah, but basically, if she does this much, she is within the limits of hijab. There are ofcourse, many expressions of hijab throughout the world, and there are even Muslim women who do not wear the hijab, but dress modestly, and are very active, practicing believers.

So one day, all those years ago, I took the giant leap, and put on the hijab, for keeps this time. I remember those first few months, struggling to keep going, being embarrassed in front of family and friends, questioning my decision, wondering if maybe I was too young for this, if I would ever find a husband and if I could still achieve my dream of being a great writer and traveler. However, I also remember the respect and awe shown to me, the feelings of confidence at having taken a giant leap, the power of choice, the alteration in the people I kept company with, the questions from strangers, and the opportunity to represent my religion. It has changed my life, and continues to do so, each day that I step out of my home and into the world. It influences the way I behave, the activities I am involved in (more now than before I did hijab) and the way people respond to me. I am given the respect and consideration that every woman deserves. Islamophobia does exist, and sometimes people do react strangely to me being covered, but I like that I am different, that I belong to a world people are so intrigued by, that it gives me the opportunity to explain myself, who I am and what I believe in, over and over again. I donned the hijab, with the hope that the outer expression of my faith, would lead to inner reform of my soul, and this is exactly what happened and more, alhamdulillah! Through hijab, I met like-minded sisters, with whom I can share thoughts from fashion to spirituality, with ease and without fear of being judged in any way. It is a safety net against all those insecurities, faced by women globally, about appearance, beauty and image. Hijab brings a sense of tranquility to the body, and sharpness to the mind. It a bold statement, that screams, ” I will not conform to anyone’s standards but Gods’, for who is man to measure me?”

Recent times have seen the revival of hijab, from sportswear and swimwear, to a whole category designated to hijab at Dubai fashion weeks. I can now easily go swimming, hiking, to the gym, and whatever else, comfortably in hijab, thanks to this new niche market. It is all rather situational to me, I am perfectly comfortable in my jeans and coat or tunic with headscarf when going to malls or restaurants or being outdoors, but if I go to the masjid I prefer an abaya or jilbab, and I would even wear niqab were I to go alone into the city center or industrial areas of Dubai, where women are a rare sight and hence ogled at from every angle. In Syria and Palestine, I kept with the code of ankle length trench coats, in Turkey it was bright and colorful head-scarves with any kind of loose clothing, in Jordan I was at ease in a long skirt and pretty blouse with a printed scarf, here in Dubai I am more and more comfortable in an elegant abaya. My favourite was Iran, where I experimented with the all encompassing chador, and different styles of manteus.

As I grow into hijab, or it grows into me, I find myself becoming stricter as to the limits of hijab, i.e. who and who isn’t included in the inner sanctums of my non-hijab life, but it has always been about practicality to me. I am sure all you muhajibas out there have felt that sense of “nakedness” when someone catches you unawares, like when the laundry guy turns up and I think its hubby, or when he lets someone in forgetting to ask me if I’m appropriate.

As for beautiful hijab moments, I love the feeling of coming home after a long hot day, and letting my hair down. I love it when salespeople look at me weirdly, wondering when I will ever wear the skimpy clothing or lingerie I am buying, I love it when my husband tenderly tucks away a strand of stray hair that has escaped my scarf, or the stares from half-dressed women who suddenly become aware of their own exposure, or when I get to turn down the handshakes of men with a smile (not that I don’t shake, just that I have the choice not to).

One thing Muslims should realize is that hijab does not equal perfection. Just because someone wears hijab, does not mean they are the ideal muslimah. We all struggle with our nafs (ego), with temptations, challenges and bad moods. We all make a slip here and there, and we are all striving to be modest yet fashionable. We Muhajiba’s should also not be lulled into the mindset, that putting on the hijab is all that is expected of us from Allah. No, it is but a stepping stone to more important and pressing issues, as it forces me to look beyond the world of materialism, into the world of the marginalized, because hijab sets one apart from the former world and turns the attention to those in the latter. Hijab was in fact, only the beginning for me. From there, I was lead to so many meaningful encounters and became involved in worthy causes, from social and political activism, to humanitarian work. There are not limits as to what a woman can achieve, I would go as far as to say, that practicing hijab forces me to be out there in the world, striving to make a difference.

Another important dimension of hijab, is that of the mental hijab, of our interaction with members of the opposite sex, and to what degree we need to maintain hijab in that regard. I personally feel that one of the purposes of hijab is to foster a healthy interaction, once matters of body are put out of the way

I am proud to walk out of my home everyday wearing my faith on my body, and I am grateful to have had the choice to do so, unlike so many of my sisters, who are either banned from wearing hijab, or forced to do so, both which are in contravention of our beautiful religion.

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30 Responses to “Covering The Covering”

  1. I made it to the end:) As someone who’s just recently embraced hijab, and having to make my fit, this post really brought forward many of my thoughts.Thank you:)

  2. Nooj Says:

    congrats saaleha! every day it is worn brings unexpected benefits even if you may take it off again, like many of us did when we just begani loved this post safiyyah, it legitimately represented my thoughts and responses to the current “muhajibas are hypocriticial” crusade. we are not perfect, definitely. but we are, just like everyone else, trying. and the longer i wear it the more i realise it encompasses not just covering one’s hair, but modest dress in totality, and accompanying modest actions and thoughts. a life long jihad…

  3. Safiyyah Says:

    alf mabrook to you, I wish for you steadfastness! care to share your experiences saaleha and nooj?

  4. Mariam Says:

    salaams :)a friend emailed me your post. just wanted to say jazakAllah …it articulated some of my own thoughts which i would never have been able to express as well as u have.

  5. Khadija Says:

    Safs, a fantastic post mash’Allah 3leiki! It’s a manifesto to the Defend the Hijab campaign.And the first comic-priceless 🙂

  6. interesting. My sister used to wear and now doesn’t, I never asked why. Her own choice. She still dresses the same as she did before modest, simple… she just doesn’t wear the Hijab. I might ask her why sometime.Talking about inappropriate Hijaabis. I actually saw a young Hijaabi girl at the tube station being publicly groped and kissed by her boyfriend. Made me laugh more than anything. Idiot kids.

  7. taz Says:

    Alhamdullillah. someone sent me here. Great piece. Hijaabing can be very fun! u have to come up with new/creative ideas all the time. whether its the attachable sleeves, oversized jeans, double pants, triple t-shirt u always have a certain distinction from the rest. 😀 i've been called a cabbage, an onion and a fashion-hedger for all the layers i wear :Pcheck this out:http://www.facebook.com/events.php?ref=sb#/event.php?eid=34664205985&ref=share

  8. ayesha Says:

    Salaams allSafs, excellently articulated. I guess after the initial euphoria of first donning the hijaab ‘wore off’, I came to take it for granted. This made me stop and re-reflect. I came across surah Al-Ahzab this Ramadaan and wondered whether my physical hijab was too lenient.That’s another story for another time. The real power of it ,for me, came from the sense of identity- it was official – I belonged to the sisterhood of muslimahs – the most awesome sorority 🙂

  9. ayesha Says:

    also,do you think that it has been blown out of perspective? we are chosing to adress hijab as an issue because we have been forced into a corner? should we not be tabling our own subject matter as muslim women, thus setting the pace and tone of discussion – to truly move past appearences

  10. Khadija Says:

    ayesha raises an interesting point. we ought to be setting our own agendas, but ours is an artificial society- face value is the only accepted legal tender.

  11. Subhan’Allah I find myself relating to everything you say. Amazing post!

  12. Anonymous Says:

    This post is great. I also practice waering the hijab . and it amazes me that muslims fail to realise that what is wrong for hajibis is also wrong for other muslims. it is just that practicing hajib makes ppl aware that you are muslims. I totally agree that practicing hajib makes you more aware of your other duties.

  13. Aad's :) Says:

    Congrats Saleeha As a fellow sister practicing hajib I relate to what is being said

  14. Azra Says:

    Nice post…Funny enough, I’ve been seriously contemplating donning the Hijab full-time for a while now..because I also find it hypocritcal to do it on a part time basis…Its been inspiring.

  15. KiLLa Says:

    Bril post.. I actually read the whole thing.. Like yay..All the gear and no idea.. I love that analogy..Makes one think..Im not commenting on the topic.. Just interperate the analogy… Over and over again..Im linkin this blog btw.. Deal with it..

  16. Fatima Says:

    i used to be a “lazy hijabi”.if my scarf fell off, i didn’t bother slipping it on again, holidays, i would walk on the beach without it, weddings were the worst.however, in recent years, i have become more stricter with myself, however i have had days where i got lazy again.however, i love it now. i’m proud of it and i’m happy to be doing something that makes my Creator happy 🙂 what makes it easier is that my husband is all for it…and life is better for that 🙂

  17. nk Says:

    beautiful post..Will be sharing this with fellow muslimahs 🙂

  18. bb_aisha Says:

    Saaleha: that's wonderful news MashallahAzra: may you find it easy to start wearing hijabIt does irk me when I see girls in hijab with boyfriends, kissing, holding hands etc or doing something which reduces the hijab to a mere headcovering, instead of an attitude & way of life.I love how you define wearing hijab and practicing it.I see it as the age-old 'see the bad in others that you deny in yourself' thus judging far more harshly for actions which are far less deserving of censure. And I find that people impose their own guilt on people who choose to practice, and thus take whatever we say & turn it against them.We have to accept hijabi jokes but they get upset if we make a comment about their clothing. immediately we're told we're being 'judgemental'I agree with Ayesha-it shouldn't be an issue. But I disagree we're pushing ourselves into a corner. http://bb-aisha.blogspot.com/search/label/hijabmy three posts specifically on hijab. 'mizundastood' was related somewhat to muhajabas being judged.

  19. ayesha Says:

    salaam, me again (just have a bit too much free time recently – alhamdulillah)What about moving beyond (whilst including) the ‘physical hijab’. About gaurding your interaction with the opposite gender? This line in Surah Ahzab got me thinking, ” O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear ((Allah)), be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech (that is) just.”. Granted, this was adressed to the Prphet S.A.W’s wives, but it made me reflect…I may be pushing the line here ladies , but lets have the conversation. What about gaurding those aspects of your personality that could be attractive? What about being too personal with non-mahrams? too humerous, too inquiring … letting them into your ‘mental space’. I ask myself this question first, before throwing it out there and realise that (as I mentioned to Safiyya) , perhaps I need to loosten my jeans and tighten my lips and keyboard 😉

  20. bb_aisha Says:

    Sorry-me againThe cartoons are brilliant. In what is hijab & what isn't-I think 3,4,5 & 14 are kinda me. It's more tunics, coats, dresses over jeans/trousers & maxi dresses & long skirts. You certainly have, or are, accomplishing your dream of travelling Mashallah. That's what I'd like-to be continuously travelling with my husband Inshallah.I have two chadors (called isdaals in Egypt) I liked how they were worn in Egypt with the matching scarves and sleeves (arm sleeves worn under shirts/abays to prevent arms being seen) They can be a bit heavy & be careful when you sit-the top is pulled halfway across the head & pinned to the scarf so one ends up pulling the scarf & chador back if the chador isn't lifted before sitting.When i was wearing abaya full-time I wore a chador to the Pavilion in Durban. And it is all about confidence & strength coming from level of Imaan. At that time I was extremely confident in what I was wearing, but I wouldn't be now. And I don't recall anybody giving me a strange look-I probably resembled a nun or a penguin as I was wearing a black isdaal with a white scarf, white sleeves & had a white handbag. The shoes were black:-)I feel that when my Iman is really strong, I'm able to wear the simplest abaya with no makeup (although makeup for me consists of just eyeliner & lipgloss) & feel beautiful. Hmmm…now I feel like wearing an isdaal to work tomorrow..Ayesha-that's a great point & extremely valid to the discussion. If we do practice hijab, we should be very careful of this. At work, campus etc we should draw the line between being polite friendly & it extending to becoming friends. For me, this is sometimes a battle. may Allah make it easy on us to stand by our convictions

  21. Safiyyah Says:

    Jazakallah for all the encouraging comment people.Ayesha – yes sometimes we are forced into corners, but a girls gotta do what a girls gotta do…we should be setting our own agendas, so I was thinking, why dont we form a little sydicate of South African Muslims Women Bloggers, and then once a month decide on a topic that needs writing, and then each individually blog about it…the different angles would be rather interesting, if anyone is keen, email me.Bibi – thanks for enlightening me about the isdaal, i honestly cant wait to wear it, and will definitely let you know how it goes, but might I ask why you wouldnt feel so confident now, and why you dont wear abaya anymore, in a totally unjudgemental way, as a sister wanting know what drives hijab in todays climate..also, big ameen to ur prayer for the hubby and travelling.Ayesha again – you ask about hijab of the mind. VERY IMPORTANT point! i think Im going to add it to the post if you dont mind? I think that a physical hijab should be a manisfestation of the mental one. That said, I do also feel that point of a hijab is to make room for such interaction, because onece you are covered and your bodily honour secured, you can then in the most humble of manners interact with the opposite sex. Becoming too familiar with men is definitely a violation of hijab for me, but it is important to define familiar, and what the limits of individual are, given their jobs, study environment etc. e.g. with my male lecturer at UJ I was very familiar, yet this did not cross the hijab boundary, given the student-teacher relationship, but say with a class mate, ive had to watch myself, and tow the line. The men and women of the prophets time definitely interacted, i dont know why some people pretend they didn’t!!With my husband, we hit it off sooooo well that we just couldnt stop chatting initially, but then when you add marriage to the eqaution i guess there is justification…but only when the marriage is fixed (sorry to use that word kay). Like we said ayesha, given technlogy, it becomes very easy to just say, “im learning” or “getting to know people”. Always have things happening out in the open, keep it to group discussions, is what id say.share your thoughts ladies.

  22. I left a comment on Monday but it doesn’t seem it registered. Was just a funny scenario I saw Monday morning, before reading your post. A young girl, on her way to school, wearing a scarf but wearing a short skirt way above her knees. The illustrations you had just made laugh in retrospect.But I wanted to say something else now. While going for interviews awhile back, some people looked at the hijab rather scornfully andmany, in ignorance, thought it would be a hinderance in the industry I work in, which left me feeling somewhat despondent about my career… Then it was also surprising and heartwarming to know that because of the Hijab, some people knew what my boundaries and limits wereregarding working with things such as alcoholic labels etc. andcompletely understood and respected that.But this is a really great post!

  23. yumna_ Says:

    i received your post by email & a phenomenal message at that..just wanted to say thank you for sharing & giving of your light..alhamdulillah..i make duá everyday that the Almighty guides our hearts to the Truth & makes us all better believers, His loyal servants. That whatever we do is for His pleasure & for the good of ourselves, our families & te ummah.. in this world & the hereafter.. inshaállah..I used to say that it is a big decision.. but if you consider that you are obeying the laws of the Almighty than all it is is an extension of your submission.. u feel robed in te mercy of ur Lord.. we make too many excuses for ourselves.. but at te same tym He is most merciful.. & we should never doubt His grace & patience to us His creation..cheers..those toons are wicked :))

  24. Whirling Says:

    Hijabi and non-hijabi? Isn’t it that God looks at our hearts and not our appearances? Just wondering……

  25. amina Says:

    wow!this was amazing …as if u read my mind..well articulated.!thanx

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Shukran for this article. It is excellent. Its truly as if you read my mind as I too am trying to be true to myself and my Maker by wearing hijab … and being a young female Muslim professional I must admit it is often difficult but InshaAllah. Once again shukran for your article and may Allah greatly reward you for it.

  27. alFarouk Says:

    This blog tugs at the heart strings. May Allah reward you with abundant good….

  28. […] Global Pink Hijab Day, when Muslims globally, unite for a cause: Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA). The hijab part of it is meant to highlight that Muslims are active in the campaign, but also to educate […]

  29. Kelley Says:

    Bless you for wearing hijab. Tis a beautiful form of modesty. 🙂

    Yes I have had those ” naked ” moments where I’ve been caught without my head covering, lol, it’s very uncomfortable to experience.

  30. Masira Says:

    I’m a struggling medical student in India who hopes to practice in south Africa as it has been a life long dream.i am a hijabi!and it’s scares me that this may have an influence in how people perceive me as a doctor.i mean no disrespect to anyone.forgive me if I have offended.
    Please help me out and please let me know if it is a good idea for a hijabi Muslim to practice medicine in south Africa


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