Taking Off My Hijab

I put on a headscarf because I felt God wanted me to cover up. But then I wondered if it was really required of me.

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As a journalist based in East Africa for several years, I had of course seen many Muslim women wearing many different kinds of coverings. All of them fascinated me, but none seemed to apply to me. In Mombasa, Kenya, for example, I watched a wrinkled Swahili Muslim woman balance her head-load of onions with one hand, carry a bucket of water with the other and clutch the black polyester folds of her robe between her teeth. I wondered at the time how a religious covering could so spectacularly impractical.

It was only when I returned to the U.S. from East Africa and saw educated Muslim American women my age wearing headscarves that I began to wonder why my own head was bare. Being a graduate student in theology, I tackled the question intellectually: Was covering my head and concealing the rest of my body an inviolable part of the religion I had embraced?

I asked this question to the de facto Muslim chaplain at Harvard, whose own wife wore full-length black robes and a face veil at the time. He pointed out that all four traditional schools of Sunni law agree that a woman should cover everything except her hands, feet and face as an act of modesty. That scholarly consensus seemed pretty persuasive. What I loved about Islam is that its essential wisdom--the necessity of daily prayer, the unity of God’s existence--seemed to transcend time, place and culture. Maybe this was true with veiling as well?


I prayed about it, I read about, and I talked obsessively about it with Muslim friends. Finally, the answer seemed clear: God wanted me to cover. I remember standing in front of my small mirror in Cambridge, Mass., feeling as if an angel were draping the folds of cloth over my hair. It required courage, of course, to walk out the front door that day. But fellow Muslims cheered me on, and I suddenly found myself invited to give talks and presentations at my local mosque.

But this positive attention also had a negative side. After 9/11 in particular, I began to feel like a poster girl for Islam, pushed out on stage in my prim headscarf to defend Islam in accent-free, graduate-schooled American English. A very conservative Muslim man I knew praised me at the time for "flying the flag of faith," and wherever I went, the symbolism of the scarf seemed to proceed me. I realized flags make uncomfortable clothing.

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Related Topics: Faiths, Islam