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.
BY: Andrea Useem
While men wore cool white cotton robes in the humid summer heat, Omani women wore several layers, often including leggings and a synthetic dress topped by a black abaya and headscarf. Our next door neighbor wouldn’t allow his son to swim at a hotel pool because western women wore bathing suits there. I felt like I lived in a society obsessed with sex, simply because so much of life was organized around the principle of separating them. Was this what Islam was all about, and were these the social arrangements I would wish for my own daughter if I ever had one?
Once the handle had been turned, the questions began to drip incessantly through my head. Did I really want to wear the scarf? What had really motivated me to wear it in the first place? Was that enough to keep me wearing it? What would happen if I took it off? And the granddaddy of them all: Was wearing a headscarf truly required for all Muslim women?
That last question troubled me the most. I went back to the answer that had first convinced me, the idea that four Muslim schools of thought agreed a woman had to veil. I thought more about these men, these medieval scholars who had decreed covering from head to toe mandatory for women. I slowly realized: I did not convert to follow their lead; I had little if any allegiance to them. They were just people--yes, educated pious ones--but people who lived at a particular time and place. I had embraced Islam as recognition of God’s oneness. And deep down I felt that infinite oneness was big enough to allow me to be myself and remain within it at the same time.
I knew many other Muslims pointed to certain verses in the Qur’an as "proof" that a certain type of covering was required. But study them as I might, I always found those verses ambiguous. One of the most crucial, Chapter 24, verse 31, reads in my English translation, in part: "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…" What exactly was that supposed to mean? It presented me only with more questions and the conviction that each believer must ultimately make some decisions on her own, however lonely that may be.
The turning point for me came one evening at a Muscat shopping mall when an obviously gay young man strode through the food court to order some fried chicken. I nearly gasped when I saw him. I had seen gay people before, of course. But in Oman, where gender is literally designated in black and white, the site was shocking, and I saw others around me gape and even laugh at him. Then I heard a voice inside my head say, "That’s brave."
At that moment, I saw how religious opinions become rules, and how rules become cultural norms, and how norms can extinguish the bright light of individual truth. I wanted to applaud that man, or hug him, or do sometime except sit there with a scarf on my head, inadvertently supporting a strict and--I realized right then--restrictive gender system in which he had no place.
I am uncomfortable with aspects of the Qur’an and classical Islamic law that allow polygamy, or unilateral male divorce, or make a women’s legal testimony worth less than a man’s. In my mind, now, the scarf is of one cloth with those ideas, and I needed to separate myself, at least symbolically, from them. Some of these principles are deeply embedded in Islamic law and scripture, so I don’t have any easy answers about how to reconcile those issues with my belief in God’s oneness and the simplicity and efficacy of the system of worship revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. And there are moments when I see a woman clad in her beautiful scarf and feel as if I have lost something.
But this long process was a one-way street, leading me to that bathroom in the Abu Dhabi airport, where I paused for a moment in the front of the mirror, surrounded by scarf-wearing, young Indonesian girls on their way to jobs in the Persian Gulf. I knew when I walked back upstairs the strange men in the waiting area would stare at me, but like that first morning when I first draped the scarf over my head, I just had to get on with it.
Back in the U.S., I was afraid to show myself to Muslim friends who knew me as a hijabi. Yet every one of them was kind and welcoming, and if they questioned my decision, they didn’t let me know. Sometimes at the mosque now, I see newly minted converts wearing headscarves andfloor-length robes, or abayas
, and I have the urge to whisper to them, "You can still be yourself"--but I don’t. I know each woman has her own path, her own story, and, perhaps, her own lessons to learn. Ultimately, I have come to feel, hijab is a question of religious freedom. I support the right of women both in the U.S. and abroad to dress in accordance with their beliefs – and I hope they can support my decision to do the same.