Andrea UseemTaking off my hijab didn’t just happened in one dramatic instant. Yes, there was a moment in a crowded bathroom at the Abu Dhabi airport, in the United Arab Emirates, when I unwound the gauzy blue scarf from around my head and stepped back out into a mixed-gender world, feeling naked.

But really, taking off the hijab was a year-long process of stripping me down and peeling back the assumptions and beliefs I had wrapped tightly around myself as a recent convert to Islam. It was like I had fallen in love with Islam, married it, and then discovered a whole bunch of things that were difficult, if not impossible, for me to live with on a day-to-day basis. I wanted the relationship to work; I started looking for compromises.

That process was lonely, and difficult, but I stepped out of that bathroom--and that year of endless reflection--as a new kind of Muslim, one, I hoped, I could comfortably live with for the rest of my life. That’s the kind of Muslim I still aspire to be today: True to the religion’s most basic principles and practices, but questioning of dogma and traditional interpretations. Back when I wrestled with these ideas, I realized that I needed some religious breathing room. And I had to take off my scarf to find it.

Andrea Useem with her headscarfMy de-jab (taking off the hijab) story begins with how I came to Islam and started to wear a headscarf. I didn’t start wearing hijab right when I converted in 1999. Indeed, when I first said my shahadah, or testimony of faith, in the house of Scotch-Indian-Zimbabwean friends in Harare, I had given little thought to how I would dress as a Muslim. Not long after my conversion, for example, I bought a two-piece purple bathing suit and wore it on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel without a second thought.

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.

But the minor misgivings in Boston were nothing compared to the massive tremors of doubt I felt soon after I moved to Muscat, Oman, in 2002, with my husband (a fellow convert) and our baby son. It was hot--soul-crushingly hot--there I was, wrapped up like a skier ready to hit the slopes. As a stressed new mother, I felt like paying attention to stray strands of hair was absurdly trivial. And although I had a number of wonderful Omani friends, including educated, hijab-wearing, working women, I felt disturbed by aspects of the country’s sex-segregated, hijab-observing social order.