Today is World Hijab Day.
I started writing this post weeks ago to honour my Hijabi friends and my favourite muslim public speakers, writers, activists and innovators. I rewatched dozens of videos, re-read my book notes and called up my hijabi girlfriends so that I could make sure my anecdotes about them where accurate. It was a rewarding experience filled with lot of laughter, nostalgia and sometimes sadness as I re-read my notes from Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. Last Friday, I decided to take a break from writing to refresh my thoughts before I edited my final piece. I went to bed happy that night. I was sure I would finish this piece before Sunday.
And then it happened.
The weekend I had allotted to polishing my World Hijab Day dedication was the weekend that America closed its doors on some of the world’s most vulnerable (and innocent) people under the guise of safety. America – the land of the free and refuge for the ‘poor’ and ‘weary’ had just legalized the marginalization of some of its own citizens and shut the door on those in need. I spent my entire weekend on my social media platforms trying to make sense of this phenomenon. I watched protestors swarm to JFK as the NYTWA – a majority immigrant union – went on stroke. I watched as thousands of people from around the world raised their voices to condemn this ban and I made an effort to follow more Muslim women to hear their side of the story.
What I saw from them was heart breaking. They were passionate, determined, dedicated women doing everything they could to rally against the ban. They were exhausted – physically and mentally – by the time the first 48 hours passed. I shouted my support to them. I retweeted them. I told them that I stood with them, but it didn’t feel like it was enough. When I went to bed that night, I dreamed of a girl wearing a purple hijab. She was sitting in the middle of a crowd of protestors and she was bent over a table, gripping a pen tightly in her hand as she poured her tale of injustice and discrimination into a notebook. She felt safe in that crowd and so she wrote. When I woke up on Sunday, I knew what I needed to write. I can only hope that I can do these women and my friends some justice.
Let me tell you a story.
Before 2012, I knew almost nothing about Islam even though I lived (and still live) a 5-minute walk away from my village’s mosque. I live so close to the mosque in fact, that I have often watched as the sunset recolours its whitewashed façade in the evenings and, when the world is still and the wind blows just right, I can hear the musical rise and fall of the Imam’s evening prayers. Despite this proximity, I was ignorant about Islam because I grew up in a Christian home and went to a Christian school. Amid all my Christianity, there wasn’t any place for me to learn about another religion – or so I thought.
When I was in 7th grade, I encountered Islamophobia for the first time. One of my friends bought a copy of the Qur’an to school and our administrator confiscated it. I remember watching him sitting in front of the class as he toyed with the book: he opened and closed the covers, turned it around, picked it up and put it down again. He had a strange look on his face, like a bully who snatched something precious to someone and was primed to crush it just to revel in the victim’s cries for its return.
“What should I do with this?” I remember him saying, “Maybe I should burn it or maybe I should throw it away”
That was in 2007; I was 12 years old. The “War on Terror” had been raging for years and across the globe, the mainstream news made it clear that Islam was established as the “enemy of the world”. Even here in my little country – an ocean away from America and even further away from the Middle East – I was watching that same brooding Islamophobia play out in my own country by a man who called himself a Christian. I remember my anger and shock. I remember protesting with some of my classmates. I remember watching that man’s mouth twist into a self-righteous, grey-toothed smile as he returned the book and told my friend to never bring it to school again.
When I graduated from highschool in 2012, I was bitter about religion. I had witnessed so much hypocrisy in 5 years that I was tired of religion by the time I moved to public school for my A-level studies. I had many eye-opening experiences during those two years, but I want to focus on my first true encounter with Muslims and Islam.
I stumbled upon Islam, I was lucky. I had a clean slate – like a child who has discovered a fresh, new wonder about the world. I had been too young and preoccupied with school and play to pay much attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and my only true encounters with Islamophobia were through my administrator’s anti-Islamic sentiments.
So, when I was introduced to my first group of Muslims, I was thrilled, curious and then deeply disappointed. You see, what I learned from my first Muslim encounter was that Muslims are overwhelmingly…normal. They laughed at the same jokes that I did, they went through the same school struggles as I had, they had similar frustrations and disappointments and they valued fairness and justice in the same way I and other students had. Most of the Muslim men and women I met over those years were quite friendly, peaceful and helpful. Of course, there were some exceptions because, I mean, everyone has a different personality and attitude, but that is perfectly normal. My experiences made me realize that so many people focus on the radical side of Islam that they fail to see the humanity we all share with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
The only thing that separates Muslims from the rest of the world is their faith. From what I have seen and read during this time is that Islam’s focus is peace. The main problem Islam has is that some groups – intentionally or unintentionally – interpret the scriptures in different ways. This leads to the various expressions of Islam and, of course, radicalization. Look at my administrator. He was a Christian and an elder in his church, the kind of person you rarely see without a Bible under the crook of his arm, but he totally ignored the fact that Christians are expected to love their fellow man and thus, he introduced me Islamophobia. Islam was not the only religion he criticized. His skepticism and hatred was extened to Hinduism, other Christian denominations and even Haitian Voodoo, just to name a few. His expression of hated, however, is the kind of deviation from the “Christian norm” that is often overlooked and at the time, as a Christian, I had the privilege of denouncing his sentiments without being lumped into his category. When Muslims do the same and radicalized, their non-radical counterparts have no such privilege and they deal with as much (or more) backlash as their rogue brothers.
So let me talk about what the hijab and my hijabi friends have taught me.
During my initial interactions with Muslim women I was curious about the hijab, too. I remember sitting down with some girls at various times and listening as they explained the concept of hijab to me. What I discovered was that hijab is only a portion of a Muslim woman’s identity as it represents a woman’s modesty and a dedication to her god. It is a lifestyle choice that does not hinder her ability to contribute to her society or her career or anything of the sort. One of my favourite quotes about the hijab is from Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman who, in response to comments on how her hijab does not seem to represent her level of intelligence, said “Man in early times as almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I am wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is a regression back to ancient times.” (IISNA, 2013)
In my final A-level year, I went to a lecture by Mohammad Awal and I picked up a few pamphlets on Islam and I will always remember what the last line on the pamphlet about the Hijab said: “True equality will occur when women do not need to display themselves to be valued nor defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.” This statement rings true today. So many people are obsessed in stripping Muslim women so that they can be “free”, but they fail to realize that freedom lies in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body and that choice includes what a woman does or does not put on her body.
Many women claim that for them, Hijab is a form of liberation. I did not understand this until I wrapped my hair for the first time and felt what they have been saying for centuries. I still do not understand why so many people are antagonistic toward a women’s dedication to modesty. Muslim women get so creative with their clothes, even I spend time binge-watching hijab tutorials from time to time just to make myself jealous about how well Muslim women can match-up their outfits. I don’t know how they do it, but they really have some talent.
Apart from matching their clothes in impossibly stylish ways, Muslim women represent something else. When the ban fallout hit is peak over the weekend, I began to follow activists like Blair Imani, Linda Sarsour, Hind Makki and Hend Amry. It didn’t take much reading for me to see just how courageous, resilient and determined these women are and how dedicated they are to the fight for universal equality. Before circumstance introduced me to these women, I was learning about innovators like Yassmin Abdel-Magied, educators like Sakena Yacoobi and journalists like Ameera Harouda. These were women who use their voices, platforms and talents to push one collective agenda: make the world a better, safer place.
I admire all of them and I value all the lessons they have taught me so far. I could spend hours telling you about these lessons, but I would like to narrow it down to just three.
The first lesson is one I learned from writing this piece. I realized that we can live among other people and know nothing about them because of the unseen barriers we erect around ourselves. These barriers are the lenses through which we see our world and they limit our view and help to propagate the fear and hate we see in our society today. I was able to approach Islam with an open mind and learn so much from all these hijabi women. Before we can make a change, we must push aside our biases and prejudices and unlock our empathys. Only then can we truly understand, appreciate and fight for people different from ourselves.
The second lesson is the one I learned from my school administrator 10 years ago. Islamophobia stems from ignorance and silence. After the Qur’an-burning threat, I went home and complained to my parents. My mother took the opportunity to tell me about her experiences in her Catholic high school where the nuns encouraged all students to respect and learn about other religions. My father lectured me, too, and showed me his collection of religious books to point out their similar principles. My parents confirmed that what I witnessed was utterly despicable and I had every right to be angry, but as the years went by and I complained more, I was just told to tolerate it.“Just two more mornings, and it will be over” my mother would tell me every time grumbled about the hypocrisy and bigotry was forced to listen to. I did hold on. I and other students spoke up when we could, but the only rebuttal we would receive was “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Our parents silence and the silenced forced upon us didn’t change anything. Our administrator just got bolder and his speech just got worse. I am determined to do a better job, so I plan to use my platform to speak up against the injustices I see.
The last lesson I have learned is one I always knew: Muslims are humans and thus, they have the same rights as any religious group around the world by law. The Muslim ban is just one atrocity Muslims have had to face over the years. Around the world, there are even more instances of persecution e.g. the ongoing Muslim slaughter in Myanmar. If we sit back in silence and assume that we can just wait this out out and that it would just solve itself, we will run out of time and lives would be unnecessarily destroyed by our inaction. I stand in solidarity with my Muslim sisters because I have seen their struggle and I want to help them battle the ugliness they face every day. My experiences with Islamophobia is no where NEAR what they have to endure. It wasn’t directed at me and I could choose to just nod and forget about it. I will not forget about it. I know there are greater evils in the world and I want to use my platform to help fight it.
And so, on World Hijab Day, I would like to give a special thank you to all the hard-working Muslim women who are “be[ing] the change [they] wish to see in the world” (Ghandi) I applaud you. I support you. I admire your strength, resilience and dedication to the good fight even during these turbulent times. I want to make all of you a promise: I promise that as long as I have my mind, I will continue to rally with you against the ugliness of this world. We and all your other allies are here for you. You shout, we come running and we will help as best we can. Hold on for the good fight, Muslim women. I know you can get through this and when you do, the world will be a much safer place for all of us.
Reference: IISNA. (2013). The Hijab. Australia: islamicpamphlets.com.
Special thanks goes to Akleema, Narifa and Kashif. Thank you for helping me with my research for this piece.
Feature image by yours truly.