MY HIJAB. MY MORAL COMPASS
London University, 1987. Students converged from far-flung parts of Britain and the world. Some had never seen a brown-skinned person before, let alone one in a headscarf.
All the Muslims living in London were tucked away in suburban pockets; there were only a handful on my campus.
I was the only one who wore the hijab. So there were lots of questions, and it fell upon me to answer them. I had to explain to others what my motives were. Why was I covering up, when all around me were revelling in their youth?
Why are you wearing that?
What do you call it?
Aren’t you hot with that scarf on your head?
Do you take it off when you sleep?
Do you have ears underneath that?
Do you have hair underneath that?
Why bother washing your hair when no-one sees it anyway?
I had a penchant for wearing black, so I had something in common with the Goths in my undergraduate year. But the Goths had Siouxsie Sioux, the Sloane Rangers had Princess Diana. I had no one to champion my dress sense, and couldn’t blend in anonymously with any crowd.
Image via gadisberjilbab.tumblr.com.
When I was growing up in East Africa and the Middle East, everyone I knew wore a headscarf and a loose black cloak called an “abaya” or “chadar” to cover their body when they went out. To me, it was as automatic as wearing a uniform to school, or stopping at a red traffic light.
I had always known that I would wear the hijab, but had never thought too much about the reason why. I knew that the Quran asked a woman to dress modestly, and I was fine with that. I also noted that it asked a man to lower his gaze, and also dress modestly, before asking a woman to guard her beauty. So hijab, literally meaning a cover or a curtain, is a two-way street in Islam.
Whilst modesty is symbolised by the hijab, it doesn’t begin and end there.
The concept of modesty in Islam goes beyond dress, to behaviour and demeanour. It should affect a Muslim’s conduct before God, before others and even when one is alone.
When I was fifteen, I attended a youth religious camp, where I understood a little more of the philosophy of the hijab, not just the physicality.
The hijab gives a woman control over whom she shows her beauty to, and how much.
So whilst I could dress up in the company of family members or my female friends, I also held the key to how the rest of the world saw me. I found a sense of freedom in not having to worry about “bad hair days” or conforming to social norms like my friends.
At University, I found myself in a world disparate to the one I had known previously. It was here that my hijab gained yet another dimension, that of a moral compass. Though it was more obvious in a physical sense because it ruled the way I dressed, I slowly began to appreciate the other choices my hijab led me to make. I was young, miles away from home and the clutches of parental control, and free to do as I pleased. But I was accountable to my hijab.
Initially, I resented the control it exercised on me. When friends would invite me for drinks at the Uni bar, or a night at the disco, I would reluctantly decline. I felt my desires were at odds with my dress sense.
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