Dear Young Muslim Sister,
So one day you will wake up and come to the understanding that the sole purpose of your existence is to worship Allah (SWT). You begin your fight against your nafs, your desires, Shaytan, and what you thought would never be an issue, the society you live in. It may have begun with replacing your skinny jeans with a maxi, flowy skirt or always praying on time and regularly reading Qur’an.
But how you started doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you are finally on the path to Allah (SWT), a path that is indeed filled with difficulties. The changes in you are palpable. You suddenly withdraw from a conversation if there is ghaybah or namimah (backbiting or creating enmity between people). You no longer casually mingle with guys or laugh out loud in public. And you struggle with finding a courteous way to let non-mahram men know you cannot shake hands with them.
The first time someone picked on me because of how I practised Islam I stayed calm. But as soon as I left the room, I couldn’t help it – I cried. It was shortly after I turned 18, my aunt’s husband got sick and was hospitalised. On one of our visits to the hospital, his brother, who was in his early sixties, extended his hand for me to shake. Although I had a scarf around my head, I was dressed in skinny jeans and a figure-hugging shirt. I didn’t exactly give off the impression that I was ‘religious.’ But at least I was trying. My starting point was not shaking hands with non-mahram men. Because I live in a country where the majority are Muslims, I thought he would understand. So I smiled and politely declined the handshake. He was furious, attacked my apparent lack of manners and my shallow understanding of religion, and referred to the fact that “I was wearing tight jeans,” something unfit for good Muslimahs if I were pretending to be one.
Four years later, something similar happened. But this time around, I was different, not just in the way I dressed, but in my beliefs and understanding of Islam as well. I had just recently started wearing more hijab. I no longer wore most of the clothes in my wardrobe – clothes that used to be so dear to my heart – so it was only natural that I was scared I would slip and fall. My understanding of the Qur’an had deepened and I’d reflect on each word as I prayed. I felt more at peace with myself and the world.
I had just started a new job at an advertising agency and we had an early-morning meeting to discuss departmental updates. It was a casual environment, and a male co-worker arrived and decided to high-five everyone at the meeting table, including myself. I kept hoping that he would somehow skip me, that he would remember that I wouldn’t shake hands with him before. But he didn’t. So he raised his hand for a high-five, waiting for me to reciprocate, in front of everyone else. I responded by making a shaking gesture, smiling, and nodding my head. He got the message and retreated. To say I was extremely embarrassed is an understatement. I tried to look at the bright side though. Now none of the guys would offer to shake my hand and I’d be spared any future awkwardness. These were the thoughts I had before he high-fived another guy. The latter laughed and said in a delicate tone, “I don’t shake hands with men.” Everyone burst into laughter. And then the first guy moved on to high-five another co-worker. The third guy imitated my shaking hand gesture, softened his voice, and said, “I can’t shake your hand. I just performed ablution.” More laughter ensued, more embarrassment for me.
I didn’t say anything. I glared at them angrily but I kept my mouth shut. Months later, I was talking to a friend at work and mentioned the situation as being really disturbing for me; she dismissed the whole thing as a joke. But it wasn’t. Everyone might have been laughing, but I wasn’t. Looking back, I realize I could have easily spared him (and myself) the embarrassment and just high-fived him, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was being true to my beliefs. I was making a statement. If I had done it once, other male co-workers would have got the idea that I was fine with shaking hands, which was far from the truth. It was something that I didn’t want repeated. While I was genuinely upset at the time, I realize today that such incidents reflect far greater implications for practising Muslims.
Practising Muslims, whether or not they live in Muslim countries, face all types of pressure to fit in with their communities. This pressure isn’t always in the form of stark belittlement of your values. It may be a subtle comment by a co-worker about your unkempt eyebrows or about why you are wearing so many layers of clothes on such a hot day. Someone may wonder about your unfashionable choice of clothing or why you don’t wear any makeup and how your face looks “quite pale.” I have once stumbled upon a post on social media that read, “Hijabi girls who won’t shake hands should totally do the Japanese bow.”
During my early days of practising Islam, such comments cut deeply through me. I am not saying they were to be held entirely accountable for all the times that I slipped and sinned, but they did have an impact on me. There were times when I’d give in. I’d remove a few hairs from my eyebrows or slip back into wearing one of my old outfits. I’d wear some light make-up because I didn’t want to look as if I were “ill.”
Young, practising Muslimahs who are still trying to figure out their way through life and understand their religion may feel baffled by the many negative comments they receive regarding their lifestyle choices. It is easy to believe something is not haram because society condones it. A good case in point would be how many Muslim families allow – perhaps even encourage – their children to treat their cousins as siblings, so daughters are allowed to show their hair in front of their male cousins and sons are allowed to hug female cousins in greeting. This form of Islam, which derives its regulations from cultural norms and traditions rather than the Qur’an and the Sunnah, labels practising Muslims as “extremists.”
But in the end all that matters is to remember that we should not worship anyone but Allah (SWT), that all our choices should be driven by a genuine desire to please Him and no one but Him. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people, those that are trying to improve their relationship with Allah (SWT) definitely helps in strengthening your faith. Allah (SWT) created us to follow His rules, not society’s. The opposition you face when you start practising is perhaps nothing but a test from Allah (SWT); it serves as a reminder that we won’t always have the approval of others and that we should always be steadfast in worshipping Him, even if that would entice the whole world’s anger.
Stay strong sister!
Basma Mostafa is a journalist and writer based in Cairo, Egypt, who aims to shed light on modern society’s problems through her writings. She blogs about the challenges she faces as a woman of Cairo at https://confessionsofacairene.wordpress.com/.