The hijab often laces the headlines as an oppressive piece of cloth that is used to control Muslim women. And due to this, various anti-hijab campaigns are launched to liberalise these so-called victims from the dictatorial men in their lives – husbands, brothers, fathers and even the state. Apparently, these damsels need help to find their place within society – and well, just be ‘normal’.
The media loves to harp on about how dehumanising the Muslim woman’s dress code is. In some countries, it may be the social convention to cover after the age of puberty, but forcing the hijab onto a Muslim woman doesn’t exist in Islam.
But while there is so much focus on this aspect of the wearing of this piece of cloth, there is the story from the other side: Muslim women struggling with the hijab – not due to the oppression of having to wear it, but due to the pressure to remove it. And this is not pressure from some random anti-hijab campaign launched by a non-Muslim state, but ironically, pressure from a Muslim woman’s family itself – her Muslim family.
Sanaa was raised in a “mildly-practising” Muslim family, where pork was haram, but music and inappropriate entertainment were the norm. Her father observed most of the daily prayers, and her parents fasted during Ramadhan, but they would also attend mixed-gender parties, including parties of different religious festivities (that included rituals) and enjoy nights out with friends who happily drank alcohol in front of the children. Islam seemed very confusing for Sanaa, but she went along with their ways, genuinely believing this was what Islam was about.
But then Sanaa went to college, breaking out of her cultural mould. She began to meet other Muslims and discovered more about Islam through some good friends. While she learned to be observant of all five prayers (instead of just a few), she also donned the hijab.
Her family was shocked. “My dad told me repeatedly that I did not have to wear that. To take it off.” He kept questioning, who had made her do that and who was so viciously influencing her. But it wasn’t just her dad who had such an adverse reaction to the piece of cloth. Her mother would also yell “GOOD RIDDANCE!” when her hijab flapped violently in the wind, threatening to unravel. Her siblings even began to call her an “Islamic terrorist” in jest, labelling her as weird, not wanting to stand close to her when out in public.
They were, after all, the modern Muslim family, who did not need Islamic clothing to define them.
While Sanaa made it clear that the hijab was an important part of obligatory worship for Muslim women, her family was not having any of it. They were certain that she had been brainwashed by a Muslim boyfriend to cover. Oh, the irony, she thought!
Unfortunately, animosity plagued extended relatives as well. “Why did you go and do that?” they would ask her. Sanaa was continuously harassed about her hijab during family gatherings and was *warned* that she would never find a husband who would want to marry her. And they still wanted to know the name of the Muslim boyfriend who had made her cover! She laughs about it many years later, but as a teenager, it was a very difficult phase for her. “Alhamdulillah I kept my hijab on. It is so ironic that the media loves to lambast the Muslim man for forcing the hijab upon female relatives, but there are those of us who struggle to keep it on, due to the Muslim men in our lives!”
Asiya can relate. Coming from a Muslim family who observed hijab as part of their social upbringing, Asiya was shocked that when she got married, she was expected to uncover in front of her in-laws – all of them. My husband’s parents just assumed that I would fall in line with the rest of the siblings in the family and mingle with their other sons, just as I would with my brothers.
“Why are you covering? Why are you wearing long sleeves? Are you sick?” they would ask her repeatedly, when she covered while other men (besides her father-in-law) were around. Unfortunately, culturally this was common. The wives of her brothers-in-laws didn’t cover in front of her husband either. And when cousins visited each other, no one would cover, at least not in the home.
While Asiya protested, her husband assured her: “You just have to obey me. If I say that you don’t have to wear hijab in front of my brothers, you can take it off. It’s not wrong because you’re listening to me.” As surprised as she was by his “permission,” she was even more shaken by the kindness and sincerity in his advice.
She then asked if he could give her permission for a beer, as she felt like having one. “But that’s haram,” he replied in shock.
Much to her displeasure of the situation, Asiya came to understand that this practice was normal in this particular culture and that the members of her new family were genuinely unaware that in-laws, save the father-in-law, were considered non-Mahram for Muslim women.
The Qur’an is very clear as to with whom a Muslim woman is allowed to relax her dress code. With this injunction alone, Asiya stood up to her husband and defended her dress code when they visited his family members and vice versa. She went on to insist that he should be strict with his brothers entering her room or space when she was relaxing (or taking a nap) without her hijab on, and when they came to their house, that they should wait outside, until she was fully covered before coming closer to the door. It was normal custom for them to barge in at any time, regardless of her attire in the home.
Asiya also later learned that she was within her rights to dictate her own means of dress (according to the Qur’an and Sunnah) and not have to adhere to the cultural customs that sometimes required her to dress more extravagantly (with patterns and designs she wasn’t comfortable with) even with her hijab on. But this was much to the displeasure of her mother-in-law, who had a penchant for dictating designs and fabrics for everyone on ‘Eid and other festivities, such as weddings and gatherings.
“Relationships sour greatly when it comes to matters like this. My mother-in-law calls me out for being defiant and tarnishes my name to the rest of the family because of the way I dress. I don’t understand. On the one hand, they are strict about prayers and fasting. They even read the Qur’an daily. But they don’t seem to understand certain injunctions, and the hijab (amongst extended family and in-laws) is one of them.”
Mulling over these hijab stories, my thoughts turn to my daughter, who decided to put on her hijab at the tender age of six, much to our surprise. At that time she said she had wanted to look like me, but a good few years later, we have had that conversation about hijab being an important form of ‘ibadah, and Alhamdulillah, she understands better now. But in light of the sisters’ stories above, I’ve had the grim conversation with her that not everyone will be appreciative and celebrative of her head covering, and this would include other Muslims around her, possibly including future family members. This is all a lot to digest for a young girl, but it’s the reality that some Muslims face when trying to practise their deen. I always pray that it does not surface in the form of oppression, whether by being forced to wear or remove it, by non-Muslim and Muslims alike.
Maria Zain was a prolific contributor to SISTERS magazine, writing extensively about issues including parenting, inter-cultural relationships, homeschooling and homebirthing, and even Muslim fashion. In December 2014 Maria Zain died, insha Allah a shaheedah, related to birthing her sixth child, who survived. SISTERS magazine will always be indebted to Maria for the immense work she did for the magazine as well as for the SISTERS family as a whole. We ask that readers consider donating to a fund for her six children in hopes to help their father continue to raise them in the loving and deen-centered style the parents worked so hard to foster.
Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/mariazain