Fourteen years ago, when I was a brand-new Muslim, I was shopping at a department store when I came upon a woman. She was standing in front of me, wearing a long, loose navy blue ‘abayah and a light blue hijab with a navy trim. She stared at me. I stared at her. We both wore equally bemused expressions. My brain processed the thoughts so quickly they jumbled together, tripping over each other, all within a couple seconds. Oh! There’s a Muslim! I thought, pleasantly surprised. I think I recognise her! was my next fleeting idea. Then, finally, realisation dawned: Oh my God, that’s ME!
I hadn’t realised that I had walked up to a full-length mirror in the store. I was so unused to seeing myself covered that it took a few seconds for me to recognise myself. Is that really me? I wondered, staring at my reflection. I look so . . . foreign!
While some sisters take to hijab like a duck to water, many of us feel more like the Ugly Duckling for a while – awkward and out of place. We see the swans around us: the veteran Muslim women who seem to wear their hijab with precision, grace and confidence. They never seem to have a pin out of place or display a trace of discomfort or unease. On the other hand, there are the beautiful and fashionable non-Muslim women who display the latest styles and accessories without any religious restrictions. They can seem so happy, carefree and gorgeous. Looking at them, we might pine for those pre-Islam days, convinced (erroneously) that from now on fashion, comfort and femininity are out of bounds for us.
Many sisters who are new to practising Islam struggle with their new dress code. Some feel perfectly willing to abandon low-cut blouses and skimpy skirts, but just can’t picture themselves in a headscarf. As a result, many let themselves settle into what they believe is a middle-ground: loose, modest clothes with a scarf-free head. In that wardrobe, they feel they are covering the majority of what Allah (SWT) commanded, and yet they do not feel as conspicuous or foreign as a hijab makes them feel. Many sisters stay in this middle ground for several years, or for their whole life. Some are at peace with the decision, but others live with the guilt of knowing that they’re not wholly fulfilling Allah’s (SWT) command.
As a convert, I get it. That decision to cover our hair – it is HUGE. We know that the choice might have several consequences:
• Now everyone will know I am a Muslim, even the ones I purposely haven’t told.
• Now people might think I’m a foreigner.
• Now other Muslims might assume I speak Arabic.
• Now people might expect me to have a certain level of piety and knowledge, but I’m just a beginner!
• Now I might be subject to harassment or discrimination.
• Now I won’t blend in with the crowd.
• Now I will stand out at family functions, and my relatives might shun me.
• Now I will probably have to answer a billion questions about why I cover and about Muslim women’s rights in general.
• Now some people will assume my husband made me do it.
• Now I might not get the job I want.
• Now I might have to fight for the right to wear my hijab in my workplace.
• Now people might call me unpatriotic, fundamentalist, or backward.
• Now I might even face violence from Islamophobes.
No wonder many women balk at putting on the hijab! Anyone who is tempted to judge or condemn sisters who have not taken that step should think about the very real and daunting challenges they face. Wearing hijab is like being a walking billboard: “I am a Muslim!” proclaims that piece of cloth. Not everyone feels ready to face all the consequences of that announcement. And yet I am urging my sisters to have the courage to do so, for the sake of Allah (SWT).
The first time I put a scarf on my head was not a warm and cosy moment. I did not look in the mirror and instantly like what I saw. Truth be told, I felt like a silly child dressing up in a costume. I didn’t recognise that woman staring back at me, and I had a vague apprehension that I must have taken a wrong turn, somewhere, to end up so different from my old self. I was horribly self-conscious when I left the house to run errands, certain that everyone was staring at me and drawing conclusions. I remember visiting a doctor and pulling off my hijab as soon as I got into the examination room, before the doctor entered, to ensure that she would take me seriously and not treat me like a weirdo. For me, wearing hijab was an awkward, painful process for at least one year.
As the years passed, I had my share of negative experiences. I heard the occasional taunts, like “Taliban!” “Al Qaeda!” or “Go back to where you came from!”. I was once denied a lucrative job because, although I had all the necessary qualifications, the boss “didn’t feel comfortable with me.” I belonged to an all-women’s gym and found that a few times, my conversations and cheerful interactions with the non-Muslim gym members ended in awkward confusion when they saw me, in the locker room, drape my ‘abayah and scarf over my gym clothes. It hurt to go from feeling “normal” to “abnormal” in a space of a couple minutes.
Those experiences weren’t easy, so I won’t pretend they were. But they were, honestly, the exceptions to the rule. Mostly I have neutral or positive interactions with non-Muslims. The vast majority of the time, I forget I even have a scarf on my head. After many years, I finally feel comfortable in my own skin, Alhamdullilah. In fact, I not only tolerate my hijab, I embrace it. For me, it is one of the fundamental ways I show my love for my Creator. Only He I is worthy of that level of commitment, sacrifice and public declaration of my beliefs.
“But,” protest some sisters, “I am a good Muslim without a scarf. And just because a sister wears a hijab does not mean she is superior to one who doesn’t.” This is true, of course. A hijab alone does not make a pious Muslimah. I certainly know many generous, kind, sincere sisters who do not wear hijab, and sadly I have seen covered women whose actions belie their modest wardrobe. So, I do not presume to judge my sisters who are not yet wearing hijab.
I will encourage them, though. Sisters, when you are new to Islam, some people might advise you not to “rush into” wearing hijab. They might say to wait until your family has got used to your new Islamic lifestyle. They might tell you to stall for a while, until you are sure you won’t lose your job. They might counsel you to hold off until you have the strength and courage to cover. I’m sorry, but I don’t think any of that is good advice, as well-meaning as it may be. If we wait for our non-Muslim (or Muslim!) family members or friends to tell us, “Please, wear hijab. I support you 100 percent,” we will likely be in for a long and frustrating wait. Non-believers usually lack the Islamic knowledge and conviction to approve of something so different from their lifestyle. Expect your loved ones to protest, either gently or aggressively. Over time, however, most family and friends come to admire the sister who wears her scarf with certainty and pride and whose Islamic manners are impressive and steadfast.
Likewise, do not expect your employer to announce, “Hijabs are welcome in this workplace!” They might be welcome, or they might not, but it will be up to you to claim the right to adhere to your religious beliefs.
No one would tell a new convert, “Don’t fast Ramadhan until you/your family/your employer feels ready.” Obviously fasting during Ramadhan is fardh (obligatory) upon every Muslim, whether she took shahada five years ago, last week, or just yesterday. Yes, it is difficult to fast, but it is nevertheless an obligation (except in certain cases, like illness, travel, pregnancy etc.). No one gets to wait until she feels ready – or until it is convenient – to fast. The same is true of hijab. It is, in fact, obligatory. It is not always easy. Like the fast of Ramadhan that reveals and hones our strength and self-discipline, covering will bring out fortitude we never knew we had. Procrastinating, on the other hand, will just allow the sister to continue to disobey Allah’s command, and after many years of non-compliance, she might even come to feel that hijab is “no big deal.”
As for “waiting to feel strong enough” to cover, I also object to this pretext. This mentality usually leads to perpetual excuse-making.There is no magic potion that will give you the courage to cover. However, you can ask Allah (SWT) to help you, and He (SWT) definitely will, provided you take the first, courageous steps. Allah (SWT) says in a Hadith Qudsi , “When my servant takes one step towards Me, I take ten steps towards him. When my servant comes walking towards Me, I come running towards him.”
I contend that we find courage when we cover, not before. Putting that scarf on with conviction and determination will give you a boost of confidence and iman. You will feel such a rush of virtue and strength, knowing you are obeying Allah (SWT) and doing something brave and right.
I want to clarify: even after saying all this, I do not think pressuring sisters to wear hijab is the right thing to do. First of all, Muslimahs should cover only for the sake of Allah (SWT) – not to please people or to shut them up. Second, none of us should adopt an attitude of superiority or nagging when interacting with our uncovered sisters. None of us is even close to being perfect, and we surely all struggle with some aspects of complete obedience to our Creator. Maybe we are steadfast in our hijab but lazy when it comes to waking up for Fajr prayer. Maybe backbiting is our weakness, or greed, or a bad temper. In other words, before we advise a sister about covering, we should get off our own high horses and approach her with a spirit of humility, recognising our own faults and shortcomings.
A sincere wish for our sisters’ well-being and their positive relationship with Allah (SWT) should be our only motivation for encouraging them to cover. If our intentions are sincere, then our attitude will not be arrogant or judgmental. Our words will be loving and supportive, not harmful.
I mentioned the possible negative consequences of wearing hijab. Here are some amazing, positive ones:
• By covering according to Allah’s commands, you will be performing a beautiful act of love for the only One truly worthy of your adoration and submission.
• Every time you walk out the door properly covered, you will be earning numerous rewards from Allah I. On the Day of Judgment, we will all be desperate for our good deeds to outweigh our bad. Imagine how many you will amass from years of proper Islamic dress!
• You feel so dignified living in a way that is purely aimed at pleasing your Creator, not following the current fashion trends, or buying into the advertisements on TV, or mimicking celebrity fads.
• You will enjoy the comfort of knowing that you are not a sex object, a conformist, or an unthinking, aimless person. You will have the pleasure of recognising in yourself a woman of integrity, firm belief and great purpose.
• Your way of dress will clearly identify you as a Muslim, which allows your brothers and sisters in Islam to recognise you, give you greetings and even offer help and support.
• It is a great opportunity to give da’wah (education in order to invite people to Islam), as people will approach you and ask you about your faith.
• It inspires you to use your finest manners because you know that you are a walking example of Islam.
• You are less likely to be stared at lustfully, and are more likely to receive respectful treatment from men.
• You will be mindful of the ultimate purpose behind all your actions because your hijab is a reminder of your striving toward Jannah.
• You will be a role model and an inspiration for many women who will recognise and admire your courage and commitment.
My hijab-less sisters, I love you for the sake of Allah (SWT). Please forgive me if any of these words pressure or upset you; that was not my intention. May Allah (SWT) guide us all to the Straight Path and admit us to the highest level of Jannah. Ameen.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She is a homeschooler, breastfeeder, lullaby singer, perpetual house tidier, amateur party planner, bibliophile and board game enthusiast. And she really likes to write. She embraced Islam fourteen years ago and has felt whole ever since, Alhamdullilah.