She’s interested in distancing herself from things she feels she “needs” on a daily basis, like makeup, perfume, or fashion and really focus on how she comes across to others without these.
As Muslim women living in secular societies, we quite often face sincere interest, scrutiny and criticism for our many modes of dress. Our garments not only clothe us and cover our nakedness but also project a statement to others about our personal style, religious affiliation, lifestyle and perhaps (if you’re clumsy like me) a hint of what you or your children may have had for breakfast.
As an initiate into “Muslim culture” after taking my shahada at the age of 20, I can say that I’ve experienced the whole range of attitudes towards, and definitions of, “hijab” and what that means within a variety of countries and cultures. Over the course of many years now, I’ve worn a variety of clothing styles. From the outfits of my “Jahiliyyah days” that barely covered anything to my ‘abayahs and shaylah headscarves, to my immediately post-9/11 fear-based style, my methods and style of covering in different social, cultural and political situations have occupied much of my time and many an inner reflection.
I recently moved from California, USA to Karachi, Pakistan. I must say the culture shock is still wearing off, but after spending almost a year here in a land where modernity overlaps Islamic and unIslamic traditions, I’ve developed an interest in seeking out some stories other than my own. I reached out to some sisters to gather their thoughts and reflections on travelling up, down and through the tests, trials and social constructs of hijab. In the coming months you’ll hear from three women, myself included, who have undertaken soulful personal journeys through the “land of hijab” and are ready to share their experiences.
We come from different backgrounds and cultures and live on all sides of the globe. Sister Yasmine Ahmed is a 26 year old British national currently living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I, Janet Kozak, am a 34 year old American revert currently living in Karachi, Pakistan. Sister Sara Hildebrandt-Borekci, also American by birth, converted at the age of 17 and lives in a rural area of the USA. We’ve all three been shaped and influenced by our birth cultures and current surroundings and will be exploring how our understandings of Islam and our environments have influenced, and are influencing, our clothing decisions.
As a part of the series, Yasmine, Sara and I will be conducting a part personal spiritual exploration, part social “experiment,” of adopting a more conscientious level of “hijab” than we currently wear and will be reporting back the results. For Yasmine, that will mean donning a head-covering and changing her daily beauty routine; for Sara, it means adopting knee-length khimar or overhead ‘abayahs and for me, it means covering with a niqab. I took a few minutes to speak with each sister and find out their current understandings of hijab and why they want to attempt the experiment.
Sister Sara writes that she wants to begin wearing overhead ‘abayahs and khimar again as she did for many years in her youth and in the early years of her marriage. She believes that she was led astray from the best way of dressing when she moved from a strong Muslim community in Chicago to a much less densely populated area in early 2014. She doesn’t think she’s dressing the way she “should” be, and admires other sisters who are at the level she aspires to. She understands that part of what is personally holding her back from the style of dress she wants to adopt is a fear of how the local community, Muslims and non-Muslim alike, will perceive her new look. She writes that she’s nervous that people may hassle her when she’s out because the area she lives in doesn’t have many Muslims and there are only a handful of hijabis and no niqabis. She’s also afraid that the non-Muslims in the area will think she’s an extremist (she’s not!) and may try to harass or attack her. She also worries about what the few Muslims in the area will think because most of them don’t wear any sort of hijab.
In contrast I’m personally interested in adopting the niqab in order to blend in to my adopted culture and surroundings more – knowing I won’t stick out at all! As a very introverted light-skinned American living in a generally dark-skinned country I attract a lot of unwanted attention in my current style of dress. It often includes either a loose fitting shalwar kameez with shaylah headscarf, or alternatively, an ‘abayah and khimar – both pretty typical garb in any Muslim country. Unfortunately though, because of my visibly “different” facial features and colouring I get harassed by beggars, exorbitantly overcharged for inexpensive items and stared at to the point that I sometimes think some men’s and women’s heads are going to twist off their bodies as they pass. I don’t personally consider niqab to be prescribed for all Muslim women, but it is a widespread style of dress here, and my interest in adopting it for a week is more along the lines of “when in Rome…do as the Romans do” to see if I feel less like a stranger and more at home in this new country. I’m also curious if donning niqab will serve as a more humbling reminder of my roles and responsibilities as a Muslim, and if I will notice any inner changes or affects.
Sister Yasmine writes that she wishes to adopt hijab as an act of drawing closer to her faith. She is most interested in the inner dimension of hijab and writes that it wasn’t really a choice but more of a compulsion to adopt hijab as she started to learn more about the deeper aspects of the faith that she was born into. She’s interested in distancing herself from things she feels she “needs” on a daily basis, like makeup, perfume, or fashion and really focus on how she comes across to others without these. Most importantly, she wants to focus on understanding how she comes across to herself. She currently doesn’t wear hijab every day, and not in a lot of situations and believes that donning hijab is all about being honest with herself and knowing herself before she takes certain steps.
The three of us will be journaling our reflections throughout our respective week long experiments and are looking forward to sharing our reflections. Each of our personal journeys is multifaceted and through the sharing of our stories, I hope to give a well-rounded picture of what it means to each of us to choose to wear hijab and how our decisions at various ages and stages of our respective life journeys must be viewed in the context of our unique experiences and surroundings. Please check back in with our stories in future issues to see how we fared!
Janet Kozak is founder and COO of the PR and communications firm Resoulute. She’s an entrepreneur driven by business insights and boundless creativity. Janet’s most interested in women-owned business development and social causes including public health issues and domestic violence education in Muslim communities. She founded an online advocacy and support group, Muslim Women Against Domestic Violence and Abuse, and also recently spoke on the topic of financial abuse at the 2nd International Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.