Wearing the Hijab: Conviction or Brainwashed by Society?

The first time I heard about the hijab I was a little girl around the age of ten. I was growing up in the United States, the product of an American mother and an Egyptian father. My father and I were walking somewhere, and he mentioned that Muslim women start to cover their hair after they perform the Pilgrimage to Mekka. He may have been avoiding talking to me at this young age about menses and that in Islam, it is actually at the age that a girl gets her first period that she becomes accountable to God and should start wearing her hijab. Or perhaps my father just did not know this at that time, and because he witnessed so many women come back from the Pilgrimage with their hair covered he assumed that this was the rule. My father did not grow up in Egypt with women who covered their hair. Pictures of him and his classmates in Cairo University show women wearing stylish short dresses, sometimes above the knee, with hairdos that were common in the 1950s all over the Western world. Back then, even the wives and daughters of many of the Muslim Brotherhood did not wear the hijab.

I clearly remember my reaction. “Well, I just won’t ever perform the Pilgrimage then. Not at least until I’m old,” I said. The concept was so foreign to me it did not register as something I would remotely consider doing.

This changed a few short years later. My father got a teaching job at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I was in the 7th grade. My mother was told by my father, other family members, and friends, that she would have to cover her hair while she was in Saudi Arabia. That’s how things were there. I don’t know that she was entirely comfortable doing this but she did all the same. At school, we were given an Islamic studies class. It was in these classes that I learned more about Islam the religion than I ever had before. Some lessons were utterly ridiculous: we learned how much alms to pay if we owned a pack of camels. But other classes were interesting. In these classes I came to learn about the hijab. I also learned about it from my Saudi girlfriends. By the time I was nearing the end of the 8th grade, I was seriously considering putting on the hijab. I was already wearing the hijab to and from school; the schools made it compulsory. I wasn’t wearing it elsewhere, though. Maybe it was time for me to take this step to get closer to God? I didn’t, in the end. I did not have the courage to.

I went back to the US for the 9th and 10th grades. The two years we spent in Saudi Arabia caused my father to become a more conservative Muslim. He did not make me wear the hijab but he made me dress more conservatively. I could no longer wear pants. I only had dresses and skirts. My long hair always needed to be tied back in a pony tail and never let free. The mean kids in high school would walk past me and call me the religious girl. Oddly, I did not find this very difficult. I was fine being conservative this way. I still had lots of good friends at school. My studies were more important to me than anything else. I was fine with the fact that the way I dressed kept me away from the cool kids, some of whom were starting to get into sex and alcohol. It also made most guys not very interested in me. I was not allowed to date. But no one wanted to date me anyway so I wasn’t put in many awkward situations explaining why.

My father took me and my siblings back to Saudi Arabia when I was in the 11th grade. For the first couple of months, I was only covering my hair when I went to school. Ever since the 8th grade I had been considering the hijab. I believed it was something I was obligated to do by God the minute I got my first period. I got my period in the US when I was 15. I was now in Saudi Arabia and 16. I went to sleep many nights crying, worrying that if I died in my sleep I would go to Hell because I hadn’t yet worn the hijab. Yet, it was a step I was not ready to take. I did not have the courage to do it. I was a teenager. I had pretty hair. I was getting comments about how pretty my hair was. It was nice, at that age, to feel feminine for the first time. I was no longer a child. People were looking at me as a girl growing into a woman. It was nice.

I recall going through a period of intensity with my father at this stage. When he took us out in Jeddah, bearded men would stop him in the street and tell him that he should cover his daughter. He was sinning by not being responsible for his grown daughter’s actions. Men are going to look at your daughter with lust, I assume he was told. And that then will be on your head, they probably said. My father became irritable. Colleagues at work were telling him the same. My father was feeling the pressure and that pressure was then transferred to me.

My father started telling me that I should wear the hijab. I didn’t take him seriously at first. My father never made me do anything. I told him that I probably would eventually but that I needed to do it in my own time. I wasn’t ready yet. He acquiesced, briefly.

But then a day came. My father must have been under too much pressure. He gave me an ultimatum. “You are not leaving this house ever again without the hijab,” he yelled at me. I was horrified. My father never spoke to me that way. He never compelled me to do anything. Why was he doing it now? “You’re only saying this to me because you’re friends are making you say it!” I yelled back at him. I threw a small tantrum. But I knew the time had come. The next time I left the house I was wearing the hijab. It wasn’t easy the first few times I met family friends. It isn’t easy looking one way one day and looking another very different way the next. It isn’t easy having people give you their reactions and make a big fuss about what you are wearing. I got through the first few days of difficulty and then suddenly it was all fine. Years afterward I would tell people that I was so thankful that my father made me wear the hijab. If it wasn’t for him, I could still be sinning now. I needed my father to give me that push, I’d tell people. He did the right thing for his daughter. And on the inside I had found peace. I felt as if the burden of sin had been lifted from my shoulders. I was closer to God now. I was obeying His order. If I died while I was asleep I now had a better chance now of going to Heaven instead of Hell. I had an inner peace.

When I was a student at Cairo University, I surrounded myself with conservative Muslim friends. My brother and I were living alone in Cairo while my father continued to work in Saudi Arabia. My father had told us to keep only good company. He was worried about leaving us alone in the big city at our age; I was 17 and my brother was 15. Surround yourselves with strong Muslims, my father told us, and you will be safe. I did as instructed. I began attending lessons on Islam at the university mosque. They were given by girls only a couple of years older than me who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or to the Salafi movement. I loved the way they all looked in their long flowing head scarves and gowns. They looked like angels. I wanted to be like them. I bought many meters of cloth and had longer scarves and wider dresses tailored for me. I wanted to be angelic. I wanted to have that same inner peace that showed on their faces. I was part of a group. I wanted to belong. And I wanted to become closer to God.

My girlfriends began commenting on my face. You have such a beautiful face and a beautiful smile, they would tell me. I’ve always loved to laugh. At one point, a friend told me that maybe I should cover my face so that my laughing would not be so obvious. My conservative friends started to imply that I was still getting sins if men were attracted to me because of my beautiful face, smile, and contagious laugh. I didn’t want sins. They were bad. I wanted to stay pure for God. I wanted to be able to go about my daily business, going to class, talking to students and faculty, without getting sins because men were attracted to me. I read the literature. The wives of the Prophet covered their faces. At the very least, doing what the wives of the Prophet did, following their lead, should get me additional points with God. I began to cover my face.

My father was furious with me. “You are going way beyond what is required of you,” he yelled at me. He went so far as forbidding me to wear the face veil. I didn’t care what he had to say. I truly believed that I was doing a Godly thing. It was not for my father or for anyone else to tell me not to do it. At university, the face veil gave me a new status among my conservative friends. I was hailed for moving forward in my journey towards God. Many of my friends followed my lead and wore the face veil as well. It also gave me trouble. This was the 1980s. The Egyptian government was cracking down on conservative Muslims. Sometimes security guards would not allow me in if I did not show them my face for identification. I’d make a big fuss at the gate, the “brothers” would rally, and the security guards would eventually let me in. Gradually, as face veiled girls increased at the university, female security guards were appointed to stand at the gates. This was an acceptable compromise. The medical faculty staff weren’t very impressed with the conservative Muslim look either. During oral exams, professors would first be taken aback when I walked into the room. Luckily for me, our exams were in English and I’d immediately use my American accent to distract them from the veil I was wearing. Half of the exam would be spent explaining how I had an American accent and wore the face veil. It didn’t make sense to them. I was able to get on their good side. I was likeable and it worked for me.

From a few days after I wore the hijab and for many many years afterwards I had conviction: I was doing the right thing. I was obeying one of many of God’s orders. I knew I wasn’t perfect in God’s eyes. But the hijab was something I was able to do. I was a sinner like any other human being. But not covering my hair would not be one of my sins. I could check that off my list. I felt I was protecting men. I was not going to shoulder part of someone else’s sin because that person was attracted to me because of my looks. If sinful sexual thoughts went through a man’s head it would not be because of my face or my hair. I truly believed this.

I wore the face veil for eight years. I took it off because I was getting repeating bouts of chronic bronchitis and my doctor thought that the face veil might have something to do with it. When I took off the face veil I genuinely believed that I was past the age that my face could be attractive to men so it didn’t matter. I was not even 30. I had a distorted self-image. It took years for my self-image to change.

Taking off the face veil was very difficult for me. It had been years since anyone who was not family or a woman had seen my face. Many of my neighbors had no idea what I looked like. I was very self conscious for the first few days as people looked at my face for the first time. Was I sinning again because men could see me? One good friend, who also wore the face veil and continues to do so till this day, was shocked when she first saw me. I was starting down the slippery slope, she told me. Be careful. Pangs of guilt burst through my body. What was God thinking? Where do I stand with God? Is He angry with me?

All this eventually faded as I began to get busy with my career. I shortened my scarf and began wearing pants. I wanted something more functional. I wanted something more versatile. I was tired of feeling constrained by my clothing. I wanted to be able to do things. I didn’t want my clothing to be the thing that held me back.

I eventually reached a stage where I was covering my hair but I was comfortable in my clothing. I could do anything. Almost literally. I went skydiving and paragliding and scuba diving and mountain climbing. I traveled the world and I spoke at international conferences. I led a regional and an international organization. I worked internationally. The fact that I covered my hair did not hold me back. My headscarf did not prevent me from doing the things I wanted to do. It still doesn’t.

Women all over the world wear the head scarf and the face veil for varying reasons. This was my story. I have girlfriends who fought everyone around them to have the right to cover their hair. They did so and continue to do so out of a strong belief that this action brings them closer to God. Most of the women I know where the hijab out of conviction. Only a small minority of women are forced into wearing the hijab.

Even so, I now wonder how much of our conviction comes from what society taught us to be “right” and “pure”. I wonder how much of our conviction comes from how we were taught to understand the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions. Were we taught a more liberal understanding of our religion, would our actions be different? How free are we, I mean really free, to consider non-conventional interpretations of Islamic rulings?

When I was in university, attending lessons by a renowned Muslim Brotherhood member, I was told what books to read. I was also told not to stray from those books. My mind was too young and fragile to be able to read things that were not “mainstream”, I was told. There was the possibility that my naïve mind could be influenced by evil writers. Just do as we tell you and we’ll keep you safe, was the message. For years, literally for years, I kept myself from reading anything that might mess my head up. I have a book at home on atheism by Richard Dawkins that I got the courage to buy but still have not had the courage to read lest it confuse the givens that I grew up with. The road to liberating my mind is a long and difficult road. I do not believe that I will reach true conviction about anything unless I have liberated my mind and exposed myself to all thought and knowledge. Only then can I make my own decisions and not those made for me by society.

All these years…did I wear the hijab because I had conviction? That’s what I believed. I truly did. I’m not entirely so sure of that now.

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31 comments

  1. I am freezed at this stage of ” i’m not entirely sure ‘” for two years now … I am afraid to move forward and “expose my mind ” to different thoughts and knowledge …. I am still afraid to know the truth ! .. I think i am afraid to lose who i am …. This is sad … I am a little-bit disappointed from me … I let my mind down .. Because i am afraid ..
    Hope i can find the courage and the strength to know without that fear of not being me any more …
    Thank you for sharing the story and the thoughts ..

  2. It has always mystified me how some Muslim women believe that, in order for God to allow them to be closer to him, they have to cover their hair, and possibly face. What a sad, superficial god to believe in, IMO.

    The God Delusion is a brilliant book. I hope one day you may review it here.

  3. By the way …. I never questioned God existence .. This is the one thing i am sure about with a strong certainty .. What confuses me is do we really know what makes God “satisfied ” … What He really wants us to do with our lives .. Why we are here .. And what we “should” do And how to judge things and to classify them as right or wrong …

  4. 1)
    Do you really think that your God will consider you a sinner or think less of you just because you don’t cover your hair? If there is a God he will love you for who you are and forgive you.
    2)
    Re Dawkins, it’s mostly only Dawkins who is impressed by Dawkins; I think you’re up to it!
    3)
    People who try to control how you dress/what you do/what you read are just trying to control you. Usually for their own benefit.

    Sorry to generalise but I hope you will get my drift.

    S

  5. You can read Dawkins. His ideas are interesting but it’s like reading a book on another religion… you won’t change your mind because of him. I read your story and I find many things in common with what orthodox jews say to their daughters. But why do we have to think that it’s a sin to be attracted by men or women? This is part of our nature: and we have a brain to think and we can use our intelligence, and our moral judgment, to let us be attracted when it’s fine or to refrain ourselves. For me, that’s the point with scarf and clothes: we cover our body because it’s simplier than using our brains.
    And I can’t stand to feel guilty for someone’s else sin: if a man has problems in controlling his sexual arousal, it’s HIS problem, not mine, and it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed.

  6. Asalamu Alaykom,

    So you’ve got some hijab history. Most of us do. That revealing part about the niqab was really interesting. The real question is how is being covered for us NOW. What is it doing for our lives? Is it helping or hurting us?

    I had ZERO good reasons to wear it several times in the U.S. I was fired for wearing hijab. It took two years to settle that lawsuit. Later, I was an umemployable single mom in hijab and I couldn’t get work. I had an offer from a actual wealthy man from my past to take it off and he’d take care of me (for a while). It hurt to wear it but it hurt from the outside; not the inside.

    And now? For me, I know 100% that I need hijab. Me. Doesn’t have to be you. Doesn’t have to be anybody else. I’m not going to debate anyone who doesn’t want to wear it or thinks that I don’t have to wear it. I know who I am and I know what I need. If someone else doesn’t think they need it—that’s up to them.

    Alhumdulillah. It does protect me. I’ll faltered and failed and asked for protection and received it by wearing hijab. I’ve seen how wearing it is like using a truth serum on others. I’ve felt how the veil reminds me to be more contained and less loosey goosey. I don’t need to attract. I can simply BE. That’s beautiful! I can just be a person in this life without needing to be a commodity for a man or a marketplace. Alhumdulillah. It does change me. It does change my outlook. It does change my actions. Alhumdulillah. I need all that.

    If you don’t. You don’t. But please don’t use your history for the reason you are in this place with hijab now. Be yourself and make your decisions based on NOW. It’s the only thing you have.

  7. So what now?.. “The road to liberating my mind is a long and difficult road.”.. What if at the end of the road you find an answer that you don’t like?.. Just keep blogging.. some of us needs it.

  8. I don’t know whether you’ll be reading this or not given the tens of comments you get daily on your posts especially the ones related to your inner struggles and faith.

    But first let me express my admiration towards your brutal honesty and courage. You are one of my favorite writers and that’s because you truly express yourself through writing. Although, sharing these most private thoughts and struggles is not that fun since you’re sharing with the most judgmental audience ever especially when it comes to religion, yet your boldness deserves respect.

    No one can ever tell you whether you’re right or wrong. We were brought up to never question the givens, that’s why you’ll find readers copying and pasting verses all over your blog and praying that you would find the “right” path. Which right path? The one they believe to be right? The one we were told is the right one? Everyone deals with their own struggles with their own pace and I’m sure God who is the most merciful would understand. If there should be any prayers on your blog, it should be prayers for you to find inner peace wherever that is. Let it be with your scarf or without it, what’s important is how you feel and your spiritual relationship with God. A relationship that no human should interfere in or judge.

    Obviously, I related to your posts about blind fath and the other struggles. And excuse the long comment but I’m an enthusiastic fan :-)

  9. I think your dad should never have ‘pushed’ you in to wearing the hijab in the first place and then maybe you wouldn’t be so confused about it now. The hijab actually islam as a whole is a CHOICE

  10. i have been reading your post and can’t stop myself from commenting. there are two points i want to share.

    first. for me, the initial motivation to use it was because it is a religious obligation. it was my own choice and nobody forced me to do it. along the way, i found it comfortable and i feel protected in it. it gives me a sense of privacy, a sense of that what is precious of me is guarded and can be seen only by those who have the right to see it, which is a liberation in some way for me. i still feel the same while currently living in a western country. i hope in your journey you will eventually, sooner rather than later, come to the same conclusion.

    second. you are talking about conviction. but conviction is not always from what we read but also what we experience in our interaction with God. how we dedicate each of our action with God. how we leave every matter in our life to the decision of God and try to learn to accept it. sometimes it’s hard, sometimes we don’t understand why things happen to us, but we try to keep our faith in God and at the end, if He guides us with His mercy, we would realize why. but this is a struggle in every stage of life. my point is, instead of reading richard dawkin’s book on atheism, it is better to draw yourself closer to God and ask for His guidance, to help you see that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. reading richard dawkins type of phylosphy in my humble opinion is only a waste of time, life is short, and there is a huge reading material out there needing to be read and put an intellectual effort on to benefit the ummah. from my limited knowledge you are a scientist. there are so many things to read about science. i don’t think i could finish reading them even in my life time. and i feel that reading science does draw us closer to God rather than turning us away from it. provided we trust in Him. i pray for you that God shows you the answer to your questions and gives you the inner peace you’ve been searching for. amin.

    just my two cents.

  11. Salam Nadia
    I’ve admired you ever since I saw your interview with Yusri Fouda and accosted you in the airport a few months later like a rabid fan. When I goggled ‘take hijab off’ tonight your hijab experimenting blog post was the last thing I expected to see. And yet I’ve been going crazy for the past few months since COMING to Cairo. Hijab was been hard before: spring in Canada when everyone is peeling off the layers and I’m peeling off, well, my winter coat and thermal henleys. But I’ve never considered taking it off like right now.
    I put it on because I was always convinced it was a fard, and that I would put it on some day eventually. When 9/11 happened and I was an invisible Muslim, I felt like shouting out to the world that I was Muslim too. I felt like I betrayed my best friend who was hijabie and putting up with all the backlash alone, so much so that she took it off. I wanted to be Muslim and visible. You have a problem with me being Muslim? I dare you to come talk to me about it. I was a practicing Muslim in other respects and felt that it was time to stop wanting to put it on and actually put it on. It was time to ‘walk the talk’.
    Hijab in the West is a religious distinction for me, and I can be really strong about defending my religion, but in Cairo it’s about class distinction and that’s just plain upsetting. Call it dunyawiya, but that’s what it is. When I contrast the hijabies with the non-hijabies, the hijabie dressed in tight clothes is probably less modest than the non-hijabie wearing a loose shirt right behind her; I overhear the catty comments from the hijabies about the non-hijabie while sitting at a restaurant and know that I may not say those comments, but I sure understand the feeling. I know this is probably comparing the best of one with the worst of the other, but it’s what I keep seeing right now. Right now I’m having more of the muhaja-babe, catty thought days than the modest peaceful ones. I’d really like a break!
    I don’t really know if I believe its a religious injunction anymore. And that’s the one that is driving me crazy. Because what if I’m doing this whole thing, this whole thing that means giving up so much to me, and I’m actually wasting my time for nothing? People of other faiths as well as Muslims do religious practices that although I respect, don’t think will merit them extra reward or favor with God. Am I doing the same thing? If this aya in Surat El Noor is really misinterpreted, then am I giving up something for nothing? I used to believe that music was haram, I don’t anymore. I used to believe in the death penalty, now I believe it’s the height of injustice because it is not applied fairly. I used to believe that children should obey their parents unless its Shirk no matter what; I’ve seen too many psychopathic parents abuse their adult offspring to believe that any more (For the record, my parents are the wonderful kind, not the pyschopathic kind).
    I know this is something between me and God. I don’t care what other people will say. I would like not to confuse my children, so any experimenting will happen far away from them.
    Three things that are stopping me:
    1)What if it really is a fard, and this is my fitna in life? Taking it off would be a massive failure of that test.
    2)To claim that I am going to take an objective look at the evidence would be a lie. I want to take it off so bad, that will color any objectivity.
    3)The discourse in Egypt after Jan 25 is different. The liberal secular left has a lot more political voice, and I agree with them on so many things politically, this may be seeping in.
    It would be wonderful to be able to breath again when I go out, yet if I do take it off I wouldn’t be able to sleep by night. What does a Muslimah do when she’s stuck between two options? She prays istikhara….
    I loved the advice someone posted in the comments, “Stay warm, Sister. Stay centered and focused. And whatever you do, stay close to Allah.

    Congrats on your marriage!
    L

    1. Does Islam not allow you to have a personal relationship with God? In Christianity, the focus is on the *personal* relationship with God and self introspection of the Bible. There is also a huge community component, but the goal is not centralized control (church based) any longer but personalized interpretation.

      Like the Catholic church of the 1500s, it appears like modern conservative Islamic movement want central control, how you should dress, how you should act, how you should think, etc. And more importantly, it appears they want to control women more so than men. I mean why can’t men avert their eyes if they are tempted? Are men so weak that they can’t avoid the temptation to stare at a beautiful women. Didn’t god make that woman beautiful in the first place or is she inherently evil for being beautiful. And what about gay Muslim men? Certainly they are ogling other men. So why shouldn’t men cover up to if that’s the only way to address sinful thought. Oh, that’s right, men are in CONTROL, so they get to “interpret” and enforce the rules.

      Only they can correctly interpret the Qu’ran for you. I’ve seen this in modern Christianity as well (although in the minority now), taking one verse of the Bible out of context. I like the pastor who said if it isn’t in the text at least 3 times, then be wary of interpretation.

      My view is that the emphasis should be on your own personal study of God’s word, not to the exclusion of the experts (mullah/minister) but in addition to them. The experts shouldn’t CONTROL all of your thought/actions, they should derive from your reading and prayer.

    2. Its good to know that I’m alone in what i’m going through. I do have exactly the same thoughts like you and my experience with hejab is somewhat similar to Nadia’s, in that I was also influenced by a specific mentality and was persuaded to wear it in my first year of University in Egypt. Similarly, I was happy and comfortable feeling that I’m protected with it from the whole society around me, according to them the good and respectful girls are the one with hejab. My mom doesn’t wear yet, and I used to believe that she is not good enough and that I’m better when it comes to god. However, once we left Egypt and moved to Bahrain, which is a very liberal country. People here don’t give you these dirty looks if you don’t have the hegab on, on the contrary, you would fit in really well, this is when i started having doubts. It seems ok to be without it and i will still be respected, however, i still managed to go with it. Then I went to study in the UK. Meeting a variety of people, made me again realize that i can still be respected without it, and alot of good people are without it. So have i wasted all these year where i could have alot more that what i did? I could have lived my life more openly! How can a piece of cloth just covering some hair define me? It is only about this? I am not conservative at all, so i feel i don’t look like who i really am! Also with the changes in Egypt, these wearing it don’t represent me, i don’t want to be considered one of them just because i’m wearing it. I’m getting to believe that i can also be a good muslim without it. All i can think of is taking it off, yet I can’t take the step, being afraid to regret it! Like you, i feel i can’t be objective, as the idea of being better off without it has just taken over all my thoughts!

    3. Wondering what u ended up doing ? Took it off and still keep it? I am in the same dilemma . I hate that situation !

  12. The writer is identifying Hijab as just putting a piece of cloth to cover female’s hair. Islam’s way of describing Hijab is much broader than that. If you are wearing Hijab, this means that you also have to wear modest clothing and not to show any part of your body except for your face and hands. The writer is limiting the definition of Hijab to be a head cover, but it is the whole idea of being modest in appearance.

    Wearing Hijab is much more than just not being sexually harassed and being protected from males. Even if this is how the writer has been raised and taught, Hijab’s purpose is much more important and broader than that.

    First, wearing Hijab (shown by covering the hair) gives Muslim female a special identity: Your are being identified as a Muslim and this gives you a special status when dealing with others. Specially in the western countries where boundaries between males and females is different from that accepted by Islam. For example, Men usually hug and kiss women when greeting but this is not acceptable in Islam. Wearing Hijab gives Muslima a special identity when she deals with others and make them be attentive when dealing with her (I know that at least when they greet me they are not sure whether to hug or knock on shoulder or what to do). This is from a special experience. I am always thankful for wearing Hijab (hair cover) whenever I am in a social gathering because this saves me a lot of embarrassment when I behave different than others.

    Second, Islam is under a huge confrontation and war by the western media. Western people mostly link Islam with terrorism. When Muslima wears Hijab and being identified as a Muslim, this is one of the best ways to communicate to people that Muslims are normal people who are well behaving, well educated and have high social standards. Since in Islam every man and woman is a representative of his religion with his or her good deeds, it is one of the greatest things to be identified as a Muslim because this changes the negative view of others about Islam as a religion.

    I understand your reasons for doing experimentation with taking off hijab and feel the differences in peoples’ perceptions and behavior with you. However I really believe that you are limiting the reasons of wearing Hijab to only one limited reason and forgetting about the overall picture of the reason of wearing Hijab.

  13. Dear Nadia
    Wow, what a thought-provoking article!
    I think the first thing is to recognize that the question you pose — is it conviction or social brainwashing? — can be asked of pretty much anything we social creatures THINK we believe in. Here are some examples:

    - A new fashion or electronic device hits the market. Within a few weeks I become convinced that I must own it too.
    – A charismatic leader convinced a whole generation of Germans that not only were they meant by God to rule the world, but that Jews a
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    nd gypsies and other sub-groups were the enemy and deserved persecution and grisly deaths. The German people, all as one, cheered and agreed!
    – Generations of Americans were once perfectly content to believe that people with dark skin deserve enslavement. After American culture changed, generations of Americans became perfectly content to believe that people with dark skin deserve equality.
    – I became unhappy with my appearance. I lost confidence over it. Then I had cosmetic surgery to alleviate my unhappiness. The expense, pain, and risk were worth it: I have freed myself of the feeling that I am ugly!

    What do these examples show? How easily we are influenced by cultural values, friends, and leaders — and how little we recognize this or are able to resist it!

    Seen in that light, I would interpret your behavior in this way: You belonged to a group (friends, family) that valued a certain clothing style and taught you that to go uncovered was to commit a sin. You gradually internalized this fear. When you put on the hijab for good, you were suddenly free of the dark fear and conflicted feelings that your associates had created in you. You felt good and free and virtuous; your mind was easy at last. Then friends suggested that you were still sinning because your face was too pretty and your laugh too attractive. The fears returned — you again eased your mind by covering yourself further. You got praise and admiration from your peers as well.

    Suppose your peers had then said, “but you are still sinning by leaving the house, and men will be tempted by seeing you! Don’t you know the hadith that says, “A woman should leave her home only when she marries and when she is taken to the grave?” I think you would again have developed a dark fear of sinning, and would have again changed your life — locked yourself inside — and again felt good and virtuous and right with God, as your friends praised you and your conflicted feelings evaporated.

    Suppose enough of your friends say, “Nadia, your blog is a tool of Shaitan. By questioning the hijab and other aspects of our faith, you are tempting other women to sin. You are destroying Muslim society. You are committing the worst kind of apostasy.” (In fact, a British Muslim leader recently made these accusations against young Malala, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot for wanting an education — and I imagine he and his followers would say the same of you.) You would then perhaps again fear fear of God’s displeasure. You would silence yourself, give up your voice, and again feel happy and virtuous as you sat alone in your home, isolated and contributing none of your gifts to the world — but constantly praying and reading Quran and feeling very joyous that you were submitting to God’s demands!

    We can both ask ourselves this: if you or I had grown up alone on an island with no people to influence us — just various holy books and works of philosophy — what would we believe? Would we say the rosary? cover our hair? sacrifice lizards on an altar? live solely for hedonistic pleasaure? If you had been born into my family or I into yours, and both of us had grown up praying to God just as we have, would you still have heard God say “hijab protects you and is God’s desire” and would I still have heard God say, “hijab is a man-made artifice that serves a social power structure based on lowly emotions — the desire of some to exert control over others, or feel more smugly virtuous than others, or gain attention and praise, or feel safe from ostracism and criticism, or divert themselves from worrying about the greater and more damaging sins they may be committing.”

    Who would we be, if it were just us… and God?

    1. Nadia,
      I should stop, but I cannot resist adding another comment:
      Your father in Saudi Arabia was threatened by his friends: threatened with the loss of his reputation as a Muslim man. He coerced you to wear the veil so he would not lose honor in front of other men.

      In another society the men would have spoken differently to him. They would have said, “Your daughter goes out in public with her head bare , speaking in her american accent, tempting all menand enjoying the attention. She is probably flirting — in fact, we have heard that she has boyfriends,, that she has sex. She is shaming you. You must rid yourself of this shame by killing her.” In fact, this is exactly the cause of honor killings: they are committed by men, to save their reputations in front of other men. And it is women who are made to pay the price. This is not a noble thing; it is nothing God could ever approve of.

      I have some personal knowlege of the subject. When my Muslim husband first cme to the us and fell in love with me, we began to discuss marriage. I was an Amnerican-born young woman, not a Muslim, and I dressed not for sexiness but for comfort: in t-shirts and shorts when the weather was hot. He said, “I love you but if we marry you must never wear shorts again, because if you do I will lose my friends.”

      I as shocked. As it became clear that he would not budge on this issue, I gave in but I was humilated. giving up shorts was no difficulty — but to be coerced into giving them up so that my husband-to-be could look good in front of his friends?! To leave that his reputation with other Muslim males meant more to him than his beloved’s happiness and freedom? That was my first dark peek into the man-made social pressures he was under, and would force me to bow down to.

      Long story short: I never wore shorts again. But he continued to look at me critically and make ever increasing demands: my skirt should be longer, my shirt buttoned to the neck; I should act like a Muslim woman when we were out with his friends; I should socialize only with the wives and not with the husbands (with whom I had more in common). The burdens he felt to save his reputation by having the proper sort of wife, he then dumped on me. Like your father (and honor killers the world over), he thought it was my job to keep sacrificing so that he could be spared his friends’ criticism. Like you, he thought it normal that a woman should carry extra burdens so that a man could feel good about himself.

      My opinions and my happiness, it turned out, deserved little respect — as infatuation wore off, I meant far less to him than his reputation. When our three children were all under five years old and I was finishing my medical training, he left me, saying that I had not done enough to please him. Yet he was not an evil man, just one shaped by his society. As your father was. And you are. And i am.

      How will we shape the society that we leave to our children?

  14. The question in your headline leads to the original and main question:
    Religion a choice or inheritance? A choice or culture?
    To me it’s a choice! It has to be! Otherwise we wouldn’t be accountable and wouldn’t need be judged!
    And in order to make a choice we need to know what we are choosing from!
    Starting by atheism going by all faiths and philosophies, if my choice is Islam, and if head cover is part of Islam then I can loudly and clearly tell it to everybody’s face: this is my choice! I know why, I can explain, I stand by it and I bear the consequences!
    And I’d be genuinely knowing that I can be accountable for my choices! The choices I have made! Not the circumstances I’ve been raised in.
    Amongst people I know, the best practicing Muslims are those who made a conscious choice to be Muslims. And the most struggling and confused and not always practicing Muslims are those born to Muslim families and not researching far beyond what they’ve been told! Thus what makes sense they do, and what doesn’t they struggle with , or quit practicing altogether rather than spend some time learning, understanding and choosing!
    Amongst people I know many claim to belong to faiths they know very shallow info about, many turn away from faiths because of how society deals with it not because they know anything about the faith per se! Many are atheists or agnostic just because they struggle with a specific faith or a specific event in their lives, or they simply don’t know where to start and what to look for and feel they are happier putting faith on a back mind shelf for now!
    Choosing however is liberating for it makes us know we have a solid ground underneath all what we do.
    Not knowing, not understanding and not choosing (from different options that is) can be paralysing and leaves us victims to doubt, prone to hesitation and can lead us to taking dramatic rebellios actions just because we don’t know what else to do about those feelings that we are dealing with…
    Religion is a choice but not everyone knows or wants or feels the urge to make that choice…
    While all it takes is to ask the right questions, in the right place in order to get a right answer…

  15. Assalamo ‘alaykom wr wb,

    Came across your blog quite by accident yesterday on Google Images, and it’s been fascinating reading through your posts – I still can’t figure out what you are – journalist? hiker? world traveler? a little bit of everything? Haha, whatever the case, I have to say your journey really fascinates me.

    The page I stumbled on yesterday, was your 2010 post, “Time for a Confession: I wore the face veil for 8 years,” and I was impressed as you listed the things you’d done wearing the face veil, “I drove while wearing the face veil. I went horseback riding while wearing the face veil… One evening, I even raced another veiled colleague down the long corridors of Cairo University Hospital to kill the boredom of a long night shift. Once, I threw myself in the Mediterranean Sea for a dip…yes…wearing the face veil. I went shopping wearing the face veil. I went to restaurants wearing the face veil. I was a fully functioning member of society – wearing the face veil.”

    So I was a little surprised when I read this post, as you explained the justification you went through following your abandoning of the veil, “I wanted something more functional. I wanted something more versatile. I was tired of feeling constrained by my clothing. I wanted to be able to do things. I didn’t want my clothing to be the thing that held me back.”

    I’m curious, I guess, in what way you did find the veil to be constraining? I’ve personally worn the niqab as an American in Egypt for 2 years, and have recently moved back to the U.S. where I’m still wearing it, and have yet to come across any activity where I’m truly constrained. And I’m not saying that in a judgmental way – I agree with some of the sisters above, it does have to be a personal choice, and to each her own. Just curious whether you found it constraining on a physical level, or a social level, or what.

    Either way, I’m interested in your journey away from niqab. I can count on one hand the number of women I’ve met who’ve left it after wearing it for a time, and then always because they couldn’t find employment in the West, or some such reason. They all miss it terribly, and I’ve always felt I would too if I were ever forced to give it up for some reason. I’d love to read another post elaborating on the process of moving back, from niqab, to abaya and hijab, and all the gradual steps (I’m assuming it was gradual?) to the more modern pants and headscarf you’re wearing on top of Kilimanjaro (elf mabrouk on the accomplishment, incidentally – that’s quite a climb! I had the privilege of spending a few weeks near Mt. Longonot in Kenya, and for some reason it always reminded me of Kilimanjaro, and always wished I could climb it.)

    You mentioned believing that you were past the age that men found your face attractive, despite being younger than 30, which also intrigued me. Again, I’d be interested in a post going into more detail on why you wore it/how you gave it up. Many of my (Egyptian) in-laws wear the niqab, and some despite being well into their 60s and 70s, and while I’ve pondered whether I would consider removing the niqab (keeping the abaya and khimar) when I’m elderly (past 50? 60?) and it’s no longer fard, I’m not even sure I would then, because it’s such a personal thing, it really becomes part of who you are, part of your identity and comfort zone, you know what I mean? Anyways, I’m probably rambling at this point, hope I was somewhat coherent. Looking forward to reading more of your posts insha’Allah, may Allah make us of the muhtadeen.

    1. Salams Elisabeth,

      I’ve been thinking about your comment all week and wondering what made me say that I was looking for something more functional. I had assumed those words I wrote were about the jump from wearing the hijab to not wearing it and I thought that it was very strange that I might have said that. I’ve always told people, when asked, that the hijab never kept me back from doing anything. Then I went into my post and re-read what I wrote. I was referring to the change from wearing a face-veil and very long wide dresses to wearing a short hijab with pants and shirt.

      Although I did some things while wearing the face-veil, there was always a limit to what I could do. Yes. I did jump in the Mediterranean for a dip with all my clothes on. But I can tell you it wasn’t pleasant the minute I stepped out of the water. And in the water I couldn’t swim like I normally would. I would not have been able to climb Kilimanjaro with my face covered and a long gown to trip over. I would not have been able to cycle. The list goes on.

      When I started wearing a more functional form of hijab, however, I was doing everything I have ever wanted to do and more. The mere covering of one’s hair has absolutely no relevance on being able to engage in physical activities. Covering the orifices from which one breathes does. Of course, many women wearing the face veil choose to do physical activity (if they even do choose to…most I know don’t really) in an all women’s gym or at home. But I’d like to be able to engage in outdoors activities and I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to.

      In short, yes…the face veil was limiting for me. The hijab was not. Ultimately I stopped wearing the face veil for health reasons. I was getting frequent bouts of chronic bronchitis and my doctor suggested that (among other things) taking the face veil might help me get better. I did take off the face veil, I also stopped having wall-to-wall carpeting at home, and I did eventually get better. I still get long bouts of bronchitis, but it’s much less frequent than it used to be.

      I hope this answers your questions :-)

      1. Wasalam, ah ok, yes, that does help :) I still do hope you write a post at some point on the process of that switch back, from abaya and niqab to headscarf and pants – you alluded to it a little bit, saying it was “very difficult for me. It had been years since anyone who was not family or a woman had seen my face. Many of my neighbors had no idea what I looked like. I was very self conscious for the first few days as people looked at my face for the first time.” I can imagine that’s how it would feel, and I guess I’m just curious what that process would be like, emotionally, socially, and otherwise. It’s one I’ve never been through, and hope to never have to go through, and must feel very.. weird, I guess for lack of a better term :) Anyways, thanks again for your response, looking forward to more reading.

      2. There’s really not much to say. It was the same feeling I had when I first wore the hijab. And the same feeling I had when I first wore the khimar. And the same feeling I had when I first wore the niqab. Every time there was a change in the general way I looked due to a serious change in the way I dressed, I was very self-conscious for a time until I and everyone around me got used to the new me. That was it. Just the general awkwardness. Nothing more.

  16. I do not follow any religion, but neither am I an atheist. My honest opinion of Richard Dawkins is that he is trying to describe God scientifically, which is like trying to describe colour musically. I do believe in God but also believe that people have the same chance of understanding what God is about as a mouse has to understand particle physics. Treat people how you would want to be treated, dress how you feel comfortable, and don’t do anything that you would not want anyone you respect to read in a newspaper.

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