I need to think out loud. I’ve found blogging my thoughts helps me work through them. Most of the time I receive very helpful comments on the things I blog about. These comments are read and much appreciated even if I don’t always reply to them. Sometimes I don’t reply because I’m mulling over the things that people have said. Of course, other times I receive quite hurtful and judgmental comments. But even these are helpful. It’s good to know where societies stand on certain issues. It’s good to know where work needs to be done to create positive change.
I had a long conversation last night with a very good friend of mine. It was about the hijab; that piece of cloth that covers a woman’s hair. Many of you will recall the blog post I wrote in which I admitted that I had experimented with taking my hijab off during a trip to Europe. That post received more than 68,000 views since it went online and more than 450 comments. Clearly this is a topic that many people find important, whatever their reasons.
Since I wrote that post, I will now admit that I have continued to experiment. My experimentation the first time was mainly to try to see if complete strangers, in a European country, dealt with me differently with and without the hijab. I was raised to believe that the hijab protected women from the evil stares of men. The hijab allowed people to deal with me not because of my beauty but because of my personality and what was in my head. I wanted to know if this was true. The result of my European experiment was that there was no difference. People did not look at me or treat me any differently because I was wearing the hijab or because I had exposed my hair. The treatment in both cases was almost exactly the same. Since then, whenever I’ve been to Europe and when I’m not in the presence of people I know who I feel may be judgmental of me, I continue to not wear the hijab. This time though, I’m experimenting with my own feelings about this. I know that people in a European country could care less whether I cover my hair or not. But do I care? How do I feel? And what are my feelings about doing the same thing in an Arab country? Or in the midst of people I know?
This is what I’ve learned about myself so far:
When in Europe and when I’m in the midst of people I do not know, I am completely comfortable not wearing my hijab. I do not in any way feel that people are looking at me as if I’m some sort of a sex object. I’m just a person passing by. I feel the same way when I’m walking around in Europe with the hijab. Exactly the same. The difference is, perhaps, that it’s nice for me to be able to let my hair go free for once. It’s less constricting. After a long day wearing the hijab out of the house, I always come home wanting to take it off immediately. I need to air my head and my neck. When I’m not wearing the hijab in Europe, I don’t have that feeling of being constricted. I’ve also discovered that the hijab is an added benefit when it gets cold. It keeps my head warm. I hadn’t realized how cold one’s ears can get when exposed.
I’ve also worn and not worn the hijab with European friends who know me. This has been strange for me. When I am not wearing the hijab among people I know, I feel as if I’ve lost part of my identity. I have been wearing the hijab for 26 years now. That is a long time. Regardless of why I wear the hijab, it has become a part of who I am. When I’m not wearing it, I struggle a little bit with my European friends. It’s an internal struggle. It cannot be seen. But it’s there inside of me.
A European female friend of mine has pictures of me with and without the hijab. When I began feeling that she preferred the ones without the hijab over the ones with it (only a perceived feeling on my part and nothing that she had expressed in any way), I felt that my identity was being attacked. Even though I sometimes did not wear the hijab in the presence of people, in my head I was still the woman who wears the hijab and was proud of it. Just because I did not always wear the hijab did not mean that I was not that person anymore. This led me to become defensive and to wear the hijab more often in her presence in order to assert my identity.
This whole issue of having pictures of me taken without the hijab has been a big thing for me. What if these pictures get published on the Internet? What if someone puts a picture on Facebook and tags me? What will my friends think of me? Am I comfortable with some of my Arab friends seeing my hair? If not, why? What is the big deal?
One reason this is a big deal is because many Arabs/Muslims really do make a big fuss out of it. A simple example is that when a group of girls who wear the hijab get together in a party and take off their hijab, they all eye each other’s hair and make positive and negative comments. It is an extremely uncomfortable experience. You suddenly turn into your hair. Your hair becomes a very big deal. It is for this reason that I never take off my hijab during these girls-only parties. Ever. I have a very good friend who traveled with me once. She kept talking about wanting to come to my hotel room specifically so she could see my hair. I completely refused. I was not going to model myself for anyone. I am not my hair. I also have some Arab male friends who I’d be extremely uncomfortable appearing hijab-less in front of for the same exact reason. The amount of curiosity they have shown over the years in what is under that piece of cloth can be stifling at times.
What I’m seeing in this experience is that as long as a woman normally exposes her hair, most if not all people will deal with her as a whole individual and not as the woman with the hair. But the fact that some women cover their hair creates an aura of mystery to some people about what exists beneath the cloth that can sometimes border on obsession, in which case the woman turns into the woman with the covered hair.
I’ve had another issue that I found myself expressing to my friend last night during our conversation. “I’m uncomfortable taking off my hijab in Egypt because I feel the hijab gives me a certain status here and a certain amount of respect,” I told my friend. I was shocked hearing myself say this. But I know it to be true. A woman in a hijab in Egypt and in most of the Islamic world has a status of respect in society. She is pure. She is almost holy. She is an observing Muslim woman, as is evident by the mere fact that she covers the hair on her head. This demands respect.
I am very uncomfortable with myself feeling this way. I do not want respect from people and a certain status in society because of what I put on my head. Just as I do not want people to look at Nadia and see her hair, I do not want people to look at Nadia and see her scarf. I want people to respect me for who I am and what I do and not for anything else. And trust me, the scarf does not make me holy or pure.
I’ve discovered that I don’t want to lose “status” or “respect” among my peers, among my neighbors, or with my doorman for that matter. I’ve been telling myself for the past few months that one of the reasons I continue to wear the hijab in Egypt is that I feel a need to respect my culture. It would be insulting for so many people to see me without my hijab. They would literally feel offended. But the real reason, if I dig deep inside of me, that I do not want people in Egypt to see me without my hijab is that I don’t want to be looked down on. I truly believe in my head that a main reason for the respect I am given is the cloth that covers my hair. A small part of me knows this may be wrong. But the biggest part of me believes it to be true. And that is just sad.
This blog post will get many comments about hijab in Islam, verses from the Quran will be quoted and Prophetic sayings will be noted. Feel free to have discussions among yourselves here about faith and observance of faith and how I’m going down a slippery slope towards hell.
The one thing I have confidence and trust in is my relationship with God. Not for one minute have I worried throughout all this about God judging me as a bad person. I know that God gave me a brain to use. I know God supports my struggle and my journey trying to figure things out for myself. Tell me otherwise as much as you want. No matter what you say to me, this is the one thing I know to be true.
I am confident in God. I have trust in God. I am not worried about God being judgmental of me. But I have no confidence in people. I have no trust in people. I do worry about people being judgmental of me. I am very upset with myself for feeling this way. I feel small. And this is something I need to work on with myself. I want to reach a stage where I do things because I feel they are the right thing for me to do and not because they are the right thing for other people to do. The journey is long and hard. I am happy that I have the strength to go on it. I know that I will stumble a lot along the way. But I know that I need to go on this journey to find the true me and not the image of me that is in the minds of others.