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.