Unveiling Part Two: My Hijab, My Empowerment

 Today I would like to talk about something a bit more on the personal side for me: the headscarf.

It is called many different things: headscarf, hijab, niqab (which refers to a face veil), burqa, veil, shawl, khimar, covering. It is worn many different ways by many different women, and each culture has its own traditions and interpretations. There is even a budding “Islamic fashion” industry that everyone seems to either love or hate.


But what it all boils down to is one principle: modesty.


In Islam, the principle of modesty applies to both men and women, though their manners of covering are indeed different. I would like to briefly note that for a man he is required to be covered from belly-button to knees in loose, opaque fabric in front of anyone but his wife, and it is encouraged that if he his able he should wear more (i.e. pants are better than long shorts, a sleeved t-shirt is better than a tank top).


There are differences between the four schools of thought on how much exactly it is required for a woman to cover, but the bare minimum is that a woman should be covering everything except her feet, hands, and face in loose, opaque fabric in front of any man that it would be legal for her to marry (so not men of her family or her husband, but strangers). She should also not wear excessive perfume, makeup or jewellery to adorn herself for non-familial men.


This is something that I did definitely struggle with when I first began to consider converting to Islam. After all, it is a huge change from how I used to dress/think about women's clothing choices. I used to be all about the “if you've got it, flaunt it” way of life, and because of this I ended up being unhealthily thin and worrying quite often about what I was wearing and how I looked, how I measured up to all the other women.


These kinds of principles (of thin = beautiful, competition between women, etc.) were so far ingrained in my mind, that it took a lot of study and a lot of deep digging in order for me to see the wisdom behind covering. But now that I have I can tell you I would never go back.


When I finally did pick up a scarf that had been discarded on my floor and put in on my head for good, I knew I was beginning a journey that would be long and difficult. I knew I would eventually have to change my whole wardrobe of summer dresses and tight jeans into something more along the lines of maxi dresses (which I had never been fond of) and long, covering cardigans or kimonos, and I knew that along the way I was going to get a lot of resistance, maybe from friends and family and maybe from those outside who knew nothing about me except the scarf they saw on my head.


What I didn't expect, however, is the amount of people who would have so much personal hatred for me, just based on the color of my skin.


Most of the people who have ever shouted, spit, and swore at me in the streets, and even done much worse than that, have been upset because I am a white woman who, in their view, made the stupidest (and a completely invalid) choice imaginable. I have been berated by numerous men for being white and a native English speaker and choosing to give up my privilege, oppressing myself, letting my husband oppress me, and being brainwashed into dressing like I do.


But the thing is, I made this informed choice based on what I found to be best for me. My husband didn't force me (in fact I wore it before we were even married), I have not been brainwashed, I did not give up one single grain of “freedom” in order to lead an “oppressive” lifestyle.


To me, my hijab is my liberation.


First and foremost to me is it a symbol of something bigger than myself. It is a way that I can worship my creator (as hijab is indeed ordained in the Qur'an) and it is a way to show everybody exactly who I am: I am a Muslim woman. And it is a way to connect with other Muslim women, forming such a sisterhood that when I see another covered woman walking down the street, I know that we will greet each other with smiles and friendly words.


But secondly, on a more personal level, I have come to recognize hijab as a form of empowerment.


By covering myself like I do, from head to foot in loose fitting and opaque fabric, I am making the choice to become something more than a body to be dressed up and shown off. I am moving past the ever changing fashion trends and sometimes fierce competition amongst women who should be treating each other as sisters. I am putting myself in a position of absolute power; I get to choose exactly who can see which parts of my body.


My hijab is a barrier against prying eyes and it immediately signals to anyone that I am interacting with, especially men, that I expect a certain degree of respect and personal space.


Though it has been a hard lesson, wearing the headscarf and trying to live the modest lifestyle that is required with it has taught me to stop worrying incessantly about how I appear to others, and let what is important do the talking: my intellect, my personality, and my spirituality.


Yes, I have gained a few pounds since I came to Algeria and started eating too much of my mother-in-law's delicious cooking. And I used to be really worried about that. But then it dawned on me: my husband thinks I am beautiful when I am not so skeletal, and I am so much more healthy. So why worry about what everyone else has to say?


Yes, I still sometimes look at women who don't wear the headscarf and think wow, I really wish I could wear a nice outfit like that. But then I remember: I can wear whatever sexy, trendy things I want at home with my husband, my family, and my girlfriends (ok, maybe not the sexy things with the family and girlfriends!). What do I have to prove to everyone else? Why do they need to see anything of me other than my clean, tidy, lilac and rose khimars, that cover my curves and look presentable?


My non-Muslim aunt once taunted me with something along the lines of, “well at least I don't have to cover myself up and hide from the world.” And for a while those words stung a little. But going out in public dressed like I am, and noticing how much more empowered I feel, I have come to realise: I am not hiding myself from the world, I am hiding what I feel is none of the world's business, so that I can let myself shine through.


Far from being a white woman who chose to be oppressed, I am a woman who found my freedom.


Image sourced from unsplash.com

Published by Ashley Bounoura

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