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Hijab as Dawah: A New Muslim’s Perspective

Posted on January 19, 2016

Covering in Islam is often an aspect of the religion that non-Muslim people find repellant (if they understand it at all). But even before I was interested in adopting Islam for myself, I was curious about this practice in particular. When I saw women on the street who were covered, I wondered at their motivation. I knew that there were places in the world where women were forced to cover themselves, but, I thought, this was America, so they don't HAVE to cover. Even on 90-degree days they're doing it. What could possibly inspire them to such voluntary personal discomfort? 

I loved that people could tell who Muslim women were just by looking at them (I've since been told this is an ironic observation because so many Muslim women find it difficult to be obviously Muslim in American society), and I often wished that Christianity had an equivalent. I don't consider myself a particularly disciplined person, and I thought I might act like a better Christian if people knew that's what I was just by looking at me. I wondered what set us Christians apart - how people knew that's what we were. As the old song goes: They will know we are Christians by our love. But I found that a really unsatisfying response since I also knew a lot of really loving, selfless agnostics. Shouldn't we also have a different standard of behavior?

When I mentioned this to a Christian friend, he commented that marking oneself as a religious person seemed a little like doing exactly what Jesus (peace be upon him) said not to do when he instructed in the Gospel that we should not cover ourselves with ashes and wear sackcloth and stand around on street corners praying loudly and drawing attention to ourselves (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). My friend suggested that dressing in an obviously religious way might invite hypocrisy.

I agreed that, at first glance, this might seem true. But I also thought that hypocrisy is a discord between the heart and the actions, and that if one felt genuinely led to a certain action, it wouldn't be hypocritical. In short, I decided that it's our intention that matters. Little did I know that this is a central tenant of Islam: God knows we're going to mess up, and so He looks at the intention of our heart.

It was late 2014 when I started seriously considering Islam, and I began dressing more conservatively about that time. I wore longer shirts that sort of covered my rear. I wore neck scarves all the time which draped over my chest. I didn't feel particularly remarkable at first. It was wintertime, and although I was wearing long sleeves and scarves, EVERYONE was wearing long sleeves and scarves.

As time went on, I began to notice a change, not necessarily in my behavior, but in my attitude. I was less concerned about my own body than I had been ever before in my life. My intention in covering my body was just to go for it and see what happened. I wasn't trying to hide it from men, necessarily, because I hadn’t dressed really provocatively to begin with. An unintended side effect of covering more was that I worried less about what other women thought about my body (not in a romantic way). I'm sure there are lots of girls who can identify with this - you see a girl dressed in a way that displays her body (even if it's not a lewd or sexy way. It can be yoga pants or a tank top) and you immediately start comparing yourself to her and worrying if she's doing the same. Even working out (or, perhaps, especially working out) was a time full of worry instead of concentration or enjoyment. But as the months went by, I discovered that veiling myself from others made me more confident. They couldn't see my hard-won muscles, but they also couldn't see my flaws, which was, in a word, awesome. I'd never been so confident image-wise. I just did my thing without worrying about whether my thighs looked big or if my bra strap was showing. It was freeing.

After I moved to the southwest, I fully intended to start covering my head. I was worried about it, and about continuing to dress conservatively, not so much because of what strangers would think, but because I knew it would make my family uncomfortable.

Out of fear, I waited until literally five minutes before I left for my first day of my new job before telling anyone my decision. I put the scarf on, turban-style, and left the house. Nobody said anything to me about it for the whole day, which was comforting (because I hadn't thought of an appropriate response to any questions I might get) and disappointing (because I had been so curious to see what the experience would be like and expected it to be more dramatic).

It’s been almost 2 months now, and overall, it's been a hugely positive experience for me. First off, on a superficial level, I have always liked things touching my head - it makes me feel more secure - so when I wear a scarf I feel safe. Not safe in a "protected from bad people" way, but safe in a comfortable way, like how you feel when your dad hugs you. Plus, I've always been terrible at styling my hair. I have no patience for blow-drying, and I usually end up just putting it up on a ponytail after a few days of determined but short-lived ambitions to look nice. Wearing a scarf took all the guesswork out of styling my hair. Sometimes I miss wearing it long and straight, but mostly I don't.

Hijab has impacted me on a deeper level too. Wearing a headscarf has partially had the effect I had expected it to before I started wearing it, but perhaps in more subtle ways than I thought. If you remember, I anticipated hijab to be a reminder of behaving appropriately.

One of my biggest self-diagnosed flaws is my passive-aggressivism. I'm not brave enough to initiate a full-on confrontation with anyone, so I usually employ a cocktail of sarcasm and exasperated facial expressions when I’m upset. I know that I do this. I know that it's wrong. I'm almost always ashamed afterward. But in the moment, when I feel like some terrible wrong has been perpetrated against me, I can't help myself. I find my own feelings too important. I suffer from pride, a terrible thing in any religion.

What I observed from myself while wearing hijab was ever-so-slightly increased humility. Feeling it there on my head was, perhaps, the added reminder I needed to pause just for a moment before being passive-aggressive. When someone cut me off in their car while I was trying to cross the street, for example, I would normally lift my hands in a "What the heck?!" gesture, but I thought twice about it while wearing my scarf. It is, I think, a combination of knowing it was more likely people were watching me because I looked weird coupled with legitimately pausing to correct my behavior out of the desire to act like God told me to. Wearing hijab helps me to stay more aware of God throughout my day.

My relationship with the headscarf - like all of my experiences with Islam - is constantly evolving. It's likely my perspective will shift again. We'll see. But what I'd like to impress upon all the hijab-wearers out there is this: You are a walking billboard for your religion. I don't mean this to frighten or overwhelm you. This is an awesome aspect of your faith! You have literally no idea who is watching you, being inspired, wondering what love or passion or commitment drives you to set yourselves apart. You could be helping open someone's mind to submitting to the Creator of the Universe, and that is a beautiful thing.

Fadhumo is a brand-new lawyer who lives and works in the United States. She asks for your duas as she continues to learn what it means to live in a state of Islam.

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