Posted on Oct 25, 2018
Until the age of 14, I would wrap my head with the dupata to pray in the mosque. Afterwards, I would uncover to leave the mosque and enter the non-religious parts of the city. One day something stopped me: If I actually accept God asks us to do this, and if I believe God is everywhere, why do I only wear it in the mosque? He’s not only in the mosque.
“Baba, can I just keep wearing this?”
My father turned to look at me, and told me, “Sure.” He took me to the downtown mall and I was very anxious walking through, covered. But nobody yelled at me, nobody stopped me. Nobody even gave me a second glance. I exhaled and realized this was something I wanted permanently. My parents warned me when I told them of my decision. They were concerned about the difficulties I’d face entering high school in Virginia, especially post-9/11. But I felt like I needed to do it for myself.
In high school, I felt like it was my mission to prove them all wrong, to show them that a hijabi woman can be empowered and that Islam is not disempowering for women. I was happy to engage with the conversations my hijab invited, and I would sit with my classmates and explain all the things I learned in Sunday School. One day, I was stuck in the crowd heading to lunch and someone yanked the back of my hijab hard, pulling my entire head back. I whipped around, saying, “Who did that?” in a demanding voice, glaring at the people around me and daring one of them to come forward and admit they did something wrong. No one stepped forward. No one admitted they saw it happen. All I said was, “Cowards,” and walked away.
Some years later, I was riding the bus and angry about something that had happened in my life. When I looked up I realized people were staring at me. And then I realized there had been a terrorist attack in a different part of the world that day, and I knew I had to smile back at the stares. Smile, look away, ignore your own upset for this moment. Because I can’t get angry in public without it affecting how people see my religion and other hijabis.
Within my Muslim community, I get to have a platform, stand in front of others and ask questions about patriarchy in Islam and have my voice heard. People did not disregard my questions as they would another Muslim girl who did not wear the hijab, like they sometimes would for my sister or mother. I was more visibly Muslim with the hijab, I could recite more verses from the Quran; my uncovered sister and mother would be considered "godless feminists" to ask the questions that I do. And that is something I struggle with to this day. It is very frustrating to me that people think my mother is somehow less of a Muslim than me.
And then, something even more visceral happened a few years ago when my father got sick.
“He has to get emergency surgery right now,” the doctor told us grimly, preparing to wheel him away into the hospital rooms and an unknown future. “Say goodbye now, we don’t know if he’s going to make it back.”
As we hugged him and kissed him, praying for his safe return, my father told us simply, “If I have to meet God today, if today is my day, I have nothing to regret. But I don’t think it’s my day.”
Thank God, he made it safely through the surgery and is much better today, but he had to recover in the ICU for a long time. He was on painkillers even stronger than morphine because the morphine would not work in his system, so he should have been completely out of it. But on Friday, he would say to me, “I have to go to Jumaa.”
“Baba,” I answered him, “you have wires sticking out of you. Your stomach is open, you haven’t even been sewn back together. You can’t go to Jumaa.” But he was so insistent. I had to reassure him, “You can pray from here. God will hear you, He will understand.” As the nurses constantly came in and out of the room to check on him, he told every one of them what Jumaa is, why Friday is special in Islam, and how we pray. After everything that just happened to him, his first reaction was to go to prayer.
In that moment, I realized I did not have his strength of faith. I did not have that courage. I realized I had been taught to think that these things I do or the way I dress is any indication of my faith, and that my faith might be better than others because I wear it openly. That is absolutely false. In the hospital, I realized that my internal faith might never be as strong as my father’s or my mother’s. The hijab I wear does nothing and it means nothing, unless it reflects something that comes from within.
This blog is adapted by Alexandra Rice and Hebah Fisher from the script originally aired on the podcast Kerning Cultures. Kerning Cultures produces radio documentaries from the Middle East and its diaspora. The original podcast episode, "Not Just My Hijab" featuring Irtefa's story and three other women's stories, can be found here, or wherever you get your podcasts. The illustration used in this article is by Joseph Kai.
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