Since I started off rather late in life, it was a highly conscious decision. Friends in Goa often asked me before marriage if I would ever cover my head and I naively said ‘yes, may be! When the calling comes!’
Days after my wedding as we prepared to leave for London, it suddenly dawned upon me that I needed to cover my head. Before this, had anyone asked me to wear head scarf, not really!
Would I accede? Probably not!
Because of the flawed understanding of our own practices and in an attempt to not being seen as ‘forceful’, my own family did not ask me to cover up. Although modesty in dress was still paramount, the not covering of the the head was excused.
The hijab, an umbrella term for decency or modesty in thought and behaviour for both man and woman; is hardly seen in this wide perspective. Hijab in normal verbiage is meant to be the scarf that a Muslim female uses to cover her head.
A hijabi is a Muslimah who covers her hair, but the Muslim faith does profess and preach Hijab to be practised by every Muslim. In the scriptures, the first instruction for hijab is given to the man and then to the woman.
Symbolism plays a great role in ones life and so does the desire for social affiliation, to join a group and be identified as a part of. The identification bit leads to the sporting of outwardly symbols. Now, is the scarf mere symbolism or is it more than that? If its is only a matter of covering your hair, then why does Islam lay sanctions on people who may cover up but who behave inappropriately. Hijab is much more than a fashion statement; it is a way of life.
I have never had lovely lustrous hair. It has always been long, wavy and basic tied into a ponytail. The reason I never considered covering up my mediocre locks is not because I had a lot to show off about, it’s only because I did not want to be viewed as somebody who practised an ‘archaic form of oppression/subjugation.’
Mother started donning the burqa late in life, a black lose garment from neck to toe with a matching black scarf to cover the hair and ears. I made sure Mum bought velvet scarves with lace at the hem to sort of cut the severity of the fully black ensemble.
Did I feel embarrassed about seeing around with Mother like this? Surprisingly no. I am still not sure why. Mum had always been a diffident soul in search of something to hang on to. As the quiet child grew from girl to woman, Mum sought solace in religion. Peace was attained and a way of life was chosen. Islam was embraced in spirit and flesh.
Acceptance from the outer world was insignificant as Mum achieved oneness with Allah. I think I was most moved by the conviction with which Mum practised Islam. I introduced mother to every friend I had in Goa and took her everywhere I would normally be embarassed to be seen as ‘a practising Muslim’. Since Mum was eloquent in the English language, it was heartening to see reactions and sometimes interesting. At least there was one myth busted that Islam was a religion for the illitrerate.
I have revisited my faith, this time as an adult, I now see and understand it better. I think I am in a position to answer questions on my faith. One would wonder why people should question and why I have to answer. I think it’s a great way to dispel doubts.
I started wearing the hijab the day following my wedding. And no, my husband wasn’t the subjugating, distrustful man that one would imagine him to be. The decision had a to do with my own striving as an individual of faith, but the impetus nevertheless came from my other half.
I didn’t worry too much anyway about public opinion, I was in the UK. A free spirited country which had place for all. I would have mid-wives and grocers, absolute strangers ask me about the scarf and tell me how pretty it looked.
Wimbledon and hijab
One particular incident stands out for me.
The idea was to watch the Wimbledon tennis match at SW19, where my husband was covering the high-profile matches involving the Nadals and Federers of the world for the BBC. That fine afternoon salivating at the thought of strawberries and cream, I stood in the queue (yes even as the wife of a BBC Editor, I didn’t get free passes) with scores of people from varied places and regions, I seemed to have caught the attention of an American tourist who kept staring at me. Finally, he asked!
“This dress (the salwar kameez, with dupatta, n scarf). where is it from, which culture do you represent?”
“Oh this, I bought it in India” I explained.
He smiled like how most sensible and friendly people do and said, “Its beautiful.”
Not the sort of person to get complimented for my looks often, I smiled to myself at the kindness of a stranger. Kindness because we have forgotten to smile now, to sometimes look at strangers and put them at ease just by nodding or acknowledging and telling them that whatever it is they are going through, however different or similar they look, it is fine. That day standing in the queue with an infant for 5 hrs, I was grateful for that man’s kindness.
Recently I saw a picture of a group of little Kashmiri girls attending school. They were dressed in traditional clothes with their heads covered. I noticed some vile reactions to the picture on Twitter. There were women who felt that these little girls were oppressed. What then, were these children doing in school if they were oppressed or denied the joy and opportunity of seeking and acquiring knowledge. It seemed irrational. So much for the intelligence of the ‘liberated’.
It’s not easy to cut ice with the dogmatic. The head covering has so badly been bashed up, that I find myself in a painstaking position to explain how lively, independent and sometimes bossy I can be, even though I am covered. I do realise that from the Islamic point of view since I am a global representative of sorts of the noble faith. I feel it is incumbent on me to behave myself and I usually do.
I once explained to a group of friends that you don’t need get so panic-stricken, it’s only a piece of cloth, some drape it on both shoulders, some on one and some on the head. It’s just to say that this part of me is private and I choose who gets to see it. It still doesn’t affect what’s inside my head and heart. I will continue to be the same intelligent and caring person even with my scarf on.
(The author is a renowned clinical psychologist. She can be contacted on Twitter at @lubnaurifat)