As salaam alaikum,
Okay, so maybe it took me leaving my previous journaling community to really feel at liberty to talk about this, which has been a hard thing for me to put into words over the last three years. Here I go.
I wore hijab for less than 2 years, starting sometime during my junior year and shedding the scarf one week prior to my college graduation. However, effectively, my last two years of college were marked by my wearing the khimar. It became part of my identity, to the point that people who met me back then and haven't seen me since probably still close their eyes and see me as a hijabi. It must be weird for them to see me without the scarf.
Three years have passed now, and I've been scarf-less. It started slowly. I still dressed the same for a while, except without the scarf. That slowly changed and I went back to dressing as I had before I was a hijabi, which was never blatantly indecent, but...let's just say some days I can't just wrap a shayla about my head and call it a day.
Three years, and the whole ordeal still isn't easy. I mean, it's easy to wake up every day and blend in with your surroundings. I may not be wearing short pants and skirts like the women around me, but with my short sleeves, sometimes daring to be spaghetti string tops and my jeans, skirts and dresses, I'm pretty inconspicuous.
But this is not what I was going for when I shed the scarf. Not at all. When I see Muslim sisters on the street, in hijab and niqab and everything in between, I have the desire to greet them. I feel like there's nothing like a smile and a friendly as salaam alaikum when everyone's been staring at you, twisting their mouths in pity, curiosity or disgust, avoiding eye contact with you, looking the other way abruptly. I remember how good it felt, as a new hijabi, to smile at sisters on campus and exchange salaams with women I didn't even know because we had that sisterhood going. That was one of the parts I loved about being a hijabi.
But now, I feel like I'm just one of those people who's looking away abruptly. I look away out of guilt, because here I am, baring my arms and some of my legs, and here she is, with her pastel or black khimar, sometimes in jilbab, bearing the heat in favor of her modesty as I once did. Before I even had a lot of long-sleeved shirts appropriate for the weather, I used to even brave 80 degree weather my trusty jean jacket. I was once there, I was once one of them, ignoring stares and the averting eyes to go about my way.
I wonder how many other women passed me by, desired to greet me, to show solidarity, but shied away for the same guilt I feel every time I smile at a fellow Muslim sister. Maybe not a lot, but I wonder.
My mother starts a little every time I tell her that I think about wearing the hijab again every day. It's not a lie; I do think about it every day, but every day for three years I've come to the same conclusion: not today, and maybe not tomorrow. I figure I have six years to sort it out. Not that I'm limiting myself to that time period, but that's when my passport expires.
I'm wearing a beige khimar in my passport picture.
Admittedly, even though I thought long and hard about hijab long before I wore my sleeping scarf out to class one day, never looking back, that day I decided--it was clearly a rash decision. Just because a friend of mine (a non-Muslim friend of mine) thought I'd started wearing hijab when I actually hadn't, and was excited to see me start, I decided that the next day would be the day. That was my tomorrow. I lived alone at the time, in a single room in the dorm, and I decided to go for it.
Terrified at the implications and a little bit wary because of my mother's freak out reaction to my decision, I sought counsel with a sister that I knew and respected from the MSA who gave me some support. With her support, I traveled to the Dominican Republic a few months later, my first time traveling outside of the country, and traveling as a hijabi.
That experience blew my mind, and though I didn't feel like I could do it, I returned as a hijabi, but after feeling as if I had violated proper Muslimah etiquette on the regular in the DR. From dance parties held at my neighbor's home to constantly being surrounded by alcohol, being the only Muslimah on the island, seemingly, was less than ideal.
I struggled with hijab from then on out. I never got up the courage to tell my father I was wearing the scarf or what it meant, and this was ultimately the reason that I stopped wearing the scarf altogether. I felt that it was disrespectful to not let my father into this part of my life and even after letting him in on it, I felt like it was an affront to his sensibilities, his identity as an Igbo (and therefore, Christian) Nigerian man, and unnecessary. I felt like it was unnecessary to wear a symbol that would be a constant reminder for him of my choice, my religion, making him embarrassed to present me before friends, fellow Nigerians who would then ask why I hadn't embraced Christianity.
So I stopped a week before graduation so he wouldn't have to see me there, with my shayla beneath my cap, forever documented in pictures as the hijabi.
Believe it or not, I had somehow hid the fact that I wore hijab from my father for almost two years. Even today, we've never discussed it. Looking back now, I still could have pulled it off. I could have worn my hair in a modified headwrap like I'd done many times before, but in the end, it's all okay. I was done keeping things from my father, and I haven't really kept anything from him since.
We haven't discussed my religion, though, either, except for his discussions of Christianity with me.
And that's the long and the short of it. I mean, I can't front like my relationship with my father was the only reason I gave up hijab. There was also the fact that I didn't feel comfortable interacting with patients because of it. I used to volunteer at Mott Children's Hospital at UMich, and after I started wearing the scarf, I felt especially defensive around the patients' parents, feeling like maybe some of them were judging me or maybe didn't want to interact with me because I was now visibly Muslim. And while I was aware, as an obviously black woman, that some patients may have felt uncomfortable with my presence, I was not used to being judged because of being Muslim.
So many people assumed I was Arab, it was crazy! My race, and therefore a large part of how I identify and know my own self, disappeared to others when I put on the hijab, and I wasn't prepared for that, and I wasn't ready for that.
I stopped wearing hijab before medical school as well because I can smoothly operate dealing with patients and others who may or may not make assumptions about me because of race. I'm not that smooth when it comes to being a visible Muslimah.
For example, if my patients talk about God with me, they feel comfortable because they assume I'm Christian or "Christianoid," as most people in this country are. Little do they know, I'm actually Muslim, and little do they know, most all of what they say about God and prayer I can agree with, as being part of the same monotheistic tradition as they are. That connection is made right there. A patient may not open up to me on that level if I'm donning a khimar.
One of my classmates is a hijabi. She did coursework at a hospital where there were primarily older Jewish patients her second year, and though she expected to be met much resistance from patients there, I witnessed as several of the patients referred to her with pet names, hugged her (the women, of course) and it became apparent that she was able to make the connection.
She's been a hijabi since she was 13. She's used to being mistaken as Arab, this is part of her for a long time. I didn't get used to it in time for medical school. So I just stopped.
[Clarification: When I talk about being mistaken as Arab, it's not because "Oh my gosh, like, that's the worst race to be mistaken to be!" Those who read me know better than that. I'm talking about being used to being identified as one race and being mistaken as another. Race is a social construct anyway, but when you're used to people relegating you to one social box, it feels alien when suddenly you are relegated to a different box. It also makes it awkward when folks start speaking Arabic and you don't know anything outside of salat and those few surat you've memorized. Carry on.]
This has been a lot of confessions. A lot of talking, but no solutions. So what am I going to do? Allah (swt) knows that I have a long way to go before I'm close to being the type of Muslimah I want to be, and while the way I dress is definitely part of the package, right now it's not the most important thing. A lot of it depends on where I'm headed. Am I going to move somewhere where there's a tight-knit community of Muslims who will embrace me where I'll feel at ease being the Muslim I've always wanted to be, where I'll have support that I've never before had? Who will I marry? What is my family medicine practice going to be like? These are all determinants.
What's my dream? My dream is to move somewhere where I can be part of a small but active Muslim community that is accepted by the larger community. I want to be an active member of the small community and the community at large, serving as a physician for both, promoting the health of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I would want to end up with a man who would support me whether I wore khimar or not and respected it as my personal choice. I would want to end up in a diverse community where I can treat patients of many different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
I'm not saying that I want to go to a place where prejudice doesn't exist. No. I can't say that all of my patients fully trusted me every time I walked into their room as a black female medical student. People are going to be prejudiced, racist, whatever. However, even those harboring such feelings could not deny my compassion toward them, my hard work, my respect for them, any of the other qualities that insha'Allah will make me a good physician. And I hope to build my practice off of that, my God-given talents and the good reputation that I'll build from my work.
...so maybe then it won't matter if patients see me first and think I'm a black woman or a Muslim woman or whatever else.
I have to be comfortable with it, though, and I think I'd need a supportive community wherever I go.
I guess I haven't ever said why it was that I started hijab in the first place, why it is that I want to go back. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously) it's not just because I want the chance to say salaam to other covering sisters. It's not even because it's obligatory, really. It's because...it made sense to me, and I liked myself the best, I think, when I wore it. I've never been a good Muslimah, in my estimation. Something's always lacking, from proper salat to proper modesty, like, very basic, big things. There were things lacking when I was a hijabi. I feel like hijab probably took energy out of other spiritual pursuits that I had. But--once I got the hang of hijab, that was the version of myself that I liked the best.
I had more sense of purpose, my actions and decisions I made were more deliberate--and my mode of dress made it easier for me to socialize with people I wanted to be around. It made sense for me especially in terms of the type of man I'd want to end up with--a serious Muslim man who wouldn't expect sex before marriage like many of the non-Muslim men I've encountered in...life.
My motives are tainted, I must admit. It's like, how else will a woman like me marry a Muslim man? I'm not visibly Muslim...how will he even know if I'm here with my arms bared, legs partially out, looking like a "regular" black female?
But maybe this isn't reason enough, or at least not the right reason...for such a big decision.
Will I ever wear hijab again? Not today, and maybe not tomorrow. That's all I can say. Insha'Allah is even better.