Thursday, August 5, 2010

Confessions of an Ex-Hijabi

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. 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 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

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 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.



  1. Salams,

    This was a great post. I'm glad you finally got it out in print.

    I'm not sure I ever told you this, but I actually remember seeing you on the Northwood/North Campus bus one day.

    You were a hijabi then, I remember looking up and seeing this black woman, hijabi and thought wanted to strike up a conversation. Then I saw your id, and was completely confused as to the Igbo name not matching up the the clearly Muslim woman I saw in front of me.

    So instead of saying anything, I just reflected to myself, and pondered in my heart until you or I got off the bus. A year or two later I discovered your blog, and finally got my answer!

    Why do I remember that day? I dunno know, but I guess it just goes back to what you wrote about appearances.

    People are going to judge you no matter how you look.

    At any rate, you can't do anything until your ready, physically and emotionally for it. I pray you get the courage/guidance that you need to make this decision, whatever and whenever it may be.

    It also goes without saying that you should probably ease up on being so hard on yourself. Your situation is a tight one, but you are doing your best to respect your dad and your faith. You're his only daughter, he'll have to accept you, or reach some sort of real understanding with you, someday.

    I pray things become easier for you.

    p.s. I hope I haven't weirded you out with my random memory...

  2. Dude! That's so cool that you saw me before, haha! I'm totally not weirded out...that's so cool that you found me on the blogosphere later. So rarely do we get to delve into the lives of people who we see in snapshots in life...

    I've probably confused many a West African in my time as a hijabi...particularly the Nigerians at Northwestern who crowded around me when on my interview day there for medical school, haha. They were excited that a Nigerian was applying, but it was very much an awkward thing because I felt like a weirdo being a Muslim Igbo. It was very much an elephant-in-the-room moment.

    Most other sisters on campus were confused by me because I was the hijabi they didn't know. One of my friends told me so, that some of the sisters saw me and were bewildered. "I thought I knew all the hijabis on campus!"

    Yeah, I'm nowhere near doing hijab again. First, I need to find a way to be comfortable being Muslim in my father's house (I'm home before I start public health school). One time he caught me going to pray, and I felt mortified. That's not good. Especially with my brother having autism, it's like I'm the only hope for him. If he's disappointed that I'm not interested in cars and electronics as he is (seriously, I don't care about brands and makes of cars, and why should I? He takes it as such an affront that I don't), imagine how the whole Muslim/Christian thing goes over. Badly. Very badly.

    That's feat number one. Once I've got that down, then it's on to the next one, hehe, but that's going to take a while...

  3. i'm also an ex-hijabi. in my experience, i wasn't convinced that i should have been wearing hijab in the first place but i wore it anyway because i thought it'd make me a better Muslim. this worked for a while but relying on a piece of cloth to help you improve your faith can only go so far. my decision to de-hijab was complex but i don't have any regrets and don't think i'll be wearing the hijab again to be honest.

  4. @eccentric: Yeah, my practice actually got worse while I was wearing the scarf. I think it took so much energy to wear it that other areas in my life suffered. The year I stopped wearing it, at least 3 other new hijabis in the MSA did as well...and the one I was closest to, we never really talked about why we did. It's always so complicated...

  5. wa 'alaikum assalaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatahu

    I believe it was the verses regarding clothing in Surah Al 'Araaf that mentioned 2 functions of clothing and a 3rd type of dress. The functions were for adornment and covering up what is cover-worthy. The third type of dress is taqwa. I think in Maariful Qur'aan ( it mentions how not only is the dress a sign of it, but a means to it. Feelings and what not are very complicated, I have heard of hijabis who are super excited when they first got into it, only to leave it because of the good treatment they get. It may not seem like it but this is much like other things in Islaam that when people they first get into it... they might disconnect gradually or altogether until they reconnect with why they were doing it to begin with. There is a hadith I heard something like there is no obedience to creation when it involves disobedience to the Creator.

    I'm not sitting here going haraam police on you, may Allaah reward you for the good you are doing. Though I do implore you to try and reconnect with why really anyone would commit to an act of worship to begin with. Because it makes them feel good? Because of some sociological reasoning? Or because quite simply Allaah said so? Or just as well, because, alhamdulillah, these things are His right upon us? Don't leave it for wishful thinking, if you wish to see a prayer come to fruition there should be some action to make it happen, take steps if you must, but I worry the reasoning you've set up for yourself isn't going to help. and my hope is that we will be pleasing to Allaah swt.

    It's not easy, and for who knows how many sisters given their circumstances it may not actually be necessary, but that's not why we submit to Allaah awj is it?

    As a brother I can honestly say that I cannot understand what it's like. But almost all of us have to deal with ultimatums eventually where it's either feel a weight for listening to Allaah, or feel a weight for not listening. Personally I have hesitated often and found that Allaah kept testing me with opportunities to turn to Him, and when I did... it was hard, painful, almost regretful at first... until I stayed true to why I went that route in the first place. Things were never the same and men are too full of pride to apologize or otherwise admit but I like to think I did more for them, though displeasing them and maybe even painful to the lot of us for not knowing how to disagree respectfully, by doing what is pleasing to Allaah swt.

    I apologize if this offends you or makes things harder but I tried to say what I felt should be said. Also if I could have made this comment short I would've done so......but I generally suck at brevity & concision x_x

    on the other hand if there is anything good it is from Allaah swt.


  6. @Not a couch,

    Salaam, and welcome to my site! Thanks for the long and deliberate comment. Don't worry, I'm not offended.

    It may or may not be a surprise to you that I have heard all of your points before and was aware of this even after I removed the hijab...I maintain my current position. I probably could start wearing khimar tomorrow and be able to deal with whatever psycho-social external stresses hit me, but at this point, I'm not going to do that at the expense of improving my salat and other *very basic* elements of my faith that are much in need of revival right now. I'm pacing myself, Allah ta'ala have mercy on me as I go forth in what may be a snails pace at arriving to Him, but in the end, I hurt no one but myself if I'm going about this the wrong way.

    Thank you, though, for your concern.

    Ramadan Mubarak!

    ws, ~Chinyere

  7. wa 'alaikum assalaam

    jazakAllahu khayr for being patient with me. yeeaaah I wantd to say take steps, dunno if I did so I was going to say take steps. but i wouldnt know where to start lol

    I've been trying to work on an entry regarding khushoo' and it's been taking a while. I just came across a hadith in this book that scared me and I wanted to share it with you, though you seem to be familiar with it from this comment

    'Aisha narrated that the Prophet said: The salah of a woman who has reached puberty is not accepted unless she is wearing a Khimar. [Bukhari] p. 115 Prayer According to the Sunnah

    i think that would be an awesome step to take, like in complete privacy, it'd be like... a mini-tahajjud experience or something. i dunno.

    and don't be silly. our ummah might be in shambles but for those who it isn't, at least some of the time, when one part of it hurts the rest hurts. you hurting yourself does hurt others, this is a part of our belief.....even if we don't live up to it ourselves all the time. if it didn't nudge at my heart i would leave it be, esp. since i'm a guy, not a sis.

    you can do it. like i said before, may Allaah swt reward you for the good you are already doing.

    (i dunno how to respond to Ramadan Mubarak >_< lol)

    Allaahu Akram! =)


  8. Salaam, Abed,

    I am familiar with the hadith you shared with me. I thought that hadith was referring to wearing khimar while praying, something that I have done since before I entered puberty, for sure. That's something I've always understood as necessary. Even so, if you see above in my entry, I do acknowledge that the hijab is obligatory. There are other hadiths out there, levels of strength I can't speak to, but they exist have even stronger messages about the hijab.

    And when I say "I hurt no one but myself," I'm referring to the Hereafter. People's feelings may be hurt and the state of the ummah would indeed change if more women wore khimar, but I'm talking about on the Day of Judgment, when no one else will come to our aid or bear witness for before Allah (swt). We guide each other while we're here as a community, joining together "in the mutual teaching of truth," but we must be responsible for our own selves ultimately, as we will be judged individually ultimately.

    And if it's all right with you, brother Abed, I would prefer not to discuss this matter any further. May Allah (swt) bless you for your efforts to try to guide a fellow Muslim closer to the straight path. I am making my own way. Allahu a'lam.

    ws, ~Chinyere

  9. ameen. yah. i intended for that to be my last post on the matter. but this is it, i.e. to affirm... the...lastness...of the last post. Lol?? need sleep.


  10. Beautiful post :).......May Allah SWT guard you and keep you in His Company. My du'as sis.

  11. Wow, I can relate with you totally on this. I'm having so many problems as a new muslim ... Ghusl ESP on my relaxed hair... And wearing the hijab getting new friends being judged. I'm personally just overwhelmed but I hope that it will get better.