I was five when I first recognized my fascination with hair. My mother’s hair captivated me. It was mahogany, a deep auburn color. At five, I was [also] woman enough to envy mama’s hair. My own was thick, pencil straight and black like that of other Egyptian girls. My mother use to say, “At least your hair is not kinky, like other Egyptians.” She would run her hands through my hair, a soothing ritual. When I had a bad day, I would curl up next to mom; lay my head gently in her lap and allow her to stroke my sadness away. My mother raised my sister and I to be independent, God-fearing women. “You have to think for yourself and be strong in your conviction,” she would say. Being the only Muslim family in my neighborhood, I did not know how strong I would have to be.
The Adhan fills the halls of my house as the sun sets outside and I can feel the house quieting down while my parents prepare for Maghrib prayer. I run upstairs to watch my mother pray, in awe of her calm demeanor. The headscarf is draped over her head, brushing past her shoulders. With each move she makes, I watch in anticipation thinking the silk scarf will fall carelessly to the floor. As she prostrates in sudjood, I go downstairs to watch my father pray in the living room. I notice he isn’t wearing a headscarf like mom. His semi-bald head is bare.
He of all people should cover his head, I thought to myself.
After he prays, I ask my dad why he isn’t wearing a scarf like mom. With a look of bewilderment he says, “Because men do not have to wear higab like women.”
As if that weren’t convincing enough to a child I persisted, “But if mom has to cover, why don’t you?”
“Men also have a dress code.” He stands up to pray sunnah and leaves me wanting to know more.
A month later, I started Sunday school at the late age of 13. I showed up to class, for the first time, in my soccer uniform. My shorts were to my knees, followed by a pair of shin guards. I wore a short sleeve shirt. The room is filled with students my age covered from head to toe. I was excited to make Muslim friends and to feel like I belonged somewhere.
“Hi, I’m Jehan!”
“Where is your debuta?” A short chunky woman in black raises her voice. Before I could answer, she corrects me, “It’s ‘Asalamu’a Alakium’ that is the way of our Prophet,” she admonishes me in front of the entire class. The girls snicker and stare me down as if I’m an outsider. I figured the woman in black was the teacher.
“A debuta? I am sorry, I don’t know what that is,” I stand there mortified. I instinctively twirl a strand of hair around my finger. Seeing this, a girl gets up from her desk, takes my hand and leads me to the empty seat next to her.
“Hi I’m Noura. Debuta is urdu for hijab,” she whispers. “Here, you can borrow mine. I have an extra one,” She smiles and hands me a white scarf.
“Oh! My dad says, higab!” I tell her.
Noura smiled, “It’s really called hijab.”
I look down at my hands, puzzled. I didn’t know what to do with it. I looked up to notice every girl, my age and younger is wearing one. Noura noticed my hesitation so she gently wraps it around my head.
My teacher said we must wear higab in front of men who were not our immediate family members. This was mandatory for girls upon puberty. If we did not obey, we were to be punished. She had a lot to say, on that first day of class. Why did I insist on wearing soccer shorts? Why didn’t I cover my hair? To the latter I retorted, “Because I have nice hair. Duh.” According to the teacher, we would be hanged by our hair, on the Day of Judgement, if we didn’t wear a headscarf. Upon learning that, the minute I saw my mom after class, I hugged her tightly and cried, “Please please wear it or else you will be hung by your hair!! Please, please mom!”
I lasted 2 months in Sunday school.
After September 11th I immersed myself into the Quran in search of my own identity. I started wearing higab a year after the terrorist attacks, the year I entered college. I believed the higab brought protection and security while allowing me to adhere to the Islamic tenants. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my religious zeal. During the first month, I faced a lot of scrutiny from the Muslim community. Either my higab was too tight or too lose. At the least, I expected my family to understand. But to them, the higab is an outdated practice and brought too much attention upon me. I wore the higab regardless.
My own family refused to be seen in public with me.
While I faced harassment from fellow classmates, I was neither comforted in my own home nor amongst my Muslim community. If a hair falls from underneath my higab, an auntie has an opinion, “It is haram to show your hair!”
OK, like I would really walk around with a strand of hair showing.
If my clothes are “too tight,” girls from the Mosque have an opinion; you cannot wear tight clothing and wear hijab.
Let me clarify, I do not wear tight clothing; I wear clothes that fit, I want to tell them. Of course, these are the same girls who wear higabs during the day while taking body shots at night at the local bar. But I’m not in the business of airing out people’s sins nor is this a tabloid, so we’ll move on. If a Muslim sees me at the gym in higab, they have an opinion as well. “Sister, you cannot be exercising in front of men. Defeats the purpose of hijab.”
Since when did higab become a disability?
While attending college full time, I worked in an Italian restaurant part time as a waitress. I was working the evening shift and upon leaving for my car, I was attacked. A man yanked my scarf off and shoved me down to the ground. “Go back to your country, towel head,” he snarled through clenched teeth. I laid on the ground both angry and helpless. After three months of fighting against other people’s opinions, I was faced with the hardest one of them all, my father’s.
“You will take off your higab tomorrow,” he demanded of me.
“Dad, I am supposed to wear it! God says so,” I shouted back.
“There is no mention of the word higab in the Quran!”
That comment sent chills throughout my body. He was right. And I hated that. But it was that moment that I began to study what modesty really means. Despite my father’s personal view on higab, that does not mean I am taking a position to deconstruct the role higab plays in Islamic modesty. In addition, to my father’s defense, he was acting out of his own fear for my personal safety. Rightfully so, he feared for my security.
I thought the higab represented faith, protection and security. Thus, not wearing it meant I would be weak in my faith. To my classmates and the Muslim community I found that I wasn’t considered “Muslim enough”. To them, being a good Muslim was in outward appearance. Although I fought with my father to wear the higab, I finally gave in and gave up wearing it. At first, I felt a sense of relief combined with an insurmountable amount of shame and guilt. But then I noticed something odd. I was no longer judged as a Muslim, but as a person.
De-veiling was liberating.
Not once throughout my experiences did I feel safe behind the scarf. Even if I had had the support from my loved ones, I still would have felt isolated. The environment I was living in was hostile. The community I lived in, post 9/11, created an enormous amount of fear around Muslims and the Islamic identity. I realized, after I de-veiled, I did not take into account the tremendous amount of strength, courage and family support it takes to wear higab.
Further, through my limited experience of veiling, I reflected on what modesty really means in Islam. Modesty is both an inward and outward characteristic. Islam allows independence in choosing whether or not to veil. “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” (2:256). My short lived journey, as a higabi, was not entirely all negative. There were a handful of supportive Muslims on campus, who offered their support and encouragement. Unfortunately, I was not in the mindset to overcome the obstacles I faced.
Over the years, I immersed myself in my studies. I wrote my senior thesis on the first Egyptian women’s movement. It was at this time that I realized my identity as a de-veiled Muslim woman had first been shaped genealogically. Historically, Egyptian women had taken de-veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s emancipation. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Egypt was redefining its cultural, political and even national and religious identity. During that time, the increasing prevalence of the higab was a sign that the Islamic movement was taking over to rebuff the British.
Egyptian men used the higab as the flag of Egypt’s nationalism to fight British Imperialism. Egyptian women were not pleased with this and decided to fight back. One day, Huda Sharawi, a feminist nationalistic activist, performed a bold act that became the central symbol of the Egyptian women’s movement; with the support of several women, she removed her veil in public, at a crowded Cairo train station, in 1923. This was such a great act of defiance for its time. Huda was exercising a Muslim woman’s right to choose. Learning this piece of history was a defining moment for me, as well. Seems like my female ancestors fought for their voice and freedom to choose their identity and opinion and in my own way, against societal and family expectations, I had done the same.