بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
13 years after I started my ‘covered’ journey, distressed by witnessing many of my fellow Quran course colleagues and batch-mates ‘tone down’ or completely discard their niqab, jilbab, and – in some shocking cases – even the hijab; as I experience ambivalent feelings towards ‘Burka Avengers’ and scantily clad Disney princesses perched on the balconies of idyllic castles, I revisit those moments in my childhood that unknowingly inspired me to start covering myself….
“But why do you cover your face?” a 7-year-old girl asks when she sees me try to take a sip from behind my niqab, from the straw in the tall glass of cold coffee in my hand. “Why?”
Why, indeed? At times, when I walk across the road in the bright sunlight, or cross glass-walled shops in a busy marketplace and catch a glimpse of my loosely-garbed figure, I catch myself reflecting upon my silhouette: a figurative “shadow”, so to speak, covered top to toe in flowing garments, with little more than my eyes, hands and parts of my feet visible.
At moments like these, I feel a sudden rush of gratitude towards my Creator for guiding me to modestly cover myself up like this. My mind then wanders down memory lane, to my life more than a decade ago, when it was a similarly dressed woman passing by me, her silhouette framed against the backdrop of the fading evening light, who had caught my attention as a teenager, making me ponder upon my own comparatively immodest persona as I gazed at her in awe, transfixed; who moved my heart in a way that I could henceforth never forget.
The Defining Moment, 17 Years Ago, En Route to a School-Girls’ Party
“Does my lipstick look too dark?” one of my friends had asked as she peered into the rear-view mirror of her parked car. We had stopped at the store on the way to a girlfriend’s house for a get-together.
As the three of us waited in the car for her driver to come back, a small group of men standing nearby gawked lustfully at us dressed up 17-year-olds, leering, snickering and making vulgar facial gestures at us.
I tried to quell the guilt that welled up inside me, and I suddenly wished there was a barrier or a cover between us and them, to shield us from their lewd stares. I regretted having put on bright lipstick and letting my untied hair cascade in loose curls over my shoulders, even though I knew I had done so only as a natural, feminine quest to “dress up” for a girls’ party.
And just at that moment, wrought with guilt, was when I saw her.
Wearing a graceful abaya and hijab that covered her from head to toe, the niqab pulled across her face showing just her eyes, she glided across the road a few yards away. I observed her for a few seconds, in awe and admiration. I then looked back at the men who were still gawking at us dolled-up teenagers.
Not one of them even so much as cast a glance in her direction.
It was one of those life-changing moments.
Thenceforth, outwardly I appeared and acted the same, but inside, I had changed forever. I just knew that I wanted to adhere to the Islamic dress code, even though I presumed that I would never be able to.
Back to that moment in the car, overcome with shame and guilt, I suddenly pined to be able to take up hijab and niqab like that graceful lady, and felt so cheap and easy in comparison to her, because of being openly available for the world to leer at whenever I dressed up, especially since I was at an age that marks the threshold of the pinnacle of a woman’s youthful beauty in life.
Quest for Respect
Groups of girls and boys stand in classroom doorways and along the corridors; ‘hang out’ by chatting on stairways; around tables in the cafeteria, or whilst sitting cross-legged on the sprawling campus lawns.
Gossip, rumors, teacher-bashing, academics, exams, and the latest films or television programs are hot discussion topics. Peppered throughout the conversations are half-disguised attempts at ‘harmless’ flirtation, sly comments, underhandedly vulgar jokes, and mockery sugar-coated to look like ‘friendly’ leg-pulling and joking.
Suddenly, a guy crosses the line whilst teasing a girl in jest, and the whole group breaks out in loud guffaws as the young girl, who is the target of his jibe, turns beetroot red with humiliation and self consciousness, lowering her gaze and wishing she could get up and leave the scene at that very instant.
But she doesn’t. She swallows her guilt and remains seated in this ‘group’, even though she loathes the company of some of the people in this clique of her so-called “friends”. Running away would seem so cowardly, ‘uncool’ and prudish, she thinks to herself, as she manages to conjure up a fake laugh in order to appear as if she was able to take the crude joke in good humor.
Welcome to the timeless dilemma faced by high school and college youths!
First as a teenager and then more so as a twenty-something-year old, I sought respect from members of the opposite gender. I wished they would not stare at me or “check me out” when I moved around outside. From the moment I had turned thirteen, till I hit twenty-one, I found the lewd stares of guys and men disconcerting and downright demeaning.
When I visited my girlfriends’ homes, even their fathers and brothers would repeatedly approach us girls, trying to be unnecessarily friendly and cracking insipid jokes just to make us laugh. Even the portly, balding and rotund “Uncles” in my extended family, who used to ignore me as a child, lavished unwelcome attention upon me at weddings and other family events, by teasing me about anything stupid under the sun or asking invasive questions about my student life.
I craved respect and honor. I wished every man would treat me like a lady, not eye candy or easy entertainment. Yes, that is the appropriate word: easy. Guys and men assumed they could look at me or talk to me as and when they wished.
All praise to Allah, all of that has changed now that I wear the hijab, abaya and niqab.
The Glaring Difference
I have come to meet my childhood girlfriend at a local cafe where we have dined for years. As I get out of my car and enter the chic eatery, every man I pass by, from the random guys loitering on the street, to the doorman, restaurant manager and waiters inside, avert their gaze with respect.
“Assalamu alaikum,” says the doorman while looking at the floor, gallantly swerving the door extra-wide open for me.
“Wa alaikum ussalam…,” I say in a low, business-like and somewhat gruff tone, looking straight ahead and walking on without as much as a second glance his way.
The same respect is shown by the manager as he points me towards a table, and the waiter as he hands me a menu card. Eyes of all men who interact with me remain averted; lowered with respect. Even as waiters take my order, they do not look at me to make direct eye contact, except perhaps fleetingly when I explain what I’d like to order.
When I contrast the way the same men’s behavior changes as they interact with other women who enter the cafe, I marvel at the enormous power of this seemingly small piece of cloth that covers the lower half of my face, combined with the black jilbab that cascades around me towards the floor.
Because, really, it is just the niqab that has made the whole difference. I could feel the enormous change in the way non-mahrum men interacted with me in public places the minute I started to cover my face, even though I was wearing the head cover (hijab) and abaya since months before that.
They step out of my way without my telling them to, or waiting for them to. They do not look directly at me when I am in the room, whether it is a male cousin at an Eid dinner party, or a salesman at a shop. They relinquish the flirtatious, non-serious demeanor that they adopt around other women, and the lopsided, cocky smile that goes with it, the minute they need to interact with me. They hold doors open for me wider than needed.
“Why do you cover your face? It is not obligatory!” demanded to know girls and women in my circle when they discovered that I had started niqab. Most of them were convinced that this step would impede my marriage. Over the past decade or more, most of them tried it for a few months or years then gave it up, but admittedly there were many who never felt inclined to tread into this “masked” territory at all, and never did.
“It is a gray area of fiqh. There are two opinions about niqab.”
“It scares non-Muslims. It puts you at risk of persecution, discrimination and racist attacks abroad.”
“It stifles you, and makes breathing and communication difficult.”
“It gives the wrong impression about Islam.”
As they continue making such comments in my presence, something that has been intermittently happening throughout the past 13 years (ever since I started niqab), I sometimes wonder if perhaps these statements symbolize more their own excuses for not being able to don the niqab, instead of criticisms of my decision to do.
I smile as I ruefully shake my head at their so-called ‘logical reasoning’, my heart totally at rest with the decision to cover my face, comforted by the belief that I would still not have it any other way. لا حول ولا قوة الا بالله
Because when I started out on my face-veiling journey, I did it after much deliberation; not on the basis of a whim caused by watching my classmates and teachers at Al-Huda observing it.
I knew that it was a life-altering, permanent decision that had to be based on a sincere intention: to earn the pleasure of Allah, because the wives of our beloved Prophet (ﷺ) and many women in Madinah used to cover their faces (Sahih Al-Bukhari).
However, as I went along this sometimes thorny path, I started to marvel at – and appreciate – the wonderful worldly benefits the face-veil brings to a Muslim woman who wears it.
Just like we pray our daily salah solely for Allah’s pleasure and in submission to His command, but eventually look forward to, and enjoy, the peace of mind and serenity of the soul that it brings, so do I love the way my niqab automatically forces men to act respectfully and in a more dignified manner towards me, without my having to request them to.
At parties and gatherings, no one dares take my photograph (not even sisters), which is a great relief in the current age of photo-sharing via online social media, where unwanted ‘tags’ can instantaneously land one’s photos on the desktops and smartphone screens of numerous strangers all over the globe.
People avoid cracking vulgar and crass jokes in my presence, unlike when I used to just cover my head.
Last but not least, I can smile and grin when enjoying a hilarious joke-filled conversation with my husband and children in public, knowing that none of the male onlookers around us would be able to behold my laughing face, and thus not misinterpret my grinning as a sign of my being ‘easy’ (bring to mind the Urdu phrase “ہنسی تو پھنسی” – “If you smile/laugh, you will be snagged (by a man)”), simply because they cannot see it.
Oh, and did I mention, I can wear bright lipstick when out and about just because I want to look good to myself, without feeling guilty that some lecher would take it as an invitation to flirt?
In Answer to the Question..
“Why do you cover your face?” asks the innocent little 7-year-old girl. I look at her lovingly and pause to think carefully before responding in a way that will make her understand.
“I do it, beta, simply because I want to, not because of some fatwa or fiqhi ruling regarding it being obligatory or supererogatory. I resisted the urge to do it for as long as I could. But you know, sometimes Allah places a yearning for an action in your heart that you can no longer ignore, and once I started it, I have never had any second thoughts, even if it is sometimes difficult to do.”
She smiles and nods, looking down at her ice cream, apparently satisfied with the answer. I smile too, because even if she cannot see my lips, I know that my smile reaches my eyes.
As I glance at my dark silhouette reflected upon the glass doors of shops when I move around in public, I wonder if some day, some where, some young girl will notice me walking past, and perhaps, just by looking at the way I carry myself and the way men lower their gaze and leave my path as I pass by, she will be moved to do something she never thought she would have the guts to do?
Because, believe me, young girls never forget those older women who inspire them in poignant moments of introspection and self-analysis that Allah sends into their lives at just the right time.
An abridged and edited version of this article appeared over a year ago in MyMuslimVeil Magazine.