When I was 14 I felt compelled to study the Qur’an and I spent the entire summer between grade 9 and 10 reading it in English and reading through the tafsirs of sections I felt were particularly interesting or somehow confusing. I read about hijab and the rulings surrounding it.
After a few months of thinking about it, I started to wear the hijab. No one else in my high school wore it at that time and it wasn’t very common in my community.
I am lucky that I have encountered very little racism or obvious discrimination since then. I was able enjoy popularity and make friends with a wide variety of people and as far as I can tell, the hijab has not limited my educational or career opportunities. Sometimes non-Muslims see me a certain way or make assumptions about me but once I start talking they usually relax and stop seeing the hijab.
In other cases, Muslims make assumptions about my religiosity based on the way I’m dressed. Some Muslims assumed I had arrived at a particular spiritual destination on the stages of religiosity. When I would admit that I still listen to music or struggle with my daily prayers, they would recoil, as if my outer garb somehow betrayed my inner reality. I feel sorry for the people who equate hijab with some kind of moral and religious perfection. That’s a lot of pressure.
Luckily, I did not derive my sense of worth from other people. Of course, I was always very socially active, being involved in everything from the debate team and student council in high school to becoming the president of the Muslim Student’s Association at my university campus during undergrad. And yes, I did view the hijab as an extension (and often a starting point) for dawah. But I guess I didn’t feel like I need to prove something and that’s something I’ve seen with a lot of women who take on the hijab. For me, it really was about God and Alhamdulillah still is.
One of the things I hadn’t anticipated was the hijab’s effect on seemingly unrelated decisions. I quickly stopped smoking weed because it suddenly felt very wrong. I also stopped flirting with guys (another favourite pastime) because it was contradictory to what I was trying to do. In a way, my outward appearance did spur internal change and I’m glad for it. And I’m grateful the process was my own and not externally enforced.
What I want people to know about the hijab is that it is ONE thing out of a million other things that we do to practice Islam. It is not the “be all and end all” of Islamic practice. I have known very spiritual and deeply committed practitioners who don’t wear it. I have conversely known horrible people who do. I was frankly surprised when I went to university and realized how big a deal it is for some people, especially in the MSA crowd which for me was always about activism and engagement and never about religious identity or status negotiation. Of course how you dress and present yourself matters but not to the extent that some might have you believe.
When I wear my hijab today, almost 20 years later, I do so thoughtlessly. My subconscious message to everyone I meet is: “If you’re going to engage with me, engage with my mind: my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas, and my work. How I dress is really none of your concern.”