10:01 PM. New York City | Stand clear of the closing doors please. With a leap, I slip through the subway car doors just before they close, grabbing on to the nearest pole for balance. Probably not the smartest idea, but then again, as a student with exams on my mind, the unforgiving bite of the subway doors is the least of my concerns. I fumble with my bags, pulling out my flashcards to study, the endless barrage of information quickly becoming a blur before my eyes. As I go through them, I glance up and catch a man staring in my direction. At my gaze, he looks away, but as I return to my flashcards, I watch as he continues to stare in my peripheral vision.
On the subway, strange glances and occasional stares tend to be a usual occurrence. What with the horrors taking place in the world (every night, it seems, another headline), villains masquerading as ‘Muslims’ (a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth), climates of fear fueled by media furnaces churning out specifically constructed hateful rhetoric…as a Muslim woman who observes Hijaab, such moments have, unfortunately, come to be expected. Such stares are neither justified nor warranted, but they happen…and quite frankly, after years of being on the receiving end, the only thing they really are is getting old.
When I was younger, the reactions of others to my presence used to preoccupy me. I had only been wearing Hijaab for a year when 9/11 happened, and, at a young age, it was difficult for me to understand what it was that made people sneer or mumble under their breath as I walked by. As I got older and the stares become more pronounced, not having the naivety of childhood to protect me, I would be lying if I said they didn’t affect me in some way. There were moments when I stood, staring at my reflection in the mirror, wondering if it would just be easier to let go of it all – if it would be easier dress the way my friends dressed, do my hair the way they did, walk down the street or stroll around the mall without catching a double-take;
…if it would be easier to be like everyone else.
It was in the same years when I struggled with observing Hijaab due to the opinions of non-Muslims that I also began to struggle due to the opinions of some Muslims as well. During those teenage years when all is thrown to the wayside beyond one’s physical appearance, it was difficult to navigate the ropes of what I knew Islam taught versus what I would hear some Muslims say. Already grappling with how I was perceived by others at school, I hoped to find refuge within my own community, but unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.
Instead of watching many elders teach us girls to do and be better than what society expected of us, I watched as they, too, minimized us into the smallness of our physical appearances. At everywhere from weddings to community events, by explicit word or implicit action, we would hear – I’m looking for a girl for my son, but he wants someone who is fairer; Haven’t seen you in a while! Have you put on weight?; You know, you should wear a bit more makeup if you want boys to notice you; Don’t you think you’re taking the whole Hijaab thing a bit to the extreme?
I distinctly remember the first time I was faced with such statements – and it was like a blow to the stomach.
Comments from people unfamiliar with Islam I could handle. Their statements either stemmed from ignorance or pre-planned agendas, and either could be easily dismantled by the proper use of knowledge and intellect. But comments from Muslims themselves? People I had grown up with? Who sat next to me in the Masjid? How could I answer them? How could I dismantle this?
I did not know then, and I pray that Allah guides us all to learn how to address this exceptionally important issue now. But as a young girl, I remember biting my tongue, fighting waves of frustration, tears choking at my throat – thinking one thing: I feel so lost. Sayyida Fatima, I wish you were here.
Many years later, I would like to hope that Sayyida Fatima heard my cry, because now, all praise belongs to Allah, my Hijaab is still with me. And not just as a cloth or an obligation to be upheld, but as the dearest piece of my identity; the very life force that breathes within me. Getting here has, by no means, been an easy road, and I am still far from my destination; I am still far from understanding its true worth and perfecting it in the manner of Sayyida Fatima and her daughters.
But now, learning how to carry this flag is no longer a struggle; it is the greatest honor.
Despite this fact, I still wish that when I had been struggling, when I had been looking into bloodshot eyes reflected back at me in the still hours of night questioning this integral aspect of my identity…I wish someone had told me what I wish to share with my sisters now.
I wish someone had said: my daughter, there is a great secret to your inner dimension. Seek it. Do not fall prey to ideas of what this world wants you to become. Look to your role models – to women like Sayyida Fatima – to know who you were created to be.
My daughter, do not define yourself by your level of external desirability. Do not consent to this public consumption of your soul. The journey of being a woman in this society – Muslim or otherwise – is one that requires extreme perseverance. And the obstacles designed against you have been structured specifically so that you are kept from discovering the divine destiny you have been created for. Do not let them keep you from discovering yourself.
My daughter, do not abandon the revolution that is stirring in your soul – the one that this society will attempt to quiet by degrading you into nothing more than an object to be whistled at by passersby. By taking you, beautiful from the moment you are born, and spending every moment afterward trying to strip you of your beauty. Telling you: your words are not enough, your mind is not enough; that to be given an ounce of respect, to be allowed to carry the mantle of “liberation,” you must consent to being dissected by the scalpel of corporate desire. Forcing you to seek their approval on how to dress or talk or laugh; trying to meet their impossible demands to be all at once the nerdy girl sporty girl curvy girl skinny girl funny girl cool girl beauty-queen-girl-next-door girl – the everything girl as long as its anything but your true self. Do not accept this grave injustice to your soul.
My daughter, after bearing so many years of misogyny, do not do what the system would wish you to do and internalize the inferiority that has been forced upon you. Do not let it be that now, instead of others oppressing you, you learn to do it yourself – cutting other women down, so that even you – as a woman – take doing things ‘like a girl’ as an insult.
My daughter, do not accept the oppression of culture and tradition that says women are inferior to men – but at the same time, do not run into the arms of a more modern oppression that wants you to compete with men either. Your standard has never been men, but always your own soul – because Allah (swt) has never defined your value in relation to a man, but only in relation to Himself.
My daughter, the greatest woman that ever lived showed us that we must resist when our societies try to bury us alive. She showed us that a daughter is not a burden, but the greatest honor. A wife is not a servant, but a partner to spiritual ascension. A mother is not separate from society, but the very shaper of society. And this womb, this vehicle of creation, is not a hindrance to a woman’s potential, but the very source of her power – so that when a woman’s hand reaches out to rock the cradle of her child, she is in essence rocking the very cradle of humanity.
My daughter, there is so much to being a woman. This journey requires an immense amount of struggle, but if you allow it to, it can become a thing of beauty. Whatever stage you are on, keep with it; no one is perfect at first. Begin where you are comfortable and work your way from there. If you stumble or fall or get lost on the way, know that God’s forgiveness is greater than we can imagine – He forgives, so do not bind yourself to your mistakes. Learn to forgive yourself. Keep moving forward. It does not matter whether you run, walk, or crawl – all that matters is that you keep moving.
My daughter, allow your strength to stem from your modesty, both in dress and demeanor. But remember, this strength will not be strength if you use it to push others to the ground. The worst thing you can do for your soul is use your modesty as a means of looking down upon others. If you have embraced the physical covering, do not push away those who are not there yet. Do not walk the earth with an arrogant heart. Do not judge the modesty that you can see on another woman, because the modesty that is less visible – the one of her words, actions, thoughts – may far exceed yours. The woman who today does not observe Hijaab completely may one day observe it more deeply than you. But even if she never does, that does not give you the right to consider yourself better than her. Each woman is on her own spiritual journey – and your place is not to judge or outcast, but to uplift and help your fellow sister.
My daughter, this cloth is more than a covering – it is, in its essence, a stronghold. Protect yourself and others through its understanding. When the stares of strangers and the comments of friends become too much to bear, call on your Leader, Sayyida Fatima, and take strength from her name. Do not let them make you believe that if you walk in her light, you will be less beautiful. Do not let them prevent you from entering – or scare you into abandoning – this fortress.
Raise your voice with her strength and declare:
“The demand of society from a woman, the demand of a woman from herself, and the demand of a man from a woman all revolve around physical beauty. But the real beauty lies in the moment the society, man, and woman herself should demand from woman the beauty of the soul and the spirit and human qualities and talents…Islam does not demand beauty from a woman. It does not ask for an illusive appearance. In society, it does not demand physical, sensual, feminine features. No! No! Rather…Islam demands from you your existential value, and not sensual value…”
Because in the early days of your wearing this Hijaab –
“You may have accepted it without being aware of the responsibility of wearing this vitalizing dress, without having endeavored to realize the aims and message of this dress, without ever having tried to refine and reform yourself in order to deserve this dress, this attire. In all such circumstances, your Hijaab can never be Islam personified…It shall never be a revolutionary stronghold…except when you should have learnt Islam as a deen (a system of life), a comprehensive ideology, recognized it as such, and linked it truly and boldly with all your existence, your being, your life, your traits of character, your aims and objects, as well as your ambitions.”
But now that you are beginning to understand:
“Rise and revolt…with the help of your Hijaab, the depth of which you have now fully realized, which has bestowed upon you the infinite capacity of being human.”
Rise and declare:
“…I am free. I am released…With my Hijaab, with the heavy social responsibility of the commands to do what is good and forbid what is wrong…I enter the stage of society and conquer all its planes…The type of woman who you had yourself forged, had yourself trained, had yourself taught ideals – the way of talking, laughing, wishing, longing…you have now lost such a woman, such a stronghold…this stronghold shall never fall into your hands.”
To my dear sisters who are struggling. To those constantly being made to feel like they don’t belong. To those living under the constant threat of harm because of the religion they most publicly represent. To those standing, like the young girl I once knew many years ago, looking into the mirror, wondering if it would be easier to let it all go and be like everyone else…
Yes. It would be easier – to look like, speak like, talk like, everyone else.
For a while.
But believe me when I say that though it might seem easy at first, the most difficult thing in the world is spending the years to come watching your identity be chipped into pieces; standing there as you are sculpted and moulded by the hands of others, losing the very core of your self – and looking the other way.
It might seem difficult now. In fact, it most definitely is. But you are not alone. Your fellow travellers on this journey stand behind you; Allah (swt) is close by your side.
And if you want to know if it gets better? If it gets easier learning how to live life as your authentic and truest self?
It does. And it will.
“Verily, with every hardship, there is relief.” (94:6)
Relief will come. But in the meantime, we must master this hardship, reminding ourselves and the generations of our daughters –
You are beautiful because you were made beautiful. Not because another person says, ‘You are beautiful.’ You have the universe inside you, so a) do not wait for another to look into your eyes and tell you they see cosmos dancing there for you to believe it, or b) allow another to say that they see nothing there so much that you stop believing as well.
Do not insult your existence by seeking its validation from others. Your worth is not scribbled in pencil, a second-hand appraisal of an outer form. It is written in gold by the First Hand who sang the love song of your inner existence.
Your life is one—count it: one. Do not allow another to live two lives by means of subjugating yours. Your mind is your homeland. Do not allow it to be colonized into thinking that beautiful is ‘everyone else’s beautiful’ and not your own beautiful.
You—your journey—has never been about them: what they think of how you dress/talk/sit/stand/walk/laugh. Your journey has always been, and will forever be, only about you.
You are a bird that was created to sing in the freedom of the skies; not to trill in the cage of the opinions of others. The majority of birds sit with wings clipped—and, missing the taste of flight, would do anything to keep you, too, on the ground.
But you have wings, my daughter.
You have wings . . . fly.