Dress to oppress

How to Muslim for dummies

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There are two lollipops on the ground: one neatly wrapped and one opened and covered with ants crawling all over it. When asked to choose which one someone would prefer, they of course choose the wrapped one. The unopened one is seen as dirty, tainted and impure.

This apparently apt metaphor has been passed down to me and my sister by parents and elders for a while in order to convey the importance of covering up and keeping our modesty. Plenty of girls, both here in California and all over the world, have parents who force them to wear the hijab, because it’s one guarantee in this generation shift that they’re at least following some sort of doctrine.

But, really, the only thing I take from the story now is not to eat opened lollipops from the ground.

Most of the Muslims around me are Desi, and using this little story was a great way of imposing their cultural beliefs of modesty and meekness while hiding behind the veil of piety (pun intended). But when you’re trying to raise a proper Muslim while also not trying to force someone to cover their hair, there’s a lot of ambiguity between obedience and individuality. The physical veil is the one thing that apparently represents a Muslim girl, so if I don’t wear that, what’s left?

As is obvious by now, a fair amount of Muslim girls (like yours truly) don’t wear the hijab, for a variety of reasons. Either way, wearing (or not wearing) the same veil means a wide variety of different things to a wide variety of different people.

I used to believe that the people who wore the hijab probably had their lives much more pulled-together than I did. I considered myself to be pretty religious; my relationship with God played (and still plays) a huge role in my life. But those girls weren’t afraid of showing it, and they took it to the next level. I wasn’t comfortable with a hijab yet, so I figured I was a hypocrite.

But then one day in middle school, I came to school earlier than usual and saw a girl coming out of her mom’s car with a hijab on. I remember seeing her duck into the bathroom as soon as the Camry was out of sight and quickly rip off her hijab, ruffling her hair in the mirror and meeting her friends outside who had just walked up and were none the wiser.

To be honest, it wasn’t until I snapped out of my zoning-out session that I realized what I just saw. I assumed from seeing her every day at the same pick-up area as me a block away from school that she was super religious. I remember walking away that day feeling disgusted and a little cheated.

Fast forward to present day, and high school is not much better. Here I figured out that even wearing the hijab didn’t stop a lot of girls from carrying on with things that would make their dads blush through their thick beards and kufis. Now I walk by them with a humorless chuckle to myself and move on without another thought.

I, like almost every other Muslim who bore witness to those types of girls, thought I was being lied to, especially that day in middle school. I felt a sense of betrayal and deception, because to me they were telling the world how modest they were when they really weren’t. In a way I used to feel superior to them.

Now I realize that mentality is pretty damaging. It seems natural for a lot of people to assume that people who are covered are prudes and people showing more skin are promiscuous. In the States, Muslim women who wear the hijab are chaste (and oppressed, depending on who you ask) and Muslim women who don’t wear it are hypocrites or fakers. In reality, this sentiment is harmful to any woman trying to make her own decisions and gives her a shallow label she probably doesn’t deserve.

I feel quite uncertain about the afterlife, but I remember hearing once before that God has a way of distinguishing between those who were pious for themselves and those who were religious for show. Hearing that gave me so much more comfort in my faith, but it also made me a little apprehensive for myself and my own intentions.

Maybe one day I’ll wear the hijab. But if I ever do, I hope to be wearing it for myself. And I hope the girls I went to school with will manifest their own relationship with God in whichever way they seem fit.

Most importantly, I hope to never use a lollipop as a stunt double again.

Subaita writes the Monday column on Muslim identity. Contact her at [email protected].