It occurs to me only hours before we are to leave, as we begin to prepare for our departure, that I will have to wear the hijab for ten days. I am only fifteen and still trying to assimilate my parents’ newfound religiosity. It is terrifying. It is not their sudden religiousness which terrifies me, but rather how abruptly it descended upon us. And when I say “religiosity” I mean they are now prioritizing their prayers five times a day, and when I say “sudden religiousness” I mean we are leaving for Hajj.
Hajj is the annual pilgrimage made to Mecca by able-bodied Muslims. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. I was born and raised a Muslim, but was given the ability to discover and explore this religion for myself. I was enraptured by the Islam beyond what we know it to be, particularly its feminism (Prophet Muhammad’s first wife a well-established and successful businesswoman, long before she had met him; his wife Ayesha led into battle), its vehemence in its protection of a woman and her rights. I discovered Islam in a post-9/11 sphere, a time when, regardless of how far from America you lived, it was not a good thing to be a Muslim or to be vocal about the faith, whether questioning it or in its defense. I unlearned everything I had been taught by others — my Arabic teacher, elders and strangers — and I taught myself the religion, its history, its origins, its politics. I unlearned so many misconceptions about the hijab and the treatment of women, and learned that the women of Islam were its greatest stars; what once I was taught to fear, I had now begun to love. Yet when I put on the white cotton burqa my mother had made for us for the first time, all I felt was dread; as I wrapped the scarf around my head, my grandmother exclaimed how beautiful I looked, but in my heart was fear. I did not dread and fear because I dreaded the burqa and feared the hijab — it was the connotation of my garb, what it meant to other people, that I feared.
I had told none of my friends at school that I would be leaving for Mecca for Hajj. It was only when time wound down and my parents had spoken to my principal about taking ten days off from school that word got out. Being both shy and generally nice, I was not the popular one but I was well-liked, but at the revelation of the reason behind my hiatus from school, a began to feel like a social pariah. I was asked if I would shave my head, which is not even something Muslim women do. I was asked if I would wear the hijab. I was told that after Hajj, I would have to wear a hijab, and by another peer I was told that if I didn’t wear the hijab, I would rot in Hell. I was told that my Green Card would be revoked. I was embarrassed and resentful. I wanted to continue leading my “normal” life; I didn’t want to take time off from school, which would have otherwise been any teenager’s dream come true. What I wanted was to be a post-9/11 McDonald’s-ian Muslim teen.
Amongst the light cotton clothing, burqas and scarves, I also packed my MP3 player and a Sweet Valley High book. Adhering to the cultural customs of Saudi Arabia, I donned the hijab prior to boarding the plane to Jeddah. I felt embarrassed in what I wore, ducking behind my mother and looking down as we walked by strangers at the airport, my cheeks aflame. I prepared myself mentally to be miserable for the duration of our stay first in Medina and then in Mecca — I was making myself feel uncomfortable because I was made to feel uncomfortable by friends and classmates.
From the King Abdulaziz airport in Jeddah we drove to Medina — the final home of the prophet Muhammad — where we would stay for a few days before the beginning of Hajj. Never had I been so out of my comfort zone and unwanting to accommodate. And though I wanted no part in it, I could not help but notice that for the first time in my life I was a part of something. In my state of hijab, I did not feel too tall, too flat-chested, too funny looking or awkward. It was not my image that defined me but rather my presence. I looked around at tall and majestic-looking Somali women, walking in stride like stately queens and Iranian women draped in black cloaks, their faces radiating. Never had I seen women look so comfortable with themselves. They walked with the confidence that asserted that they knew they were more than what the eye could see, each woman exhibiting such depth of character in their confidence, my mother included, that I now wanted to embody their strength too. The hijab felt like to me not a burden or a veil or a mask; hijab was my armor.
To the defiantly ignorant outsider, the hijab has been the representation of oppression, backwardness, poverty, misogyny, suffering. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the awareness of the prevalence of the hijab in modern society has grown tenfold, and with it the ignorance which surrounds it. Women who wear the hijab are associated with illiteracy and/or weakness. In Arranged, a movie denoting the friendship between a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman in contemporary America, their boss, a woman uncouth and symbolic of idiocy, pleads, offers to pay them money so that they will remove their hijabs, their armor. Hijab to the principal, as is to many, means lack of progress; Hijab to the two young women, to the purveyors of the hijab, means power.
Having had only worn the hijab for ten days, I am no expert on the subject matter, but having worn the hijab for those ten days, I learnt that there was more to my being than what was merely at the surface. I began — for the first time as a teenager — to believe in myself, uninhibited, powerful and free, and the strong young girl that I was in my hijab gave me the confidence to see that my greatest beauty was within me, that it was my self.