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Covered Heads

You might have noticed photos online or seen me in person and noticed that I started covering my head about a year ago. I never announced it on the blog or went into detail about it. It's so trite. There's a gajillion posts on the Internet about Muslim women covering their heads. Posts that tell you that it's required. Posts that tell you that it's not. Posts that tell you it's incredibly liberating. Posts that tell you that it is most certainly not.

The reaction of my family to my various head covering exploits is a great case study. Back in 2001, I visited Saudi Arabia and completed my first Umrah in Mecca. Umrah is like a mini-hajj. Unlike Hajj, Umrah can be done any time. My visit to Saudi was beautiful and spiritually complex. 

In Saudi, women are required to wear abayas in public, which is long, black cloak accompanied by a black head scarf. Yes, all women. Even non-Muslims. I often find that people who are unfamiliar with Saudi or have never been there have a similar reaction, "God, don't you get hot?"

My response is that you do get hot, but I bet a bare chested Himba tribeswoman in Namibia is thinking the same thing about you in your summer tank top and denim shorts. Weather is only one part of the equation when it comes to fashion.

And, yes, abayas can be fashionable. 



From Dubai Fashion Week Fall 2010, Designer Amal Murad, Images from Style By Amara

Back in August of 2001, there was something about the abaya that was incredibly appealing to me. When I was growing up, my parents were very strict about my wardrobe. No sleeveless tops, bathing suits, shorts, skirts, tight jeans, shirts above the waist, and, God have mercy, no middriffs. I didn't have to cover my head, but I did have to follow what these stipulations or suffer dire consequences. Even though I adhered to it, my father would at least once a week comment on how he didn't think my shirt was appropriately modest or something to that effect. That was less about the clothes and more about my dad. More on that another time.

For some people, getting married and moving away from their parents is a clean break. I'm not a clean break kind of person. Breaking with anyone is more like a badly done Civil War amputation for me. It would involve a lot of whiskey, a dull saw and several tendrils of tendon and flesh that just… won't… rip…dammit.

The abaya in Saudi Arabia, then, offered me potential respite from feeling like my clothes were too wrong, too tight, too colorful… too American, I guess. The last day we were in Riyadh, I made Tariq and his brother take me to a higher end abaya shop and we bought a lovely abaya that costs the equivalent of about a hundred dollars. My intention was to wear this on the flight home.

And for the rest of my life... in public. 

I did that, and, truth be told, it was awesome because, hi, I wore pajamas on the plane and nobody knew. I also noticed that people both noticed me more in some ways and noticed me less in others. I started wearing a hijab, too, which is the traditional head covering of the more colorful variety that most Americans are familiar with. Once again, I basked in the liberation of not having to blow dry my hair everyday. 

I have to interject to any Muslims that might be reading this that I understand that it may feel like I'm making light of the the traditional coverings of Muslim women, and, well, I am. I respect the right of women to cover for religious reasons and that most do it because they feel it's requisite, but I don't feel any more pious when I have a hijab on my head. To me, it really is a cultural statement. It's an outward symbol to identify myself to others and to my own. 

I flew into Orlando International Airport wearing a black abaya on September 2, 2001 and nobody blinked. I went grocery shopping, to the mall and to parties wearing it. People did do double takes, but everyone was still very nice. I like to think this is because I'm nice and people have a very hard time being mean to someone who says hello and smiles at them.

Nine days later, on September 11, 2001, though, things got super awkward.

"You have to take it off, bete," my mom said in the tone she reserves for commands that leave no room for negotiation.

"Come on, mom, it's fine… I'm not a terrorist or anything."

"I'm your mother. You don't need this to be a good Muslim. I'm your mother, and you have to listen to me because good Muslims listen to their mothers."

Yeah. She totally said that. Verbatim. Because it's true, they do. As a matter of fact, one of the stipulations of Muslim going to fight a battle is that it has to be alright with their mother. I always giggle at this a little. "Where's the note from your mom, soldier?!"

After many conversations with this, one of which was conducted intervention style by my mother and her friends, I stopped wearing the hijab and the abaya. I have a terrible habit of assuming that certain things are obvious, so forgive me if you've already picked up on what I'm about to say… I just want to be clear.

My entire childhood, my parents had dictated the parameters of my wardrobe. Nothing too short, nothing too long, even my hair ("bangs out of the face -- you look like druggie hippie!") and definitely no eyeliner, shadow or bright lipstick. I rebelled against that as much as I could, but, mostly, I complied. Fast forward to twenty three, when I am literally shrouded in a black cloth, and my parents still have a problem with what I'm wearing. 

It occurred to me a few years after the Great Abaya Removal of 2001 that clothing is so much more than color and fabric. It is identity. It's a statement of who you are, who you want to be, how you want the world to see you and, as illustrated above, it is also a statement of who others expect you to be and how much importance you give that. For my parents, they wanted a daughter who was modest, but assimilated enough to be accepted by her society. And, let's face it, after 9/11, they wanted a daughter who people didn't harass.

Clothing was control and I gave it to them completely and unabashedly. Better or worse, it was who I was at the time. Let's be honest, it's still a part of who I am in the smallest of ways.

Nine years later, I have my head covered again, but, this time, I'm in control. I know why I cover my head… exactly why. My appearance is mine to control. Even in covering my head, I assert my rebellion to notions of what is the proper way to cover one's head. Ear lobes! Bare neck! Uncovered in front of select people who are not my husband, brother or father! What can I say, I'm a rebel with a cause.

The reason I cover my head is probably different than why the majority of women cover their head. In Islam, we often say that when you do something, you should do it for the sake of Allah. This prevents arrogance and self righteousness from seeping into what would otherwise be considered pious behavior. 

I do cover my head for the sake of God, but not because I believe that God has commanded that I should hide my hair from people or suffer hellfire or, worse, an eternal loop playing in my head of that Call Me Maybe song. I do it because I'm proud to know God the way that I do and I want people to know that about me. Adopting this cultural symbol is the most efficient way of doing this.

My hair is not shameful and nor is my body. Every article of clothing I wear, from head covering to shoes is a choice that I'm comfortable with. Yes, these choices have been made as a result of strong influence, but not due to the power of others over me. I mean, not any more power than Vogue or InStyle exert over hundreds and thousands of people.

Thirty six has not vaccinated me from attempts by well meaning people who care for me to exert their power over my appearance. My dad said something again when I was in Daytona about people in Tennessee potentially lynching us. Some of my non-Muslim friends have said they're not totally sure why I insist on doing it. Other people close to me are awkwardly silent about it.

But this? Is not about them, about you, about the world or what it thinks of how liberated, oppressed, modest or pious I am. This is about me and God and what He/She/It has compelled me to do. 

My wardrobe today is a consideration of things that I find beautiful. It is long sleeves that convey the thin veneer of the formality of my personality coupled with ethnically inspired prints and flowing fabrics that suggest that I am so much more underneath than what you see on the surface. The scarves are block colored or perhaps a Sudanese inspired print, and are carefully chosen and wrapped with delicate intention. I wrap in a way that pays tribute to my African and Caribbean sisters.Finally, I almost always wear a pin or brooch in the hijab that I make sure is in a distinctly American style -- because it's not me if there isn't any American in it. 

My clothes are a tribute to the seamless beauty of our earth's varied, elegant and powerful aesthetic. And here's something that I will divulge that will be surprising but I'm entirely comfortable with. Sometimes, I don't feel like covering my head in public, so I don't. This is a rare thing, but it happens. 

I wear these clothes not because I must be modest and what to hide from the world, but because modesty is my aesthetic. I find it beautiful and special. Like most Muslim women, I do dress for the sake of God…in that I think God really wants me to be my true, authentic self.

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Reader Comments (43)

Didn't even think twice about the covering when you were at Blogher telling me how much you wanted to go sing karaoke.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNeil

Wonderful post, very much enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

I understand about not wanting to feel "too American." When I have traveled outside of the country, I have studied local dress customs for women. Heck. When I have spent time in England, I even studied local drinking customs. Like knowing back in the early 90s when I first went to England, women order half pints unless they wanted to be considered cheap sluts. Funny how men don't have to think about this stuff when traveling. Or when I go to Mexico, I always make sure that I have at least one dress -- with sleeves and that covers the knees -- in case I want to enter a church. Yes, I know that there are plenty of Americans who enter wearing their shorts and flip flops. And I think it's completely disrespectful.

But I grew up with a dad who's Presbyterian and a mom who was raised by a Pentecostal woman. To be respectful to my maternal grandmother, I generally wore a dress that had at least 3/4 sleeves and covered my knees. I had to draw the line at pantyhose. Grandma lived in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Do you know what the humidity is like there in the summer? So one summer I told grandma, "Oh hell no I'm not putting on pantyhose. Be happy I'm wearing a dress." These may have been my exact words. Probably because I figured that grandma thought I was going to hell in a handbasket anyway.

But I also have that aunt by marriage who frequently rocks and abaya. I have only seen her hair once in my life -- the one time there were no men present besides her husband or brother. And while her abayas were always fashionable, I also knew from chats about her shopping, she was also rocking the latest designer stuff underneath. Something I have learned from my Persian friends as well. But now I wonder how much they will do this since the current abayas are so rocking in style.

But who am I to talk? I spent a great deal of my undergrad years wearing a scarf of some sort on my head. Because I thought it looked fashionable and not because of any sort of religious leanings. And one day I will return to the South so that we can discuss this all in person.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKailyn

If I tried to wear a hijab? I would look ridiculous. I can totally get on board with the "hiding bad hair" thing. Being that I self-identify as a Deist, I certainly couldn't wear one for religious purposes.

But you? You're gorgeous. You're even gorgeous without the hijab, dressed up as a ghost of Bollywood. :) When you started wearing the hijab, I figured it was because you had matured as a Muslim and did it as a choice of faith. For me, the equivalent would be finally wearing a cross around my neck, which I may never do. I lost my faith a long time ago and have yet to find it again.

Love you Faiqa and I love your hijab!

(BTW, that blue abaya is ROCKIN'!)

Great post. My niece, a practicing Muslim, hasn't begun wearing a hijab yet. But she plans on it. For many of the reasons you outlined above. Right now mostly because she thinks they are pretty. I think I'll forward her a copy of what you wrote here. Thanks!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB.E. Earl

I love this post and how eloquently you described why you made the decision to wear hijab. I also appreciate how your decision came from your own heart and was not the result of oppression or outside pressure. Obviously, I knew that was not the case because we had talked about it at BlogHer 11, but I am so happy that you wrote this post to describe publicly how incredibly freeing wearing hijab can be!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelli Oliver George

I know the truth. You simply don't want to wash your hair as much. Don't be frontin'.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDelfin Joaquin Paris III

Look at you looking gorgeous in yellow! I'm totally jealous. I can't wear yellow.

While I admit was surprised when you started covering your head, it makes a lot of sense. You are not exclusively American; anyone who has read this blog or spoken to you can recognize that. That you have decided to express this in the way you present yourself to the world is an outward symbol of you coming into your own, which is a wonderful side effect of getting older. You get to be who you are without explanation or apology.

I love who you are and think the way you dress suits you perfectly.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

And then there's me, who's close to you and yet awkwardly vocal about it!

I liked this post, though. I may not understand it and may like to tease you about it, but this is a good post about it.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAvitable

Thank you for such a wonderful post. Before I met my partner I was a member of an independent fundamental baptist church. (Think Mormon without a different book) I was never comfortable in my long hair, long skirts, and clunky shoes. I wore those things out of respect for my mother.

After my Daddy died and my Mother withdrew her membership from the church, she began wearing jeans and capris and even shorts. I was shocked the first few times I saw her, but she finally said one day "Wearing a skirt doesn't make me a better Christian." I am happy that she now dresses for herself, and not out of fear that one of the church ladies might see her in jeans at wal-mart. She, unlike you, was dressing out of fear of her commuity and not to honor God.

I am happy that you are able to dress for yourself, and feel that you are honoring God at the same time. I find my faith completely missing at this point, but I am glad it is still there for others. Beautifully written!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

ADORE this post Thank you so much!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I had a Pakistani acquaintance in high-school. ( I was going to say friend, but she was a senior when I was a freshman, and although we had a few classes together, I can't say we were close.) She wore her abayas to school everyday, and I always thought they, and she, were beautiful. I had wanted to get one for myself, so my question is this... would it be offensive, to you or other Muslims, if I wore one? I admit, it would be more like my sundresses - I wear them when I want to look like a sundress girl, but probably only a few times each year.

When I was in Morocco (in EPCOT) the clothes they were selling there were very pretty and lightweight, and I remember saying to my Pete - "oooh, I could wear this everyday." He chuckled and steered me out of the shops... he doesn't like it when I spend over $100 on a single outfit.

Aside from the price tag, I have always avoided any clothes that look like they have cultural heritage attached because I feel like I would be a liar, since I am as All-American, Meat-and-Potatoes as they come. But in your opinion, and I know you're just one person, would I offend the people around me whose cultural clothes I wear because they're pretty?

Oh, and, I'm glad you shared this post with us. I would never have asked you point blank about why you chose to begin covering your head, but I was curious.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllyson

One of the many things I adore about you is your determination to be true to yourself, your culture and your religion. I love that you know exactly who you are and are completely at ease with your choices, and that you are so open about them with people who don't understand either your culture or why you would want to stand out in American society rather than blending in. I think you are stunning in a hijab, or without one. Also? Those abayas are gorgeous!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I don't think it is, but I hope this isn't coming a little bit out of feeling you have to maybe justify it all to us. Because you don't. Nor should you have to.

But I think it's funny to watch Muslim men (as I have had the opportunity to do in the workplace) when a Muslim woman shows up in hijab. They all of a sudden become very proper young gentlemen. It's a hoot to see. A few years back I worked with three young men who were from Pakistan. Among 'us guys' they were just as foul-mouthed and raunchy as anyone else. Trust me on that. Maybe worse. Then when the company hired this young Egyptian woman who wore hijab every day, and she began working in close proximity to where we were, they all became buttoned up and very well mannered when she was around. It was hilarious.

Humans... ya gotta love em.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRW

When I met you, I was taken back by your absolutely beautiful features, then by your adorable personality. You weren't in cover, but you were you, and I loved you instantly. I have since watched via social media you in your gorgeous style, that is uniquely you, stunningly beautiful in every single picture. I'm quite sure either way you are just this absolutely remarkable, wonderful, fun and stunning woman..

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThePeachy1

One of the things I most admire about you, Faiqa, is your determination to live life with intention. At least, that's what I often take away from your posts. I really appreciate your dedication to considering your choices. It's an inspiring approach and I'm so grateful that you choose to share it with us.

Also, you look beautiful though I gather this choice isn't really about that. And though I appreciate your emotional honesty I am still left with this nagging thought... EARRINGS. WANT. NOW.

I promise to try to restrain myself from stealing your jewelry should we ever see each other again. xoxo

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErrin

I appreciate this post for moving beyond the false dichotomy of subservient and/or oppressed Muslim woman vs. modern feminist unveiled woman, which is the way it seems to be usually portrayed in western media. As with most things, the real answers are complex and nuanced. You expressed that perfectly.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

Great writing!!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSahar

Beautiful...just like you!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWindyfairy

GAH. Can you stop making me love you more?

Absolutely wonderful.

Beautiful woman, Beautiful Soul, Beautiful post

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrachel

I didn't think about it. You're Faiqa, the friend that has always taken me as I am. I don't see any reason to treat you any differently. You'll notice I still grind up on you just like before. ;)

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

As always, I love that I learn from you.

I love the way you look. You're truly a stunning woman, and I respect your personal reasons. I also think it's a difficult position to be in culturally, because the veil has actually been used as a tool of oppression. Women have gotten beaten on the streets by the virtue police in Iran, schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia were left to die in a fire because they weren't wearing head coverings, and the Taliban in Afghanistan have simply brutalized women and girls they believed weren't modest enough.

So it is not really a wonder that some Muslim women, and many who are not, have mixed feelings about hijabs and abayas.

I think perhaps in the larger picture it's one of those things that has to be positively reclaimed. The farther it gets away from those images that have been burned into our brain by TV -- the more that women speak on their personal reasons for wearing it, and the more they speak out against those who use it oppressively -- the more it grows away from negative perception.

So while your reasons are personal and your own, I think you do a service every time your beautiful self steps out into the world.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJane

A friend directed me to your post, and I'm so glad that she did. This is such a fascinating, complex and human story of a relationship with covering. I shared a link to it on my blog immediately.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

I kept hearing about an amazing blog called "Native Born" at BlogHer, and wow, this post did not disappoint. Thank you for writing about this topic so openly and honestly and beautifully.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJjiraffe

Honestly, I never even thought twice about seeing you covered. Quite honestly, it makes no difference to me. You are who you are - an amazingly wonderful, kind-hearted and talented person whom I am privileged to call my friend.

Thank you for writing this.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam (temptingsam)

I honestly didn't think anything of it when you started wearing the hijab. I actually think it showcases your beautiful face, which is a definite plus!
I agree that God wants us to be our authentic selves. My clothes definitely reflect that, too - jeans and tee shorts, with very cool shoes. :) (I guess my authentic self is just naturally slobbish. Ha!)

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSybil Law

I understand. I tend to wear a kippah on Shabbat for the cultural identity. I don't the rest of the week, mostly because I like my hair.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Feldman

Awesome post. Really fascinating--a beautifully painted portrait of your tapestry. Those runway abayas are gorgeous! And while this is not about how beautiful you are--you are. Love the headshot with the rockin' earrings.
I've probably mentioned this before--I had a Muslim friend in jr high who started wearing a head covering in ninth grade; we guessed because there were men around then.
Thank you for sharing!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAl_Pal

I love how you dress. You always look beautiful. I'm sure I'd say the same thing if you were wearing a potato sack.

Thank you for this lovely post. I'm going to get my teens to read it. These white rural kids of mine need their world broadened and I can't wait to show off my beautiful friend Faiqa.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

Beautiful post, thank you. The gift of it -- for me (I'm echoing Errin here) -- is how inspired I am by the thoughtful intention you bring to all of these choices. Your writing gives insight about your specific life as a specific Muslim woman in the U.S.., but it also demonstrates the opportunity we all have to examine the choices we make about seemingly or potentially mundane things. Also, I want to thank you for writing about your spiritual life. My faith went into a deep chrysalis state when a good friend of mine died suddenly.... my prayer practice went silent -- simple breathing was difficult. Encountering your words is bringing about some fluttering inside that petrified shell. No exaggeration. Thank you.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuth

Thanks Faiqa. I enjoyed this. Also is it ok to say I'm a little envious. But that's making it about me.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEsther Wifler

I grew up Mennonite, a Protestant denomination in which some conservative groups still wear a head covering. I only wore it when I was baptized, but I often wish it were still a part of our church because of the cultural identity element. I love when I'm out somewhere and see a woman in Mennonite garb, because I feel an immediate connection with her. All the rest of us blend in to society.

Thanks for sharing!

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkgayle

Thank you EVERYONE! I'm so floored by all the lovely and supportive comments here. Thanks also for sharing, tweeting and e-mailing this post! I started a proper day job this week, so I'm strapped for time -- promise to respond to each of you very soon. Much love to all of you & again, thanks. -FK

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

There is this idea that if you wear a suit or dress up for work you'll be more professional. I think that's all well and good, but I'm a much nicer IT person if I am comfortable in what I'm wearing. Professional in a suit, sure, but I'm mean and cranky too.
In Minneapolis there are is a large Somali population. I love seeing the variations on "following the rules" among the teenage girl set. You can see the ones that are uncomfortable and wish they were wearing something else. Then you can see the ones that rock it with confidence. They've personalized it, worn the trendy t-shirt with a complimentary head scarf and a long jean skirt. You seem the same way to me. Completely comfortable and absolutely rocking it. So very American really. Taking your tradition, your past, your cultural identity, combining it with the modern, and making it yours.

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia Sprout

I remember the first time you started wearing your head covering, and you explained how beautiful you felt in it and how it represented part of who you are. What an amazing way to express a connection with something bigger than yourself, but to still make it your own. It makes me smile. Oh, and you are a total hottie in it too--that helps!! ;)

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi

I am absolutely certain that this is an ignorant, childlike, agnostic way to look at it, so I'm going to of course say it anyway: When your head is covered you look gorgeous and mysterious to me. When your head is not covered you look gorgeous and powerful but also vulnerable to me.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

YAY! Right post this time!

Signed with love,

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

Assalamualaikum Faiqa,

i've been a reader of your blog since a long time but this is my first commenf here. It's great alhamdulillah that you began wearing the hijab. And yes, most Muslim women who wear the hijab and do it out of choice, do so to earn God's pleasure. Being a true servant of God requires us to follow His commandments even when we aren't inclined to do so, because our life on this earth is simply a trial of our faith and so is wearing the hijab. Submission (Islam) is more important than authenticity. And Allah knows best.

Your sister in Islam

August 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSM

@SM: Thanks for commenting. I'm curious. Why do you think that authenticity is not a form of submission?

August 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterFaiqa Khan

If by authenticity you mean sincerity, Allah ta'ala does want sincerity in that every deed of worship must be done with the right intention and for the sake of His pleasure alone. If we are to be slaves of Allah and required to be Muslim, I.e. Those who submit, then it implies we should be obedient to Him at all times, not just when we feel like it. All those who Are physically able to do so, must pray 5 times a day even if they don't feel like doing so. This is part and parcel of being a slave of God, of the act of submitting, evident in the act of prostration. In the same way, donning the hijab is an act of worship because it is part of Allah's commandments and cannot be subject to how we're feeling towards putting it on. In fact, the reward for the deed is according to the intention... If your intention is to please Allah, the reward will be according to that. If you're wearing the hijab for cultural reasons, then the reward will be commensurate with that intention... It's up to you to decide which kind of reward would be important.

Also, in a religion whose very name means surrender and submit to the one who created us in the first place, rebellion may not be looked upon fondly. If your intention is to please God, then all "rebellions"/whims and fancies/little pleasures imust be done within the limits specified by Him. and Allah knows best...

August 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSM

@SM: I find it fascinating that you've read into my words as possibly being an act of rebellion. Indeed, my friend, Allah DOES know best. I wonder how sincere you are each time you type that, for your words seem to indicate that you may think otherwise -- that, in fact, you know best. What you mistake for questioning God, is questioning your paradigm... and that's not rebellion -- it's intelligence..

September 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

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