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.