“Your hijab is beautiful”, she said, with a genuinely impressed look on her famished-looking, heavyhandedly drawn face. “Do you know that I used to be one of you? Yeah; Sara, Maryam, and I used to be real sheykhat once upon a time”, she added while attentively scanning my face for a reaction. She had been referring to especially pious/religiously learned women – the three sisters had all been wearing black from head to toe, apparently – what a contrast to the red Adidas sweat suit she was now rocking with sneakers, rasta braids, and thick, black liner accentuating her eyes.
I hadn’t seen my friend for years before that night – although I had worn fabrics on my head for more than four years at that point, this was the first time she met me post-veiling. Imaan Ali, the wannabe actress putting on the hijab? It had come as a huge shock to my rather liberal and artistic friends and family, some of who disowned or distanced themselves from me after my choosing to adopt this cloth endowed with so much symbolism – religion, ideology, identity; you name it. It would take years to convince others to get out of my hair about it; pun intended.
So anyway, enough about me; this is Aliaa’s story… She was the image of the average healthy looking non-veiled young woman when I first encountered her. Rocking another Adidas brand product – a short-sleeved shirt with normal blue jeans, she had some lovely extra pounds, happiness in her eyes, and an unending smile on her face. Aliaa had a boyfriend – as is not too unusual – well, in the sense that they held hands, hugged.. You know; pretty uncontroversial stuff as far as I am aware. She was just an average Cairene girl without the hijab. Oh, and then she smoked a little now and then. Not just cigarettes. Hasheesh. It happens.
I don’t know what must have taken place from then until the point of our meeting four years later. I heard rumors; bad news indicating that things were not exactly as they were supposed to be; warnings to stay away. But I went ahead and met her. After all, she is my friend – no rumors will change that. I found a woman looking at least ten years older than her age in her place – skinny, almost bony, her skin badly breaking out, her eyes red-rimmed and tired, but her face beaming with happiness of seeing a long-lost friend. Her fresh-faced, jokester puppy-love boyfriend had been traded for a towering but scrawny unkempt looking man in his late 20 and still in college, whose heavily smoke-filled car they had picked me up with.
It was at this point – while searching the dashboard compartment for leftover cigarettes – that she decided to unveil her covered past, after admiring my hijab and my courage to wear it in spite of the non-support, even hostility of the people around me.
“You know, Imaan, we all wore the abaya – the black cloak by some considered to be the ultimate form of modesty. We covered our hair from an early age. That was what we were told to do.. I mean that was what they said God wanted us to do. To school.. In the streets.. We were covered up, all three of us. I hadn’t known youth without it; those black garments were my fate from very early on. Of course you didn’t know me at that point… Until I had taken it off, you know… After I gave up the hijab,” she recounted to me before pausing.
I looked at Aliaa, trying to envision her all wrapped up and full-faced, the way she used to be; I mean the way she had looked previously, or even before I had met her. It was a challenge at this current time, the hash haze hanging heavy in the congested vehicle. I was puzzled. I had never known. I let her continue her monologue, too afraid to offend.
“At some point, I had become a teenager. I was tempted to know what life felt like without it, you know. While out one day, I went to the restroom to remove it. And then it felt good, although my heart was conflicted. I knew how much my father insisted that I wear it and that it was important in our religion. So I started leading a double life – I left home with abaya and hijab, changed outside the house, and then changed back again before returning home.”
“Secrets don’t last forever,” she continued. “My father caught me in the street without my headscarf on. Without regard to his surroundings, he started beating me. Hard… Harder, hurling ugly abuse and insults, in a most unislamic fashion. I bled. He broke my nose. He temporarily “broke” my face. I was admitted to the hospital….” she paused again and looked at me, before she quickly continued. “At that point, I realized I would choose not to wear the hijab. The man never made us pray or fast, you know.. Basic things which are required in the religion. He never beat me to pray. But he hospitalized me for something that I realized was not a religious issue to him – it was all about his face, his respect.. So I stopped for good, and beatings ensued… I ran away, not to return until I had a promise from him not to put his hand on me.”
I again glanced at my friend, my eyes now blurred with tears. I really didn’t know what to say, feeling complicit in her abuse by wearing this controversial garment. I hugged her for a long time. It felt like embracing a fragile baby bird. I wondered how she could be so accepting of my veil, how she could compliment it; even appearing impressed with my choice, when Western critics, so far removed from the reality on the ground, used stories like hers to “prove” the inherent evil of the headscarf.
So much pain had been inflicted on my friend as a result of the hijab. But yet she seemed to recognize as only a women going through that experience would that although the scarf was connected to oppression in her case, it is not a symbol of oppression on its own. Male domination of the female body takes shape in so many ways; dictating to us what to wear, or forbidding us the option of choice to wear something. She was a victim of one; I experienced the other, yet in a much less serious matter.
“Your hijab is beautiful”, she repeated. “Masha’ Allah… May God give me the strength to try again someday when the wounds heal. To choose the hijab for myself.”
That is my friend’s story. Now what can we take from it? First of all, no matter how cliche it seems, we still need to recognize in our communities that the world is complex and people come with backgrounds that have shaped who they are at present. I think there is a great need for welcoming and engaging difficult matters within these same communities to give justice to individuals who are victims of them rather than running away, refusing to acknowledge that such issues exist out of fear of external criticism. You fail to accommodate, you risk to lose these people (and in time break down the community as a whole). Lastly, I shall return to a point which has become fairly repetitive. How people who identify with a certain religion act often has very little to do with the teachings and message of that religion. The complexity reminder should be extended to those eager to attack the creed of a large number of people exactly because of problematic stories like the one above, which, genuine and painful enough, are part of a non-monolithic and complicated reality. Oppression and injustice have no religious or ethnic home.
(What I’m wearing: Scarf: Unique Hijabs, faux fur scarf: H&M, studded shirt: H&M, camo tank: Pull & Bear, maxi skirt: Boohoo, floral clutch: Forever21)