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On Hijab, with love

An open letter to all Muslim women by Aisha Hussain Rasheed, an Islamic Jurisprudence graduate, activist and word-weaver.

06 December 2020, MVT 12:25
'On Hijab, with love' - an open letter to all Muslim women by Aisha Hussain Rasheed, an Islamic Jurisprudence graduate, activist and word-weaver. PHOTO: DEBBY HUDSON / UNSPLASH
06 December 2020, MVT 12:25

Many Hijabi women – teens, young adults and even older women – have reached out to me over recent years because they didn’t want to, or couldn’t, wear Hijab any longer. Some have gone on to stop wearing it; others have not. Regardless of their ultimate resolution, I believe, they have all soldiered on on their journey to spiritual fulfilment.

This is an open letter to them all:

If you're anything like me, you grew up in a Muslim country in a strictly practising Muslim (perhaps even, a bit patriarchal) family and went to an Islamic school. Most of your female role-models wore Hijab. All through your childhood, you idolised them and looked at them through those childhood rose-tinted glasses. When you finally started to wear Hijab, it was a badge of honour, a membership card into the Big Girls' Club, your way of telling the world — including your family and, maybe, even yourself? — that you're an adult now and wanted to be treated as such.

But maybe that's not why you decided to wear Hijab. Maybe it was a trend, a fad. Most all the popular girls around you, your friends and your classmates, all Muslim models, singers, actors and other pop culture idols started wearing Hijab. Hijab became a fashion and beauty ideal, the Hijabi fashion industry made the Hijab “beautiful” — whatever that means — and you felt the social pressure to conform.

Maybe, for you, Hijab was a feminist declaration or a political statement. It was your way of asserting your identity as a Muslim woman. It was your way of saying you're not eye candy; that you — and only you — decide who has access to your body.

Maybe, even that wasn't why you started to wear Hijab. Perhaps, it wasn't your choice at all. You were told to wear it early on in your childhood, before you even reached puberty and was Islamically obliged to wear it, so it was the only way you knew how to be. Or you were emotionally pressured or even forced into it by your family.

All through that, the concept Hijab as an act of devotion to the One and True Lord may have been lost. So, if no one has had that conversation with you or reminded you of it lately, let me be the one to remind you:

Our lives here on this world are meant to be a test, an opportunity to better ourselves, and a chance to follow Allah's commands. This right here is only a checkpoint – a resting place, if you will, to replenish our supplies – on our journey to our eternal home. What supplies? you wonder. Well, Allah has revealed to us through His prophets and messengers, many injunctions and prohibitions to follow. In fact, every day, from the moment we wake up to the moment we sleep, we are guided by His instructions. We must follow them if we are to be spiritually replenished and successful.

These instructions deal, first and foremost, with strengthening our spirits and purifying our hearts; but they also deal with our actual physical actions. I know we hear a lot these days about how we can attain spiritual connection without action. On the contrary, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and all the prophets before him (peace be upon them all) showed us that in Islam, to attain Iman, our belief in Allah must be matched with our actions. We believe in Allah as our Creator and Sustainer; we believe in Allah as our Lord whose commands we must follow. Therefore, we act in accordance with His commands as brought to us by His Messenger (PBUH).

That is why we pray our five daily prayers, we fast in Ramadan, we pay our Zakat, and we aspire to do our Hajj if and when we're able. Now, if you were to go on the internet, you'll see article upon article about the physical benefits of Muslim prayers, the health benefits of intermittent fasting and the positive economic impacts of wealth redistribution through Zakat. But all those, even when true, are auxiliaries, additional benefits that you may get during an act that you do primarily to obey Allah. Hijab may not be one of the pillars of Islam, but it is the same as them in that we practice it to obey Allah. Whatever auxiliaries people may assign to it, even if true sometimes, are only auxiliary.

Aisha Hussain Rasheed is an Islamic Jurisprudence graduate studying major Hadith works at Masters level with world renowned Hadith scholar. She is also an Activist, word-weaver, and proud SJW. IMAGE/AISHA HUSSAIN RASHEED

But maybe you've already had this conversation with someone before, even recently. Maybe, in spite of your earlier conviction, you're finding it hard to continue on this path.

Is it the constant judgement? The constantly being told that you're not enough; the "You call yourself a Hijabi and do this?", the "You might as well not wear a Hijab if you’re going to behave this way, " the "You think what you’re wearing is Hijab"? Yes, you understand we need to always remind each other if we were to slip, but, surely, it’s not meant to be through constant rebuke? Having been told you’re not enough so much, maybe you now feel like completely giving up.

Or perhaps, the stars you thought you saw in your spiritual sky fell, the idols you placed on the proverbial pedestal shattered, and you finally saw the people you’ve always thought were angels in their fallible human form. Maybe they did you an injustice, or you saw them cause harm to someone else. Maybe they were hypocritical and didn't make an effort to match their practice to what they preached. But what really felt like a slap, what always feels like a slap, on the face was that they carried on even when they were asked, reminded or even confronted. They made excuses for their bad behaviours and simply carried on. And because they held power and authority in the community, your community turned a blind eye to it, too, or even covered it up. Maybe it was so bad that you don’t want to be associated with such people in any way anymore; not even in the way you bow to the Divine.

I won’t say I know exactly how you feel right now, but believe me when I say I’ve been there. I know how deeply it cuts, and how much it breaks your spirit and scars your soul when idols fall. This is a pain so many of us have felt whether we care to admit it or not. Maybe the whole point of this pain is to remind us not to put up false gods between ourselves and Allah in the first place, not even those we consider role models. After all, even they are human like us, and only prophets and messengers are infallible among people.

Which reminds me of a beautiful saying attributed to ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud (may Allah be pleased with him), that he said: “If you want to follow the example of someone in your religion, then follow the example of those who have already died, because those who are alive are still exposed to tribulations.” Always follow this advice, and even with the righteous people who have passed - may Allah have mercy on them, understand they too were fallible, and may have been wrong sometimes in spite of their best intentions.

Maybe you feel compelled to temporarily stop wearing the Hijab because of a health condition that makes it hard to wear it during treatment, or a job opportunity that requires you to not wear it. Maybe you've tried everything else. Different fabrics, different styles; different workplaces, different career paths. I won't be one to tell you to go ahead. But perhaps you are among those whose conditions allow you to not strictly adhere to the dress code of Hijab. Perhaps you are in a situation of dire necessity that allows you to not fulfil a certain obligation or follow a particular prohibition. After all, the Prophet (PBUH) even allowed two of his male companions (may Allah be pleased with them) to wear silk clothing, which is generally prohibited for men, to ease a dermatological condition that they had (Bukhari, 5501).

If so, may Allah accept from you; know that you don’t owe an explanation to others. Don’t ask yourself, “What will people say?” But do ask yourself "Is this the only way?" And even if it is, always remember to be mindful of your own modesty.

I don't say this because I think you won't be mindful of your modesty. But the society around us is always fraught with ethical and spiritual pitfalls, and it's always good to remind each other to be aware and wary.

Let me be clear. If you were to ask me today, whether you should stop wearing the Hijab, I will advise you to keep on wearing it. Our faith is always bound to be tested, our commitments are always bound to be challenged. What defines us as Muslims and as Muslim women is our willingness to stay true to our faith and commitments even when things get hard. But, if you’re not able to, I will not judge you. I will still embrace you.

In the end, this is not a judgement. This is not a declaration. This is an acknowledgement. This is a reminder. This is also an open door. If you decide you can't continue with the Hijab right now, know that you are always welcome to pick up where you left off as soon as you're ready. Don't listen to the little voice inside of you - or the very loud, accusatory voice outside of you - that asks if you're starting to observe Hijab to stop it… AGAIN?!! Hijab isn’t easy; no matter how many times you stop, you are always welcome to try again.

And if you happen to not come back to this door again, may Allah accept you into His mercy through whichever door you may come to Him from.

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