A Year In Hijab

I knew I embraced the hijab early last year because I remember my first ‘holiday in hijab’ – Abu Dhabi, March 2013. But, I wasn’t sure exactly when I began to wear the hijab. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I got an email reminder yesterday telling me that today was to be the anniversary of performing Umrah and deciding – this is it – I want to wear a hijab. My past self must have sensed this was a momentous decision and worth recording for the benefit of her future self. I’m glad she did this for me.

Having a clear date to reflect back on, I’ve spent the day thinking about the past twelve months. Suffice to say, it’s been a great year in hijab. I’ve kept it on for starters! When I began to wear it, I was convinced that I would never take it off but you never say never right? Especially not if this is the fourth time you’re embracing hijab.

But there was something different about this time: I was doing it, for what I believe to be, the right reason. For Allah (SWT-the exalted). What happened the past few times? I’ll talk about it separately; why drag the negative past into this positive reflection!

On that note, here are some snippets of my year in hijab:

Learning to Love

Leading up to that moment, I was reading more and more about Islam. I loved the concept of women being valued for their heart, mind and abilities more than their appearance.

Peer Support

I’m part of a closely knit group of friends and one of them was also developing spiritually like me. She called herself a part-time hijabi; wearing it to specific places amongst specific groups. It was her way of easing the transition. It was a great relief and support to have shared my thoughts and feelings with her. And not just her, the other friends in our group, despite being at different stages of practicing Islam, were supporting us.

THE Moment

I had travelled to Makkah that weekend with my husband. We performed Umrah for the umpteenth time (alhamdhulillah). I knew people who would give anything to perform any type of pilgrimage at least once in their lives. Yet here we were, performing it almost on a monthly basis each time we visited my in-laws in Jeddah.

That weekend I decided life was short and I may not be able to appear in front of the Ka’ba again. I’m going to wear hijab from now on, I told myself. The blended feeling of happiness and strength that came with that decision is indescribable. I returned to Riyadh and began covering up.

Husband Reacts

He had always imagined me in hijab a lot later on in life – as did I.

Are you sure? My husband asked. Yes, I answered. That was it. After all, it was my decision.

From time to time he has said things like ‘I miss your hair’ or ‘I miss how you used to dress’, especially when we’ve been on holiday. I like it when this happens because I know that I’m not oppressed by him and that I’m still practising for me and me alone.

Hello Girlfriend!

My blonde and blue-eyed neighbour in Riyadh happened to also be my best friend. We met out here and have been inseparable since. Our love for dressing fashionably and animal-print was one of our common factors. I had told her of my plans to don a hijab one day but hadn’t told her it had happened. I wore my headscarf the day after I returned and knocked on her door.

‘You look beautiful!’ she exclaimed. ‘I can’t believe you haven’t worn it sooner.’

The Compound Debut

I live in an expat compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There’s a mix of cultures here and I was quite social and well known amongst other residents. I’d wanted to embrace hijab in the months leading up to January but didn’t want to be treated differently by people on the compound. Sounds silly on reflection, I know. Why should I care what others think? Fact was; I did care. It wasn’t just about placing a piece of cloth over my head. Hijab is modesty and I needed to change the way I dressed and behaved. My identity, persona or whatever you want to call it, was heavily reliant on my physical appearance – sadly.

A few days after returning from Makkah, I made my debut at a compound bring-a-dish event armed with a tray full of chick pea kebabs and a polka dot headscarf. A took a deep breath and walked towards the table of approximately twelve people I knew.

No-one batted an eyelid. No-one spoke to my scarf. No-one asked me if I was having a bad hair day. I went home that night thinking: that was easy! Why did I think it would’ve been fraught with tension?

Odd One Out No More

I was the last of the females in my family to embrace hijab. It never bothered me in the house because we don’t wear it indoors when it’s just the family. But whenever we used to go out, I used to feel like the odd one out.

When I returned from that bring-a-dish event my sister came on skype with her kids. I positioned the camera away from me and said I had a surprise for them. They huddled up in front of their laptop as I walked away a distance and then came into view.

‘Are you wearing a HIJAB?!’ My sister shrieked.

I nodded, too moved to say anything.

‘You look beautiful, khayee,’ commented my three-year-old nephew.

My parents received the news a few days later and raised their palms up to the sky in thanks.

Becoming the Norm

‘I thought I saw you out there by the BBQ pit the other day,’ my blonde bohemian best friend told me a couple weeks into me wearing hijab.

‘It was an Asian woman with hair like yours. And then I thought straightaway: that can’t be Rabia, she’s not wearing a hijab.’ She reached for her cup of hibiscus tea and added, ‘Just goes to show how quickly you get used to something. It’s like you’ve always worn hijab and I can’t imagine you without it.’

A few weeks following that cuppa and catch-up, we were walking over to the other side of the compound together. I was jabbering on about something, throwing my hands around for effect, when she reached up to my shoulder and adjusted my scarf.

‘A bit of your skin was showing,’ she said.

I felt a wave of warmth add to what I already held for her.

Holiday in Hijab – The First

Abu Dhabi, March 2013. A long weekend of sun, sea, sand and scarves. I remember feeling a little apprehensive about holidaying in hijab – even though it was a Middle Eastern country. Our taxi pulled up outside the glass entrance of the hotel and we approached the doorman.

‘Asalaamu Alaikum,’ the Asian man in uniform said, bowing his head with a smile.

How does he know we’re Muslim? Seriously, that was the first question that went through my mind. And then I remembered – I was wearing a big sign on my head!

The next day I got dressed from head to toe and we headed to the beach via the back doorstep of the hotel. I was feeling a mixture of uneasiness and excitement. Uneasiness because I passed semi-naked bodies soaking up the sun and turning their heads to look at me. Excitement because I was wearing the hijab because I wanted to and was going to enjoy the beach just as much as them!

We settled on sun loungers right at the seafront and enjoyed the sound of the lapping waves. Didn’t I want to get in it? No. Hijab or no hijab, I find the sea too salty to swim in so I was quite happy to lie back and read my book!

Representing Business

I began Madhani – a small clothing label – in 2008. Specialising in jilbabs and abayas; it was an attempt to fill the gap of stylish modern Islamic clothing for petite women like my sister. I must admit, I felt like a fraud promoting my business because I myself was far from modest (Islamically speaking). To the relief of my conscience, I placed the business on hold in the same year to concentrate on my management career.

When I moved to Riyadh in 2011 I began to work on Madhani again. I returned to the UK to launch my label at a small charity fashion event. My sister and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in matching jilbabs and headscarves. I finally felt like a true representative of what Madhani stands for.

Bobbing in Bangkok

I was not prepared for the number of hijabs I saw bobbing in the streets of Bangkok. My husband had thought ahead and after a few days of research, he booked our hotel in what you would call a ‘Muslim quarter’ of the city. This meant that I felt right at home in my headgear and food preferences. Halal restaurants lined the main street as well as the alleys. Our hotel room came with a view of a beautiful little mosque glistening under the street lights at night. The call to prayer could be heard from the bed.

A few days into our holiday, my husband surprised me with a Thai Cooking Class with Chef Leez. She came over to tell me that she too was Muslim and never handled pork in her kitchen. The meat was all halal and I could eat all the dishes we were to cook that day. Needless to say, I ate everything we made and enjoyed myself thoroughly!

The following day, we went on a Food & Markets Tour with a trusted tour guide. We reached a temple built against a huge tree, which housed a gold leaf statue inside.

‘You can see inside through the window over there,’ said the petite tour guide with a bob.

‘Can’t we go in?’ I asked, thinking I’m not allowed because I’m not Buddhist.

‘You want to go inside?’ She asked in shock. ‘Our Muslim tourists never go inside.’

I’d never stopped to think whether it was okay to enter temples as a Muslim. I understood that others may see this as idol worship – a great sin. But I wasn’t going in to worship, simply look around and take some photos. I enjoy learning about other people’s way of life. Make of that what you will, Allah (SWT) will judge me.

Basking in Bali

After we ate our way through Bangkok, my husband and I arrived in Bali. Wherever we went, I noted a handful of other tourists and locals in hijab. And halal food was available dotted amongst the non-halal restaurants.

A few days later we stayed in Kintamani where Mount Batur squats beside two other mountains. We were booked to climb Batur in the morning and met our guide who would accompany us the next day.

‘I am Muslim also,’ he told us before he went off to ensure the chef prepares extra seafood dishes for us. (The hotel didn’t serve halal food.)

We managed to climb the mountain the next day and witness an amazing sunrise. After the climb, our guide invited us to travel to his restaurant which his wife runs. There, we met his smiley wife and posed for photos beneath his shop front. We chose what we wanted from the glass counter of the dimly lit hut and sat on stools on the roadside. Our fingers tucked into the delicious food while we balanced our plates on our laps.

We bid goodbye to our guide and headed for a few days of relaxation in Menjangan Jungle and Beach Resort. As soon as we arrived at the breathtaking setting, we were met by a smiling man in uniform. He quickly pointed out that he too was Muslim and assured us that the food served in the resort is halal, since he has to also eat there.

My husband and I went snorkelling with a few other tourist couples. I had on a swimsuit covering me from head to toe, complete with a frilly skirt attached. On my head, I wore a swimming cap and a scarf which I took off before entering the water. It wasn’t the ideal costume I wanted in terms of coverage, but it covered most of me and allowed me to take part in my favourite beach activity. And the best bit was, no-one looked at me funny or made any remarks. By the end of the tour, we were chatting like we’d known each other longer than a few hours!

The day before we were to leave, we were transferred to a sprawling private residence on the edge of the beach. My husband had booked it to treat us both to some privacy, allowing me to remove my hijab and use our own pool. The residence came with an on-site butler service but he had been briefed to stay in his office (which was actually a detached hut with all mod cons) to allow me to move around the grounds freely without a hijab.

It was one of the most memorable holiday experiences I’ve had and it was thanks to my hijab!

#Hajj2013

I had always wondered if I would have the courage and willpower to begin wearing a hijab after I performed Hajj. What a relief that hijab preceded my Hajj pilgrimage because I wasn’t fretting about a piece of cloth and focused my energy on preparing for my once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey.

The day before our flight to Jeddah, I received a message from my best friend from next door:

Just thinking – strange I know but do you read Arabic? I mean like as in the Koran?

I responded with:

Yes I do read it – albeit a little slowly!

A few hours later she arrived on my doorstep and came inside to present me with a ‘Hajj gift’ as she called it. Excited, I peeled back the paper wrapping and there in my hands lay a mini Qur’an bound in a pink suede cover. There was a Breast Cancer Research stall where she was based that day and she thought of me. We hugged each other tightly and I went back to my packing.

I began Hajj with hijab and my friend’s pink Qur’an, I prayed and lived in the moments of that blessed week and I returned home feeling like a cleansed soul.

Post Lee Rigby

I was horrified like anybody else who heard about the Lee Rigby killing. Not surprising, within a day or two, stories of Muslims being attacked or abused were surfacing just like post 9/11 and post July 7th. I arrived in the UK a few months after that incident and was nervous about travelling around on my own.

My time in the UK passed with nil incidents to me. I especially enjoyed being in London for a few days. So many cultures, all under the same canopy. A special moment for me was when my husband and I were walking along hand in hand and:

A nun dressed in black
Stark contrast to
The colours of my hijab
Acknowledges me with
A warm knowing smile
Our love for God binding us

(verse taken from my poem: Colours of London)

While we were staying in London, there was a Diwali event taking place in Leicester Square which we were going to attend. Before I arrived there, I was apprehensive about how I’d be judged or treated considering I’m clearly Muslim and the festival is celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs mostly. I was pleasantly surprised. There were other hijabis there enjoying the street food, the stage show and chilly but upbeat atmosphere.

Protected By Others

I was still in the UK when I received a message from my best friend / next door neighbour. It read:

Went to the gym this morning – they [compound management] have a ‘board of fame’ pictures of various activities. There was one of you and I at the BBQ you organised eons ago – I took it down as you are without your hijab – hope I did the right thing? Xxxx

The only way I could respond was:

U never fail to touch my heart xxx

Uncomfortable Encounters

At the end of the year when it was approaching Christmas, I attended a farewell party where I met a young woman with a few opinions. One of them was about hijab. She asked me point blank why I wore a hijab and then slurred her argument about women not needing to cover.

I smiled with wavering lips and got through the uncomfortable encounter. The next morning I wrote about it and reflected that it was a timely reminder as to why indeed I was wearing a hijab.

Redefining Beauty

There isn’t a single reference or point in time I can pick out but all in all, hijab has helped me to feel beautiful. I rely less on a mirror because it gives me an image which I automatically compare to what media portrays as beautiful. Instead, I view my beauty through my actions and my mind.

A Year in Summary

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had so many positive and touching experiences. Having listed and talked about them above has served as a reflection on my journey so far.

What a great year it’s been in hijab – alhamdhulillah!

© Rabia Bashir 21st January 2014

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