I grew up in a fairly culturally desi house where Bollywood, mehndi (hand painted red designs), actor Salman Khan, girly lehngas (those brightly colored intricate shirt with skirts embroidered in gold colored ribbons) and other strong cultural symbols ruled our day-to-day routine. Religion was not explicitly mentioned or promoted, with the strict observance of halal meat as perhaps the main exception. But as we grew up, my father began insisting that we become involved in our local mosque and in the youth activities taking place in the community out of fear that we would increasingly emulate the American culture he found highly problematic from his prevailing cultural norm. I think he was most afraid of dating. And maybe short skirts.
So, in the 1990’s we began participating in some of the local and national Muslim youth events. At the time that I joined and started to get to know the other youth members, I found myself amidst a new teenage trend: adopting the hijab. For those unfamiliar, wearing hijab or becoming a “hijaby” as it became known, consisted of covering one’s hair with a cloth around all men not in your immediate family.
The community of Muslim women gradually bifurcated into two groups, those that wore the hijab and those that didn’t. And amongst the hijabys there was no shortage of indignation towards the girls that chose not to wear the scarf, sometimes more open and belligerent, and at others times more passive aggressive.
During this time, I was invited to one hijab party after another filled with the celebratory hugs of “congratulations for starting the hijab!” And, at these events, I’d notice the subtle glances directed at me and others like me for not starting it. And some of my closest (hijaby) friends would turn to me saying “you’re next!” or “what hijab are you going to wear on your first day? I think you should wear pink it totally suits you!”
What I felt from that enthusiastic encouragement was peer pressure, I had to do what they thought was right, or else maybe I wouldn’t be in their groups for much longer. The high-order conservative hijabys in the crowd would amp up the pressure even more, the ones that wore the hijab super tight around their face tied down with a pin at their chins to ensure not a strand of hair would escape the cloth around their heads. They would grab my hand and take me aside in soft toned voices. Their words would vary, sometimes it would sound romanticized, “you know wearing the hijab is like a crown, the angels will sing your praises to God” and other times more dooming: “you know that every strand of hair that you expose would be pulled out piece by piece on the day of judgment.” When I would wear a dapata, that loose sheer head covering that accompanies most Indian women’s dress, while attending Eid namaz (prayers), these women would go into overdrive with subtle comments such as “you look so beautiful! You should wear it all the time!” or “it’s too sheer your hair needs to be covered!”
Despite my decision not to wear hijab, I continued to maintain strong ties with the women around me, hijaby or non-hijaby. I was thankfully liked. And as a result I would be able to sit amongst these women when we would all chat, and yes, even gossip.
I was caught off guard with the chatter about certain women while gossiping, more often than not making certain to mention, with great emphasis, “she doesn’t even wear hijab!” The other women would shake their head disapprovingly. Some would gasp, or say “ohhh I know!” It took me years before I fully digested the conversations. They weren’t so much talking about the rules of God, or the pursuit of piety, but these discussions were veils for each of these women’s insecurity, even jealousy. Everyone says that wearing hijab is a personal choice, but for these hijabys I sat with then, it’s not really a choice, it’s a decision one makes either to be a good or a bad person.
This became most apparent to me when the very-cute-masjid-boy who all the girls were crushing on ended up liking another girl, let’s call her Rabia, from another community. The gossip turned to speculation that “Rabia really doesn’t wear hijab all the time!” or, “A friend of mine saw Rabia,” one girl said, “and Rabia was not wearing the hijab at the mall/in her yearbook photo from a few years ago/at an all girls party.” When they would encounter her, they would be welcoming and nice, only to demean her later on. These hijabys were angry. This very attractive girl caught the eye of this heart-throb-boy of the community. It doesn’t take a psychologist long to figure this out. Jealousy masked as self-righteous indignation. Rabia was attractive, in fact probably far more attractive than any of them. But by choosing not to wear the hijab (or as these gossiping girls liked to speculate or sensationalize additional reasons why someone shouldn’t like her, because she did indeed wear the hijab) she was assigned, what they considered, a legitimate reason for disliking her.
Fast-forward almost a decade later when many of these same women who wore the hijab and condemned those who did not, decided to take off the hijab for various reasons.
These women who were previously the purveyors of gossip now ironically found themselves the subject of derision by both women who never wore the hijab to begin with and those who kept wearing it. I know. Talk about karma. Those other women would gossip by saying, “you know she took her hijab off too” followed by a very audible “ohhh” and “that is so bad!” across the table.
Let’s be honest, while hijab has a spiritual component, and I do have respect for the choice that some women make in wearing it (my own sister chose the wear the hijab recently), the motivations and machinations to wear, not wear or promote the wearing of hijab often has less to do with one’s spiritual state and perhaps more to do with the regular human interactions of people, their insecurities and how they view themselves in the world. Its about inclusion and exclusion, its about groups and cliques, its about who gets to sit at the cool kids table at lunch. I don’t doubt that there is sincerity in the act, but what I do doubt is whether the relentless proselytization of hijab by its practitioners has less to do with obeying God and more to do with one’s own personal issues. Or at least based on my experience, and from what I’m learning the experience of many others, it’s something that should at least be discussed in Muslim circles.