Hijab: The View from Inside

by Khaula Nakata
Yamaguchi City, Japan

Courtesy of Hamdard Islamicus Vol. XXIII. No. 2

A person blinded by prejudice may not see it, but a woman in hijab is as brightly beautiful as an angel, full of self-confidence, serenity and dignity. No signs of oppression scar her face. 
When I returned to Islam, the religion of our inborn nature, a fierce debate raged about girls observing hijab at schools in France. It still does. The majority, it seemed, thought that wearing the headscarf was contrary to the principle that public - that is state-funded - schools should be neutral with regards to religion. Even as a non-Muslim, I could not understand why there was such a fuss over such a small thing as a scarf on a Muslim student's head. 

Muslims contributed a proportionate amount of tax to the state funds. In my opinion, schools could respect religious beliefs and practices of students as long as they did not disrupt the school routine, nor pose a threat to discipline. However, the French faced, apparently, increasing unemployment and they felt insecure about the immigration of Arab workers and the sight of hijab in their towns and schools aggravated their sense of insecurity. 

More and more young people in Arab countries were (and are) wearing hijab, despite the expectations of many Arabs as well as non-Arabs that it would disappear as Western secularism took root in Arab societies. Such a revival of Islamic practices is often regarded as an attempt by Muslims to restore their pride and identity, both undermined by colonialism. In Japan, it may be seen and understood as conservative traditionalism, or a result of anti-Western feelings, something which the Japanese themselves experienced following the first contact with Western culture during the Meiji era: they too reacted against a non-traditional lifestyle and Western dress. There is a tendency in people to be conservative in their ways and to react against anything new and unfamiliar without taking the time to see if it is good or bad. 

Western Feelings 

The feeling still persists amongst non-Muslims that Muslim women wear hijab because they are slaves to tradition, so much so that it is seen as a symbol of oppression. Women's liberation and independence is, so they believe, impossible unless they first remove the hijab.

Such a naivete is shared by "Muslims" with little or no knowledge of Islam. Being so used to secularism and religious eclecticism, pick and mix, they are unable to comprehend that Islam is universal and eternal. This apart, women all over the world, non-Arabs, are embracing Islam and wearing hijab as a religious requirement, not out of a misdirected sense of "tradition". I am but one example of such women. My hijab is not a part of my racial or traditional identity, it has no social or political significance, it is purely and simply, my religious identity. 

For non-Muslims, hijab not only covers a woman's hair, but also hides something, leaving them no access. They are being excluded from something which they have taken for granted in secular society. 

I have been wearing hijab since I embraced Islam in Paris. "The exact form of hijab varies according to the country one is in, or the degree of the individual's religious awareness. In France I wore a simple scarf which matched my dress and perched lightly on my head so that it was almost fashionable. Now in Saudi Arabia, I wear an all-covering black cape; not even my eyes are visible. Thus, I have experienced hijab from its simplest to its most complete form. 

What does hijab mean to me? Although there have been many books and articles about hijab, they always tend to be written from an outsider's point of view. I hope this will allow me to explain what I observe as an insider, so to speak. 

When I decided to declare my Islam, I did not think whether I could pray five times a day or wear hijab. Maybe I was scared that if I gave it serious thought I would, reach a negative conclusion, and that would affect my decision to become Muslim. Until I visited the main mosque in Paris, I had nothing to do with Islam - neither the prayers nor hijab were familiar to me. In fact, both were unimaginable, but my desire to become a Muslim was too strong (God be praised) for me to be overly concerned with what awaited me on the "other side" of my conversion. 

The Benefits 

The benefits of observing hijab became clear to me following a lecture at the mosque when I kept my scarf on even after leaving the building. The lecture had filled me with such a previously unknown spiritual satisfaction that I simply did not want to remove it. Because of the cold weather, I did not attract too much attention but I did feel different, somehow purified and protected; I felt as if I was in Allah's company. As a foreigner in Paris I sometimes felt uneasy being stared at by men. In my hijab I went unnoticed, protected from impolite stares. 

My hijab made me happy; it was both a sign of my obedience to Allah and a manifestation of my faith. I did not need to utter beliefs, the hijab stated them clearly for all to see, especially fellow Muslims, and thus it helped to strengthen the bonds of sisterhood in Islam. Wearing the hijab soon became spontaneous, albeit purely voluntary. No human being could force me to wear it; if they had, perhaps I would have rebelled and rejected it. However, the first Islamic book I read used very moderate language in this respect, saying that "Allah recommends it (hijab) strongly" and since Islam (as the word itself indicates) means we are to obey Allah's will, I accomplished my Islamic duties willingly and without difficulty, Alhamdulillah. [all praise is to God] Hijab reminds people who see it that God exists, and it serves as a constant reminder to me that I should conduct myself as a Muslim. Just as police officers are more professionally aware while in uniform, so I had a stronger sense of being a Muslim wearing my hijab

Two weeks after my return to Islam. I went back to Japan for a family wedding and took the decision not to return to my studies in France; French literature had lost its appeal and the desire to study Arabic had replaced it. As a new Muslim, with very little knowledge of Islam, it was a big test for me to live in a small town in Japan completely isolated from Muslims. However, this isolation intensified my Islamic consciousness, as I realised that I was not alone and Allah was with me. I had abandoned many of my clothes and with some help from a friend who knew dressmaking, I made some pantaloons, similar to Pakistani dress, I was not bothered by the strange looks the people gave me. 

Visit to Cairo 

After six months in Japan, my desire to study Arabic grew so much that I decided to go to Cairo where I knew someone. None of my host family there spoke English or Japanese and the lady who took my hand to lead me into the house was covered from head to toe in black. Even her face was covered. Although this is now familiar to me here in Riyadh, I remember being surprised at that time, recalling an incident in France when I had seen such a dress and thought, "There is a woman enslaved by the Arabian tradition, unaware of real Islam", (which I believed taught that covering the face was not necessary, but an ethnic tradition). 

I wanted to tell the lady in Cairo that she was exaggerating her dress, that it was unnatural and abnormal. Instead, I was told that my self-made dress was not suitable to go out in, something I disagreed with since I understood that it satisfied the requirements for a Muslimah. [female Muslim]. But (acting on the dictum), when in Rome (do as the Romans do) ... I bought some cloth and made a long dress, called khimar which covered the loins and the arms completely. I was even ready to cover my face, something most of the sisters with whom I became acquainted did. They were, though, a small minority in Cairo. 

Generally speaking, young Egyptians, more or less fully Westernised, kept their distance from women wearing khimar and called them "sisters". Men treated us with respect and special politeness. Women wearing a khimar shared a sisterhood which lived up to the Prophet's saying (Allah's Blessings and peace on Him) that "a Muslim greets the person he passes by in the street, whether he knows him or not". The sisters were, it is probably true to say, more conscious of their faith than those who wear scarves for the sake of custom, rather than for the sake of Allah. 

Before becoming Muslimah, my preference was for active pant-style clothes, not the more feminine skirts, but the long dress I wore in Cairo pleased me. I felt elegant and more relaxed. 

In the Western sense, black is a favourite colour for evening wear as it accentuates the beauty of the wearer. My new sisters were truly beautiful in their black khimar, and a light akin to saintliness shone from their faces. Indeed, they are not unlike Roman Catholic nuns, something I noticed particularly when I had occasion to visit Paris soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia. In the same Metro carriage I sat across a nun and I smiled at our similarity of dress. Hers was the symbol of her devotion to God, as is that of a Muslimah. I often wonder why people say nothing about the veil of the Catholic nun but criticise vehemently the veil of a Muslimah, regarding it as a symbol of "terrorism" and "oppression". I did not mind abandoning colourful clothes in favour of black; in fact, I had always had a sense of longing for the religious lifestyle of a nun even before becoming a Muslimah.

Lack of Understanding 

Nevertheless, I balked at the suggestion that I should wear my khimar back in Japan. I was angry at the sister's lack of understanding: Islam commands us to cover our bodies, and as long as this is done, one may dress as desired. Every society has its own fashions and such long black clothes in Japan could make people think I was crazy, and reject Islam even before I could explain its teaching. Our argument revolved around this aspect. 

After another six months in Cairo, however, I was so accustomed to my long dress that I started to think that I would wear it on my return to Japan. My concession was that I had some dresses made in light colours, and some white khimars, in the belief that they would be less shocking in Japan than the black variety. 

I was right. The Japanese reacted rather well to my white khimars, and they seemed to be able to guess that I was of a religious persuasion. I heard one girl telling her friend that I was a Buddhist nun; how similar a Muslimah, a Buddhist nun and Christian nun are. Once, on a train, an elderly man sitting next to me asked why I was dressed in such an unusual fashion. When I explained that I was a Muslimah and that Islam commands women to cover their bodies so as not to trouble men who are weak and unable to resist temptation, he seemed impressed. When he left the train he thanked me and said that he would have liked more time to speak to me about Islam. 

Means of Identification

In this instance, hijab prompted a discussion on Islam with a Japanese man who might not normally be inclined to talking about religion. As in Cairo, hijab acted as a means of identification between Muslims; I found myself on the way to a study circle wondering if I was on the right route when I saw a group of sisters wearing hijab. We greeted each other with salaam and went on to the meeting together. 

My father was worried when I went out in long sleeves and head cover even in the hottest weather, but I found that my hijab protected me from the sun. As a matter of fact, it was I who felt uneasy looking at my younger sister's legs while she wore short pants. I have often been embarrassed even before declaring Islam, by the sight of women's bosoms and hips clearly outlined by tight, thin clothing. I felt as if I was seeing something I was not supposed to see. If such a sight embarrasses me, one of the same sex, it is not difficult to imagine the effect on men. In Islam, men and women are commanded to dress modestly and not be naked in public, even in all male or all female situations. 

It is clear that what is acceptable to be bared in society varies according to social or individual understanding. For example in Japan fifty years ago it was considered vulgar to swim in a swimming suit but now bikinis are the norm. If, however, a woman swam topless she would be regarded shameless. To go topless on the south coast of France, however, is the norm. On some beaches in America, nudists lie as naked as they were born. If a nudist were to ask a liberated female who rejects hijab why she still covers her bosom and hips which are as natural as her hands and face, could she give an honest answer? The definition to what part of women's body should remain private to her is altered to suit the whims and fancies of either men or their surrogates, the so-called feminists. But in Islam we have no such problem; Allah has defined what may and may not be bared which we observe. 

No Sense of Shame 

The way people walk around naked (or almost so), excreting or making love in public, robs them of the sense of shame and reduces them to the status of animals. In Japan, women wear make-up only when they go out and have little regard for how they look at home. In Islam a wife will try to look beautiful for her husband and her husband will try to look good for his wife. There is modesty even between husband and wife and this embellishes the relationship.

Muslims are accused of being over-sensitive about the human body, but the degree of sexual harassment which occurs these days justifies modest dress. Just as a short skirt can send the signal that the wearer is available to men, so hijab signals loud and clear: "I am forbidden for you." 

The Prophet (Allah's Blessings and Peace be on Him), once asked his daughter, Fatimah (R.A.), [may Allah be pleased with her], "What is the best for a women". And she replied "Not to see men and not be seen by them". The Prophet (Allah's Blessings and Peace be on Him), was pleased and said: "You are truly my daughter." This shows that it is preferable for a woman to stay at home and avoid contact with male strangers as much as possible. Observing hijab when one goes out has the same effect. 

Having married (a Japanese Muslim), I left Japan for Saudi Arabia, where it is customary for women to cover their faces outdoors. I was impatient to try the naqab (face cover) and curious to know how it felt. Of course non-Muslim women generally wear black cloak, rather nonchalantly thrown over their shoulder but do not cover their faces. Non-Saudi Muslim women also often keep their faces uncovered. 

Once accustomed to the naqab, it is certainly not inconvenient. In fact I felt like the owner of a secret masterpiece, a treasure which you can neither know about, nor see. Whereas non-Muslims may think they are life imitating caricatures when they see Muslim couples walk in the streets, the oppressed and oppressor, the possessed, and the possessor, the reality is that the women feel like queens being led by servants. 

My first naqab left my eyes uncovered. But in winter I wore a fine eye-covering as well. All the feelings of unease when a man's eye met mine disappeared. As with sunglasses, the visual intrusion of strangers was prevented. 

Effect of Judgement 

It is an error of judgement to think that a Muslim woman covers herself because she is a private possession of her husband. In fact she preserves her dignity and refuses to be possessed by a stranger. It is non-Muslim (and "liberated" Muslim) women who are to be pitied for displaying their private self for all to see. 

Observing hijab from outside, it is impossible to see what it hides. "The gap, between being outside and looking in, and being inside and looking out, explains in part the void in the understanding of Islam. An outsider may see Islam as restricting Muslims. Inside, however, there is peace, freedom, and joy which those who experience it have never known before becoming practising Muslims, whether those born in Muslim families or those returned to Islam, choose Islam rather than the illusory freedom of secular life. If it oppresses women, why are so many well educated young .women in Europe, America, Japan, Australia indeed all over the world, abandoning the so-called "liberty" and "independence" and embracing Islam? 

A person blinded by prejudice may not see it, but a woman in hijab is as brightly beautiful as an angel, full of self-confidence, serenity and dignity. No signs of oppression scar her face. "For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts within the bosoms, that grow blind," says the Qur'an (Al-Hajj XXII:46). How else can we explain the great gap in understanding between us and such people? -

Da'wah Highlights
Courtesy, Daily News, April 12th, 1999