That one time when I began to wear the niqab

Nadia is een ervaren audiovisuele journalist. Ze heeft gewerkt voor nationale en internationale tv, mensenrechtenorganisaties en zelfs de Verenigde Naties. Ze heeft interviews gedaan met meer dan 50 mensenrechtenactivisten en hoopt ongemakkelijke gesprekken, die vaak over de rechten van vrouwen, hun lichamen en hun keuzevrijheid gaan, te normaliseren.

Most people ask me why I used to wear the scarf or hijab .

I tell them that it was a feminist statement, wearing the hijab. By doing it, I forced the society to look beyond my external beauty; to credit my person to my thoughts that evolve with time, not to my ‘beauty’ that’s fading even as I type this very sentence. This is the truth.

Fewer people ask me when I started wearing it.

I tell those that do, “I started in school by my free will”. That when I started, my mother said to me, “Aren’t you concerned of what people will say?” To which I’d retort, “I don’t care what they’d say.” This is a lie.

This conversation did indeed take place, but it happened when I made the decision to put on the niqab .

I was fifteen years old.

I was sitting in a salon chair next to where my mother stood, more excited than I was for the perm I was getting. “Like a doll, really, you absolutely look like a doll. Look!” she’d say turning to my sister, “Look at her hair! Doesn’t she look like a doll?”. I was getting ready for a live performance where I was going to play the river Ravi.  “I don’t know why we’re doing this, not like anyone’s going to be able to see my hair through the scarf,” I scoffed.

“No! We didn’t spend all these hours in the salon for you to cover your hair on stage!” It would shock me if my mother were to say that today. But back then, I was too concerned with what Shad thought of me that I didn’t concern myself with what mom had to say. I wore my hijab on stage knowing fully that she would not be pleased.

“I am gonna start wearing the niqab,” I told Shad backstage as I put my hijab on, sheathing every last curl.

“Really?” asked Shad.

“Yeah! I mean, I haven’t told Mom but I am gonna do it anyway; next year onward.”

Shad’s face instantly broke into a smile, “Mashallah, Nadia! I am very proud of you. May Allah Subhana wa Ta’llah help you stay steadfast on the right path.”

I was ecstatic. I only cared for Shad’s approval and I had just got it. As time would go on, I would stop listening to music, and I would stop taking pictures as well, all for the very same reason. I did not care that most my class-fellows started to distance themselves from me in the aftermath of it all. I did not care that they thought I wasn’t modern enough as a Muslim. I didn’t care when the few friends that I had left would walk up to me, bursting with excitement to share a new song, “You need to listen to David Archuleta!” only to quickly correct themselves, “I guess you could just read the lyrics. They’re just as good as his songs.” I didn’t care.

As I was packing up to leave after our last class, Abeer interrupted me and demanded, “Why do you wear that?” pointing at my niqab.

“Because it’s fardh,” I replied smugly.

“No it isn’t. It says in the Quran to cover your bosoms, not your face.”

She was right.

“Wrong. Prophet (SAW)’s wives wore this.” I replied angrily.

“You know, girls all over the world are forced to wear this. You shouldn’t be normalizing something that’s oppressive to so many girls around the world.”

I was confused. “No one is forcing me. I want to wear this.”

“Sure, but don’t call it fardh.”

Abeer was right. Regardless, I continued the debate with her for a good number of days that followed. Every day, I would go home and tell my mother everything she had said to me. And every other day, I’d return to school with a new argument.

“When travelling with her brother, Prophet (SAW)’s wife would cover her face as she’d see a stranger approaching. What does that tell you?”

Without even losing a beat Abeer would retort, “They lived and traveled in deserts. You ever think that maybe that’s why they would cover their faces?”

The banter between us remained torn open like a wound, getting nastier the longer it sat there, making Abeer and I grow further apart from one another.

I was too young to be getting caught up in such ideological debates. I lacked knowledge. I lacked opinion. I lacked perspective. I was parroting my way through life. Saying whatever I was told to say without understanding what it was that I was actually saying. While Shad applauded me for the narrative I was pushing forward, Abeer hated me for it. They were two opposite ends of a spectrum, and I was pulled thin between them, losing whatever individuality I had left.

We eventually agreed to disagree.

An artwork I made recently while reflecting on my hijab/niqab journey (2018)

At recess one day, as I sat on the bench having my home-made sandwich, I saw a group of girls from my class huddled together, giggling at something Inaya was saying. Inaya caught my eye and walked up to me, unable to contain her smile. “Guess what happened last night?” She asked excitedly. “I shook hands with a man at the elevator in my building!” She continued without waiting for me to respond. “He was like Assalam-o-Alikum, and I shook his hand!”

I think I rolled my eyes. I think I audibly sighed. I added, “Allah (SWT) will push a nail in your hand with which you shook this man’s hand. This is nothing to be proud of.”  I don’t think I have ever seen an expression change so quickly right before my eyes. Inaya, was crushed. I, callously, gathered my things and left for class.

From a very young age, I was told that I was an object of desire. That because I was a woman, my ankle alone could tempt a man to have his way with me. I was told to hide my bras and underwear when doing laundry. I was told to hide my pads when going to the bathroom. I was told not to speak with my brothers or father about being on my period. I couldn’t complain about bras hurting, neither could I go shopping for them. And for the longest time, I grew up thinking my vagina was actually called bikini line because that’s what my Veet products taught me.

Bikini Line.

I remember googling that before using the hair removal cream on myself, just so I’d know where to apply it. My mother had come to me, when I was half asleep, and whispered, “Here, I got you a cream. You don’t have to wax.”

She was feeling guilty for having had yelled at me. Prior to this, she had found out that I hadn’t waxed my ‘bikini line’ and so she threatened to burn my pubic hair. I profusely apologized to her  through tears as I crouched and shielded my naked body with my arms, from the lighter she pointed at it. My mother used to make sugaring wax balls for us at home, just as she had done for herself all her life. However, I was only 12 or younger at the time, and I was scared shitless of waxing my pubic hair. The one time that I had tried, I had only gotten wax all over the hair and nothing on the sugaring ball, forcing my mother to resort to hair removal creams.

After showering and getting ready for school, I took my breakfast with me to the car. Once in school, I went to my classes and did all the normal things that I’d do on a regular school day. It was during recess, as Shad and I sat on the benches of the big shaded area having our lunch, that I realized something was wrong.

“What is it?” I asked.

“What?”

“What is it? You look like you’re not here.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.” After a slight pause Shad added, “It’s my brother. He has a girlfriend.”

I stopped eating. “What?”

“Yeah, I know. We only found out yesterday when he was on the phone with her.”

I was shocked. How disgusting! I thought.

“What are you guys gonna do?”

“I don’t know. My mom cried all night. My dad is very upset too.”

I could imagine. Dating was one of the highest forms of sin.

“Nadia, could I ask you for something?”

“Anything!” I replied eagerly.

“Could you ask your mother for advice? Mashallah  she has  studied at Umm-ul-Qura University. Maybe she could guide us through this?”

I nodded and proceeded to console Shad for the remainder of our lunch break. Once I got home, I took mom to the ladies’ living room (yes, our house had two living rooms – one for the men and one for the women). I sat her down and told her everything. “This is only natural at his age. He is a young boy, of course his mind will wander.” She started. “See, this is why we must cover ourselves, this girl must be troublesome!” She then proceeded to give me a list of things to communicate to Shad:

  1. Occupy him after school with extra activities so he doesn’t have time to think about any girls.
  2. Tell their father to take Shad’s brother for Fajr prayers regularly.
  3. Fast (apart from Ramadan).

My Mom in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia (2009)

The very next day, I told Shad everything. I had written the points down so I passed the piece of paper to Shad. “Jazakillah Khair, Nadia.”

“Wa iyaki!”

I felt like a superhero.

Shad’s brother and his girlfriend broke up soon after that. She went on to become known for “sleeping around”, he went to MIT. It was only later that I heard the girl talking to a group of other girls, “Tou mainae ek baar sex kiya? So what? Ghalatee her kisi say hotee hay.” Saying, “So I had sex once? So what? Everyone makes mistakes!”

Many of my class-fellows and their sisters came under fire around that time. One of them was rumored to be offering anal sex in exchange for money. Anal specifically so that she would remain ‘virgin’.  Another was rumored to be seeing a married man. Our Islamic Studies’ teacher made it her personal obligation to hunt down couples in our school’s corridors. Our head of school created fake profiles on social media to catch students of opposite sex talking to each other online. Even a couple from my sister’s class got summoned at the principal’s office for openly dating. Fortunately for them, their parents were well aware of the relationship and approved of it. Making the principal look daft for interfering in such personal matters. They were the lucky ones. Most girls in school were getting married young. Any girl that fell in love or performed badly at school would find herself saying, “Kabul Hay” to her cousin few months later somewhere in Pakistan. I began to look at marriage as an affirmation for failure.

For our O’Levels’ exam of Islamic Studies we had to memorize many ahadith[2]. I remember our Islamic Studies’ teacher telling us, “It was narrated from ‘Imran ibn Husayn that the Prophet (SAW) said:

“I looked into Paradise and I saw that the majority of its people were the poor. And I looked into Hell and I saw that the majority of its people are women.”

-Narrated by Al-Bukhari, 3241; Muslim, 2737.

It was always the girls, never the boys. Always the girls that were misbehaving. Always the girls making the boys sin. Always the girls going astray.

“The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) went out to the musalla (prayer place) on the day of Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Fitr. He passed by the women and said, ‘O women! Give charity, for I have seen that you form the majority of the people of Hell.’ They asked, ‘Why is that, O Messenger of Allah?’  He replied, ‘You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religious commitment than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.’ The women asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is deficient in our intelligence and religious commitment?’ He said, ‘Is not the testimony of two women equal to the testimony of one man?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Is it not true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?’ The women said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘This is the deficiency in her religious commitment.’”

-Narrated by Al-Bukhaari, 304.

This mentality was sown deep into our heads. It was more of a correctional facility than a school. Female sexuality and individuality was completely suppressed, controlled and frowned upon. And so I, along with other girls, was disciplined through the implementation of the abaya, the hijab and the niqab. I hated any girl that didn’t wear a hijab. I hated their freedom, I hated their individuality, I hated their ability to effortlessly be themselves. All because I looked at myself as if I were nothing more than temptation on legs. I was obligated to cover all of me until I disappeared into the background. Faceless. Not an individual. Just female.

“Women are like gold…”

“Women are like pearls…”

“Women are like lollipops…”

“Women are like iPhones…”

These were common analogies that circled within my social circle. These were analogies that helped my fellow girls justify being put in homes under guardianship because if left outside they’d be stolen, used or broken. These analogies were just another tool for our society to justify choking women socially.

Women are like anything that doesn’t rhyme with an individual. I understood.

Me standing in front of a monument in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia (2009)

It wasn’t until recently that I found out about the sexual deviance on the men’s side of the pond. My siblings and I were sat reminiscing about our time at school when my brother abruptly blurted, “You know all the boys in our school were gay, right?”

“What?” I was completely baffled.

“Oh yeah. I can’t tell you how many times even I was offered money to have sex with guys. It was so common. Literally everyone else was doing it.”

How come then we never studied any ahadith about men leading men astray? Why weren’t there as many men in hell as women?

“…I looked into Hell and I saw that the majority of its people are women.”

-Narrated by Al-Bukhari, 3241; Muslim, 2737.

The sexual frustration that bred from segregation in Saudi Arabia (and other countries like it) was undeniably a leading cause of sexual harassment in its communities. It was, and remains, the cause of sexual assaults on children, making little boys more vulnerable than anyone else in our communities. Making practices like bacha bazi common cultural traditions even! Yet, the fatwas will tell you, that it’s the women who need to be locked up in their homes. That it’s the women’s ‘bikini lines’ where you will find a man’s honor. That it is women who must be herded. After all, isn’t that why all Prophets were shepherds?

I began to change.