By Sadaf Farooqi
19 June 2014
13 years after I started my ‘covered’ journey, distressed by witnessing many of my fellow Quran course colleagues and batch-mates ‘tone down’ or completely discard their Niqab, Jilbab, and – in some shocking cases – even the Hijab, I stop for a moment and think.
As I experience ambivalent feelings towards ‘Burqa Avengers’ and scantily clad Disney princesses perched on the balconies of idyllic castles, I revisit those moments in my childhood that unknowingly inspired me to start covering myself….
“But why do you cover your face?” a 7-year-old girl asks when she sees me try to take a sip from behind my Niqab, from the straw in the tall glass of cold coffee in my hand. “Why?”
At times, when I walk across the road in the bright sunlight, or cross glass-walled shops in a busy marketplace and catch a glimpse of my loosely-garbed figure, I catch myself reflecting upon my silhouette: a figurative “shadow”, so to speak, covered top to toe in flowing garments, with little more than my eyes, hands and parts of my feet visible.
At moments like these, I feel a sudden rush of gratitude towards my Creator for guiding me to modestly cover myself up like this. My mind then wanders down memory lane, to my life more than a decade ago, when it was a similarly dressed woman passing by me.
Her silhouette framed against the backdrop of the fading evening light, who had caught my attention as a teenager, making me ponder upon my own comparatively immodest persona as I gazed at her in awe, transfixed; that moved my heart in a way that I could henceforth never forget.
The Defining Moment
“Does my lipstick look too dark?” one of my friends had asked as she peered into the rear-view mirror of her parked car. We were a group of 17-year-old girls who had stopped at the store on the way to a girlfriend’s house for a get-together.
As the three of us waited in the car for her driver to come back, a small group of men standing nearby started to stare lustfully at us, making vulgar facial gestures.
I tried to quell the guilt that welled up inside me, and I suddenly wished there was a barrier or a cover between us and them; to shield us from their lewd stares. I regretted having put on bright lipstick and letting my untied hair cascade in loose curls over my shoulders, even though I knew I had done so only as a natural, feminine quest to “dress up” for a girls’ party.
And just at that moment, overwhelmed with guilt, was when I saw her.
Wearing a graceful Abaya and Hijab that covered her from head to toe, the Niqab pulled across her face showing just her eyes, she glided across the road a few yards away. I observed her for a few seconds, in awe and admiration. I then looked back at the men who were still gawking at us, dolled-up teenagers.
Not one of them even so much has cast a glance in her direction.
It was one of those life-changing moments.
Thenceforth, outwardly I appeared and acted the same, but inside, I had changed forever. I just knew that I wanted to adhere to the Islamic dress code, even though I presumed that I would never be able to.
Back to that moment in the car. Overcome with shame and guilt, I suddenly pined to be able to take up Hijab and Niqab like that graceful lady. I felt so cheap and easy in comparison to her, because of being openly available for the world to leer at whenever I dressed up, especially since I was at an age that marks the threshold of the pinnacle of a woman’s youthful beauty in life.
Quest for Respect
Groups of girls and boys stand in classroom doorways and along the corridors; ‘hang out’ by chatting on stairways; around tables in the cafeteria, or whilst sitting cross-legged on the sprawling campus lawns.
Gossip, rumors, teacher-bashing, academics, exams, and the latest films or television programs are hot discussion topics. Peppered throughout the conversations are half-disguised attempts at ‘harmless’ flirtation, sly comments, underhandedly vulgar jokes, and mockery sugar-coated to look like ‘friendly’ leg-pulling and joking.
Suddenly, a guy crosses the line whilst teasing a girl in jest, and the whole group breaks out in loud guffaws as the young girl, who is the target of his jibe, turns beetroot red with humiliation and self consciousness, lowering her gaze and wishing she could get up and leave the scene at that very instant.
But she doesn’t. She swallows her guilt and remains seated in this ‘group’, even though she loathes the company of some of the people in this clique of her so-called “friends”. Running away would seem so cowardly, ‘uncool’ and prudish, she thinks to herself, as she manages to conjure up a fake laugh in order to appear as if she was able to take the crude joke in good humour.
Welcome to the timeless dilemma faced by high school and college youths!
First as a teenager and then more so as a twenty-something-year old, I sought respect from members of the opposite gender. I wished they would not stare at me or “check me out” when I moved around outside. From the moment I had turned thirteen, till I hit twenty-one, I found the lewd stares of guys and men disconcerting and downright demeaning.
When I visited my girlfriends’ homes, even their fathers and brothers would repeatedly approach us girls, trying to be unnecessarily friendly and cracking insipid jokes just to make us laugh. Even the portly, balding and rotund “Uncles” in my extended family, who used to ignore me as a child, lavished unwelcome attention upon me at weddings and other family events, by teasing me about anything stupid under the sun or asking invasive questions about my student life.
I craved respect and honor. I wished every man would treat me like a lady, not eye candy or easy entertainment. Yes, that is the appropriate word: easy. Guys and men assumed they could look at me or talk to me as and when they wished.
All praise to Allah, all of that has changed now that I wear the Hijab, Abayas and Niqab.
To be continued…