Summer of Contemplation

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Like a new growth pushing its way out of the ground, guest writer Yahsmin Mayaan Binti Bobo felt a new identity taking shape in herself.

It was a summer of contemplation for me.

Turning the idea over and over in my mind was like turning over new soil for better cultivation and growth. Not every young woman made such a shift but evidently, it had been written. I thought about Islam every waking moment of every day.

During this deliberation and with a bit of resistance still, I went to the movies with a male friend from high school. It was strictly platonic but I wore something that attracted a great deal of attention, none of which was positive. We delude ourselves to feeling like this kind of attention is good for our confidence, but it doesn’t serve the purpose of self esteem in the long run. Men eyeballed me from every corner of the theater. So much so that it made my friend feel uncomfortable. He grew quiet and reserved as I grew more and more self conscious.

I went home to think about what I had subjected myself to, and even subjected those around me to. From that day forward, my wardrobe was upgraded to clothing with more length and room to breathe. I wanted others to understand the new me, hoping they would appreciate that I no longer posed as competition if you were female, or a distraction if you were male. I wanted to just be myself, cancelling the notion that my body type or physical appearance makes me a woman. I came to understand the power of human sexuality and decided it only logical that such energy belongs in a certain current between a man and woman.

Hijab was one of the main reservations for not embracing Islam earlier on. I came from a society of thinking that if you’re a woman, femininity is expressed through your bareness and body language. It spoke nothing of gender roles, responsibilities or greater ambitions to break free from all forms of sexism. Therefore, I stood wide eyed to an epiphany that society’s thinking couldn’t work for me. I gravitated further from Western standards and closer to a Qur’anic suggestion that the manner in which a woman presents herself to the outside world will serve as a protection for her entire being. It made sense. This resonated from a place not just in regards to garment selection, but one of mentality.

I admired that.

I admired the notion that a connection between mind, body and spirit was crucial in the realization of true modesty. It couldn’t just be your clothing, it had to be your attitude and behavior. And vice versa.

One afternoon in August my mother pulled me into her bedroom, showing me a multi-colored scarf someone had given her. It was hanging on a mirror the chest of drawers was attached to. The scarf had caught my attention before, as though it was beckoning to be worn. I wasn’t nearly ready for that. In that moment, my mother kindly encouraged me to give it a go, in case I needed it for a visit to the masjid. Mother knew that devout Muslim women wore it, especially during prayers.

“I’m not sure when I’m going to wear something like that Mom. I don’t know that I ever will,” I said with willfulness in my voice.

“Okay, whenever you’re ready. It will be right here,” she replied ever so gently.

Within months, I became a regular attendee of a masjid in East Oakland, California. All of the women covered with khimar or jilbab. Colors and styles varied depending on generation and ethnicity. Whether it was tunics and jeans or abayas and bangles, these women visually expressed their beliefs in ways I never imagined. Some wore fashionable attire because they had a distinctive personal identity or they were in the secular workforce. Either way, it was a beautiful influence on my blossoming identity as a soon-to-be Muslim woman.

Meeting other Muslimas made an everlasting impression. I began to understand that, contrary to public opinion, the decision to cover your body and to also wrap your hair wasn’t something done for the sake your man. It was emblematic of an agreement with your Creator. This was a heavier sentiment for me, as I weighed arguments for and against a complete change in dress and demeanor. It was, likewise, a counterpoint in my Women’s Studies coursework where feminist rhetoric indoctrinated pupils to believe Muslim women are psychologically controlled by mates, fathers, brothers and uncles. While respect and deference are paid to Muslim male relatives, leaders and scholars, that does not equate to a blinding subordination.

I soon learned (and cherished) that Islam and compulsion are no friends to one another. And that Muslims should not consider the coercion of others their companion either.

There was no need to decry textual claims because I became living proof of independent decision making, the nearer I moved to my newfound sense of womanhood and femininity, spirituality and identity. Divorcing myself from trends in “high fashion” that are dictated by men also, the split was mutual. How was it that men, of any sexual orientation, controlled the imagery and purchasing power of women? And why did we allow the power of marketing obscure our self image? Wasn’t this another murky type of misogyny?

I unplugged myself from the psychological hysteria so many American women are locked into. We’re taught from a tender age that we aren’t pretty or slender enough, and if we are, there are certainly more cosmetic ways to enhance our natural beauty. This persuasion takes place on a very basic commercial level but has now snowballed into the monstrosity of plastic surgery.

It takes root within self-image and racial identity. Hijab was an escape from colorism within my own ethnic group – the African American community. As a very fair skinned biracial woman, I was stigmatized as overconfident and bigoted toward my darker skinned sisters, even though it was never truthful. My father raised me to appreciate all hues ranging from dark to pale and anything in between. He taught me never to assume what someone was because Black people in America had such a mixed heritage the genetic results are impossible to predict. Merging that consciousness with the lack of awareness in others proved difficult. No matter how hard I tried, I endured awful treatment because of the insecurities and assumptions of other African Americans, especially women. These relations were further strained if I was seen with a Black male, who would then also be stigmatized for preferring a “light skinned” girl with “good hair.”

Covering would minimize the tension colorism affronts for biracial women like me, whose hair texture and skin tone would no longer be the sole focus and obsession of others. If I were to cover my hair, the assumption that I thought of myself as better or prettier because of its texture could also be veiled. Moreover, I wouldn’t be expected to “pass” as anything other than a woman of God. At least, not in my own estimation. Things could be less racialized overall.

As a thinking young woman, the process didn’t carry on for too long.

In the autumn season of that same year, I bore witness to my belief in One God and the Last Prophet in the presence of several supporters in our small storefront masjid. With pride, I wore the scarf my mother had offered months before.

Like most trials in life, the tug of war with modesty among women is a brutal one. In this conflict, there are two battlefields: it is either you against yourself or you against others. There are a number of reasons why electing modesty is taxing to preserve in a society like this. It can be vanity that slows your progress. Or, it can be pressure from others that speeds your transition, perhaps prematurely. Before you know it, you may even lose a sense of who you are, intrinsically. Sometimes the feeling of alienation from relatives, coworkers and loved ones affects our ability to sustain these traditions. Whatever the reason, the deeper I fell in love with my religion, the more real these communal challenges with the people of my religion became.

As smooth as the path may have seemed, my own struggles would soon submerge. It took years to regain a sense of self after being in a whirlwind of cultural confusion many new converts are swallowed by. During that tumultuous time, I learned that gradualism is most important in the survival of a Muslim. Khurram Murad once wrote that “Islam is about becoming, not about being.” I took these beautiful words to heart, completely. And just as I had to liberate myself from the cosmetic hysteria of Western society, I also broke free from the authoritative and, frankly, superficial tone many Muslims have toward one another.

Today, I find comfort in people like me, whose thinking and development is leveled with my own. I strive to learn from those whose knowledge surpasses my own.

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Submitted to I Got It Covered for our May 2010 reader-takeover month.

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