Slice of a Heart

22

Measuring and remeasuring again; delving daily into the chambers and corners of the heart; reflecting, resolving, repenting to Allah: it’s Ramadan again.

As I travel down my Ramadan memory lanes, I think of myself before and after the last Ramadan, and I realize something happened to me, something changed. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve reflected back on all the Ramadans I’ve lived through with consistency; but now that I am, I feel utterly grateful that Allah has not taken me back to Him yet.

Alhamdulillah for the visit of this honored guest each year, a guest which makes me reflect on my past and aspire for my future, especially since I became a mother. Ramadan has the effect of slowing me down enough so I can take stock of my inventory of deeds and intentions, and reprioritize my life. I find there are actions I need to chuck along with the container of what-used-to-be-food way at the back of the fridge, and there are actions I need to adopt to beautify my character. There are priorities I need to shove to the back burner and there are priorities I need to bring to the front. Ramadan really is the perfect time to slow down, reflect, and reconnect with Allah at a new level.

As humans, we like tangible things. Let’s face it, some of us are obsessed with attempting personality quizzes. We like to see ourselves expressed on a scale. In terms of before and after, we like to see our progress (or the lack thereof). Last Ramadan, in an attempt to measure, reflect, and grow as a person, I decided to use the Heart Wheel Journal. I really needed the break from the usual hustle and bustle of life; I wanted to hunker down to a focused month of reconnecting to Allah. I had started taking the Taleem al Qur’an course with Al Huda Institute, and the fact that we were given a break for Ramadan further emphasized this need for me.

Every night, with an almost gullible devotion, I took out my Heart Wheel Journal and filled it. On days 4, 10, 19 and 27, I had to shade in the slices in each wedge of the whole circle corresponding to a specific deed, be it Daily Sadaqah, Upright Character, Night Prayer, Dhikr Chunks, Salah, Fasting, Avoiding Distractions, or Chastity. I never could give myself a 10 on any of those wedges, because each time I shaded them, it made me think of my shortcomings and fluctuating progress.

I started to think of how I could fill those slices all the way through, and for some reason I can’t explain, the “Chastity” slice stood out to me. I wanted to be able to fill that slice out more than any of the others. I’ve worn the hijab ever since I was admitted to a boarding school at the age of thirteen. I wouldn’t say I was a willing hijabi at first, but it soon became a part of me and I no longer thought about taking it off.

From the moment I became a hijabi, though, my hijab varied in size and length throughout my teen years. My dress went from all skirts and no pants (thanks to my father who forbade jeans) to the typical jeans and long sleeved shirts in my early college years. I don’t think I ever wore body-hugging tops or jeans, but the length of my sleeves did fluctuate (though they never really went all the way to “short”). At one point, I had ditched the socks and covering my feet, but soon had them back on as I embarked on the first steps of regaining hayaa towards my middle college years. I also began to lower my scarf to cover my chest. All this took place while I was still in my home country, Malaysia.

My junior and senior college years brought me to the United States, and this is where I continued to embrace changes as life enveloped me with a plethora of experiences I am still discovering to this day. Not long after the birth of my firstborn while I was in my junior year, I embraced the abaya. And that was my typical outdoor attire from then on: a long flowing abaya with a scarf generously draped over my chest.

Until last year that is. My firstborn is now thirteen, and I am no longer the same girl I was at thirteen, no longer the same woman I was thirteen and more years ago. Last Ramadan, as I zoomed in on chastity slice on the Heart Wheel, my heart fluttered, my thoughts swirled, and my limbs followed suit. I opened my drawer and fingered a small item gifted to me a few years ago by some sisters as a surprise. The cloth was black, lightweight. I had tried it on a couple of times in years past.

That day, I tried it on again. As I looked at myself in the mirror, a pair of eyes that looked prominently East Asian stared back at me. For a Malaysian, I look more Chinese than Malay, though I don’t really have that characteristic Chinese slant. But my eyes are still Chinese-looking to the Malays. With the black Saudi-style niqab on, my slightly Chinese eyes looked even more Chinese. I’d never met a niqabi with Chinese-looking eyes before, so (as silly as this sounds) it unnerved me. It had unnerved me a few years earlier, when I had put it on for the first time, and it was still unnerving to me last Ramadan when I tried it on. Still, something stronger pushed me to overlook that concern and try wearing it outside.

And I did. I wore it to taraweeh.  Despite the slight claustrophobia that hit me as I adjusted to breathing through it, my heart felt much more tranquil. It no longer reared and nudged me for something. I had wanted to put on the niqab for years, but I was never moved to do it. The niqabis I’ve known and closely befriended have given me a wider perspective on sisters behind the niqab. In the beginning, I was always nervous around niqabis -they seemed intimidating and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act around them. Once I got past my own fears and pre-conceived notions, I found that they were just like the rest of us. That made me think, “Maybe I’m ready for this now. I’m not better than anybody else, and I don’t have to be to do this.”

I thought about the Chinese eyes, and the fact that I wasn’t used to having a cloth covering my face, and the fear of my glasses getting all fogged up. I thought about summer, and the desert heat here in New Mexico where I currently live. I thought about all the smiles I wouldn’t be able to flash at non-Muslim women I come across, and I worried that they wouldn’t understand. I thought about my doctors, and I thought about the Muslim community. If I started wearing it, I would be the the second of only two niqabis. The other sister had recently come to town from Dubai. Despite that, I felt alone.

I didn’t put on the niqab right away after that first test-wear. My mind was doing the thinking, as it had all those years before; but this time, my heart did the longing and pushing. About a month after Ramadan ended, I found myself paring all those thoughts to only one real unanswered concern, “How will I smile at the non-Muslim women and kids?”

Since there were no niqabis in town with that experience, I emailed a dear niqabi who I’d known since even before she started wearing niqab. “How will I smile at the non-Muslim women and kids?” I asked her.

She replied, “Your eyes show when you smile, and with kids, if there are no men around, I pull down the niqab and smile and talk to them.”

That was all it took. Sure, I got hold of other niqabis I knew and asked them other questions. Important questions like, “Would it be weird if my niqab doesn’t match my hijab?”

But I was one step closer to actually putting it on for real. My main concerns were dissolved one by one after chatting and emailing my niqabi friends. Alhamdulillah for the internet! I don’t know what I would do without it. My “about-to-wear-the-niqab” research would have been severely crippled had there been no easy avenues to ask these niqabis my thousand and one questions.

And so, one day prior to Halloween, I stepped outside the house as a fresh, rookie niqabi. Yup! Of all the days I could have chosen to be my first day to step out as a determined niqabi, I had to choose a day so close to Halloween. “If anyone asks me about this,” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m seriously going to say, ‘Oh no, no, this is not for Halloween.’” Alhamdulillah, I didn’t have to make any such disclaimer because nobody asked. Not yet anyway.

That was all about a year ago. A year later, I can say the niqab has given me a physical reminder each time I leave the house. It has forced me to be extra nice to people I meet, because I know they can’t see my smile and might not be too inclined to pay attention to those telltale crow’s feet at the corner of my eyes. The niqab has also humbled me into correcting my other actions that do not befit a niqabi.

This Ramadan, I am not doing the Heart Wheel Journal again, although I do recommend it as a tool and think that I’m still severely lacking in all its wedges. I’m grateful for the insights the journal provided me; I’m grateful for last Ramadan and the chance to reflect, for the strength Allah provided me to wear the niqab.

And I’m utterly grateful that Allah has not taken me back to Him yet, because here is Ramadan again, and the chance to reflect and  grow and improve in other ways, insha’Allah.