My Cover Up

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Guest writer Azlin Ahmad shares with us her transformation from pre-hijab to post-hijab.

A few months ago, I was waiting for the dentist, wondering why they were taking so long to call my name after the appointed time. The answer came about forty-five minutes after my appointment – they hadn’t recognised me even though I was seated right in front of the receptionist.

So what was the big change? I reckoned that it was fine to let people discover it themselves, but after a month I realised that people simply walked past me because they didn’t recognise me. Not because they were shocked by the change. They simply did not see me.

A scarf, that was the difference. After hesitating for about twenty odd years, I had finally done it. The dentist didn’t recognise me because the last time he saw me, well, apart from the hair of course, I was not particularly bothered about my skin and shape showing through my clothes. My colleagues and clients didn’t recognise me because over the years they had grown accustomed to seeing me in an assortment of short skirts and low blouses. With a scarf on, it didn’t register to them that it was me.

And that was my attitude generally about my looks – not that I was trying to flaunt myself, but rather, why hide it if it’s not ugly?

So why the change? I’d been wanting to wear the hijab for years, but held back. I was afraid of ridicule, losing friends, changing my social lifestyle totally and entirely. I was afraid of being different, although I was sure of who my friends were (and  it wouldn’t have mattered to them what I looked like –they would have accepted me as I was).

But what discouraged me greatly was some of the hijabi women I had encountered. Because it’s more than a scarf, it’s the image of an entire nation represented by the scarf. Every Muslim who dresses the part is, to an extent, an ambassador of Islam, and should be a guardian of Islam’s image. Are we not the khilafahs of Allah on this earth? Yet, all the gossiping, backbiting, lack of patience, lack of kindness and contentment really turned me off. Some women who thought that just because they have some fabric wound around their head (despite their glaring ignorance of basic Islamic manners and behaviour) that they have the moral high ground to judge other uncovered sisters and a free pass to Jannah. May Allah prevent us from such behaviour and may Allah guide our sisters, Ameen.

The big change, though, came with the decision to clean up my act a couple of years ago, during which time I had hit a spectacular low in life. The details of my horrific fall from grace, so to speak, are irrelevant and probably boring to anyone but myself. Suffice to say, however, that as soon as I embarked on my journey of Iman and achieved an understanding of who my Creator was and what He expected of me (with the help of a couple of amazing individuals who helped me get back on my feet again after I had lost my way) life made sense at all levels and I felt compelled to obey His commands. One of which was the hijab, which on principle, I was convinced of but in reality was reluctant to implement on myself.

So I resisted and kept concocting reasons to delay, these excuses getting more outrageous and nonsensical by the day. I was running out of plausible excuses, and I knew it.  Until finally, someone I loved and respected very dearly, gave me the final push I needed.

The first time wasn’t easy at all. It’s just a piece of cloth, I kept telling myself, but apart from being hopelessly inept at tying it neatly and fashionably around my face, it was the end of the old cool, hip, and trendy me. It’s hard to explain. It was my public declaration of my alliance and loyalty to Allah. I was making a stand to be a better Muslim and to work towards abandoning values repugnant to Islam. The inward journey had been gradual, but the last step, the outward appearance, was the biggest, the most drastic and the most final.

There were tears all right, they were splashing down my face like a three-year old whose candy had been stolen, and they increased as my faith struggled to overcome my vanity. The simple act of covering my hair and body was almost physically painful. And the pitiful knots I tied on the scarf (note: no previous experience at tying a shayla. It’s more complicated than it looks!) took almost an hour. And then, I stepped out of the apartment to face the world.

It was the right thing to do, clumsy as my scarf looked. It took me months to get the hang of it (including many hours surfing YouTube hijab tutorials!) But once the initial distress passed, what enveloped me immediately was a feeling of utter peace. Part of it was the relief that I had done the right thing, and was brave enough to assert who I was and what I stood for.

At the beginning, when I saw my reflection, I was reminded of a purple/pink/whatever colour-of-scarf-lollipop. And sometimes I broke out in giggles, because honestly, the scarf was not a look I could carry off very well. I harboured no illusions about how it impacted my appearance. Strangely though, it amused rather than bothered me. Life was too short, I decided, to be perpetually self-conscious. Perhaps no one would ever find me attractive ever again, so what? Does it really matter? Should I be defined as a piece of meat, all external, or is it who I am inside that counts? If someone is repulsed by my appearance because I choose to dress modestly, is that person worth my time? So I held my head high and got on with life.

Now, six months down the line …

The day I donned the scarf, I posted on my FB page– “Sometimes, when you do something right, the actual action turns out to be much easier than what you imagined it to be”. And, it’s been incredibly easy, Alhamdulillah. It has not changed my relationship with the people nearest and dearest to me, whether they are Muslims or not. And well, if it had, they would not have been my friends to begin with. It turns out I had nothing to fear. All I feel is peace. There is a bigger picture to focus on: our purpose in life, and where we go from here.

The ironic part is that the only people who have made barbed comments about my scarf are … other so-called Muslims, who feel betrayed that I have brought Islam back to the Stone Age by covering my hair. Astaghfirullah, these Muslims gave me more stinging remarks and ultimatums than those who we perceive to be the non-Muslims and disbelievers. May Allah guide them. But that’s another, totally different, and absolutely ugly topic.

But more positively it’s very liberating being able to walk down the main streets without drawing unwanted attention, pervy comments, requests for phone numbers etc. People treat me with more respect, more deference. They pay attention to who I am, rather than what I look like.

On the first day of work with the hijab, when I was having a slight confidence crisis about my looks (note: shiny purple scarf is NOT recommended if you have a perfectly round skull), my Jordanian colleague, who had recently started wearing a hijab herself, kissed me on the cheek and reminded me that I was wearing a crown of honour. A crown of honour! What a dignified way of articulating  it. And she was the first of many, who gave me their support, most of them discreetly. I was not alone I discovered. I had an entire network of people who were behind me in their own quiet way, giving me their du’a and encouragement that I needed.

I no longer have to be worried about a bad hair day, though truth be told, it initially took me longer to tie a scarf decently than a full wash and blow at a salon would. So many things to remember. All hair covered, no straggly bits showing. Neck fully covered. Attempt to cover the chest as much as possible without making it look like I’m wearing a bib. Scarf symmetrical around the face, impossible at first due to inexperienced fingers. Do not stick pin in scalp or earlobe. Do not strangle self.

There have been some changes in lifestyle. That’s inevitable, because as you change, so do your values. There are certain aspects of my life before that I sometimes miss. But these are so minor in the grand scheme of things, and when I feel a pang, I simply remind myself of what a mess my life was before, how rediscovering Islam has saved me, and how I am anxious to please Allah to make up for a lifetime of frivolity, and then things fall back into perspective again.

Some friends say I look older, some say I look younger, well whatever. I am who I am. The feeling of dignity, peace and security that I have felt ever since my cover up is a feeling that I would not trade for anything in this world. I have not regretted my decision, not for a minute. Every day, it’s a renewed choice, every day, it’s a refreshment of my niyyah (intention). I could go out right now, wearing my old wardrobe, letting my hair down, and no one would give me a hard time for it. But I don’t want to. I’ve made my choice. Praise and thanks to Allah for instilling these emotions in my heart.

Am I spiritually worthy of wearing this scarf, am I a worthy ambassador of Islam? I don’t know. I know that many times I fall short of the required benchmark. But I try. And it’s an ongoing effort which has its own ups and downs.

And over the months, once I got used to my appearance, something else happened. Something quite unbelievable. I realise that beauty has nothing to do with appearance. And I have never felt so confident and beautiful in my life as I do now, Alhamdulillah.

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