Hijaab : My Personal Experiences

When I return to Islam, the religion of our inborn nature, a fierce debate raged about girls observing hijaab at school in France. It still does. The majority, it seemed, thought that wearing the head-scarf was contrary to the principle that public (that is state funded) schools should be neutral with regard to religion. Even as a non-Muslim, I could not understand why there was such a fuss over such a small thing as a scarf on a Muslim student's head.
Muslims contributed a proportionate amount of tax to the state funds. In my opinion, schools could respect religious beliefs and practices of students so long as they did not pose a threat to discipline. However, the French faced, apparently, increasing unemployment and they felt insecure about the immigration of Arab workers. The sight of hijaab in their towns and schools aggravated such insecurity.
More and more young people in Arab countries were (and are) wearing the hijaab.Such a revival of Islamic practices is often regarded as an attempt by Muslims to restore their pride and identity, both undermined by colonialism. In Japan it may be seen and understood as conservative traditionalism, or the result of anti-Western feeling, something which the Japanese themselves experienced following the first contact with Western culture during the Meiji era; they too reacted against a non-traditional life-style and Western dress. There is a tendency for people to be conservative in their ways and to react to anything new and unfamiliar without taking the time to see if it is good or bad.
The feeling still persists among the non-Muslims that Muslim women wear the hijaab simply ecause they are slaves to tradition, so much so that it is seen as a symbol of oppression. Women's liberation and independence is, so they believe, impossible unless they first remove the hijaab.
'Muslims' share such naivete with little or no knowledge of Islam. Being so used to secularism, pick and mix, they are unable to comprehend that Islam is universal and eternal. This apart, women all over the world, non-Arabs, are embracing Islam and wearing the hijaab as a religious requirement, not as a misdirected sense of 'tradition'. I am but one example of such women. My hijaab is not a part of my traditional identity; it has no social or political significance; it is purely and simply, my religious identity.
For non-Muslims, the hijaab not only covers a woman's hair, but also hides something, leaving them no access. They are being excluded from something, which they have taken for granted in secular society. What does the hijaab mean to me? Although there have been many books and articles about the hijaab, they always tend to be written from an outsider's point of view; I hope this will allow me to explain what I can observe from the inside, so to speak.
When I decided to declare my Islam, I did not think whether I could pray five times a day or wear the hijaab. May be I was scared that if I had given it serious thought I would have reached a negative conclusion, and that would affect my decision to become a Muslim. Until I visited the main mosque in Paris I had nothing to do with Islam; neither the prayers nor the hijaab were familiar to me. In fact, both were unimaginable but my desire to be a Muslim was too strong (Alhamdulillah) for me to be overly concerned with what awaited me on the other side of my conversion.
The benefits of observing hijaab became clear to me following a lecture at the mosque when I kept my scarf on even after leaving the building. The lecture had filled me with such a previously unknown spiritual satisfaction that I simply did not want to remove it. Because of the cold weather, I did not attract too much attention but I did feel different, somehow purified and perfected; I felt as if I was in Allah's company. As a foreigner in Paris, I sometimes felt uneasy about being stared at by men. In my hijaab I went unnoticed, protected from impolite stares.
My hijab made me happy. It was both a sign of my obedience to Allah and a manifestation of my faith. I did not need to utter beliefs, the hijaab stated them clearly for all to see, especially fellow Muslims, and thus it helped to strengthen the bond of sisterhood in Islam. Wearing the hijaab soon became spontaneous, albeit purely voluntary. No human being could force me to wear it; if they had, perhaps I would have rebelled and rejected it. However, the first Islamic book I read used very moderate language in this respect, saying that "Allah recommends it (the hijaab) strongly" and since Islam (as the word itself indicates) means we to obey Allah's will I accomplish my Islamic duties willingly and without difficulty, Alhamdulillah.
The hijaab reminds people who see it that Allah exists, and it serves as a constant reminder to me that I should conduct myself as a Muslim.
Just as police officers are more professionally aware while in uniform, so I had a stronger sense of being a Muslim wearing my hijaab.
Two weeks after my return to Islam, I went back to Japan for a family wedding and took the decision not to return to my studies in France; French literature had lost its appeal and the desire to study Arabic had replaced it. As a new Muslim with very little knowledge of Islam it was a big test for me to live in a small town in Japan completely isolated from Muslims. However, this isolation intensified my Islamic consciousness, and I knew that I was not alone as Allah was with me. I had to abandon many of my clothes and, with some help from a friend who knew dressmaking, I made some pantaloons, similar to Pakistani dress. I was not bothered by the strange looks the people gave me!
After six months in Japan, my desire to study Arabic grew so much that I decided to go to Cairo, where I knew someone. Generally speaking, young Egyptians, more or less fully westernized, kept their distance from women wearing Khimar (headscarf) and called them "the sisters". Men treated us with respect and special politeness. Woman wearing a Khimar shared a sisterhood which lived up to the Prophet's saying (Allah's blessings and peace on him) that "a Muslim gives his salaam to the person he crosses in the street, whether he knows him or not." The sisters were, it is probably true to say, more conscious of their faith than those who wear scarves for the sake of custom, rather than for the sake of Allah.
Before becoming a Muslimah, my preference was for active pants-style clothes, not the more feminine skirt, but the long dress I wore in Cairo pleased me; I felt elegant and more relaxed. In the western sense, black is a favorite color for eveningwear as it accentuates the beauty of the wearer.
My new sisters were truly beautiful in their black Khimar, and a light akin to saintliness shone from their faces. Indeed, they are not unlike Roman Catholic nuns, something I noticed particularly when I had occasion to visit Paris soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia. I was in the same Metro carriage as a nun and I smiled at our similarity of dress. Hers was the symbol of her devotion to God, as is that of a Muslimah. I often wonder why people say nothing about the veil of the Catholic nun but criticize vehemently the veil of a Muslimah, regarding it as a symbol of 'terrorism' and 'oppression'. I did not mind abandoning colorful clothes in favor of black; in fact, I had always had a sense of longing for the religious lifestyle of a nun even before becoming a Muslimah.
Nevertheless, I balked at the suggestion that I should wear my Khimar back in Japan. I was angry at the sister's lack of understanding: Islam commands us to cover out bodies, and as long as this is done, one may dress as desired. Every society has its fashions and such long black clothes in Japan could make people think I am crazy, and reject Islam even before I could explain its teachings. Our arguments revolved around this aspect. After another six months in Cairo, however, I was so accustomed to my long dress that I started to think that I would wear it on my return to Japan. My concession was that I had some dresses made in light colors, and some white Khimars, in the belief that they would be less shocking in Japan than the black variety.
I was right. The Japanese reacted rather well to my white Khimars, and they seemed to be able to guess that I was of a religious persuasion. I heard one girl telling her friend that I was Buddhist nun: how similar a Muslimah, a Buddhist nun and a Christian nun are! Once, on a train, the elderly man next to me asked why I was dressed in such unusual fashion. When I explained that I was a Muslimah and that Islam commands women to cover their bodies so as not to trouble men who are weak and unable to resist temptation, he seemed impressed. When he left the train he thanked me. In this instance, the hijaab prompted a discussion on Islam with a Japanese man who would not normally be accustomed to talking about religion. As in Cairo, the hijaab acted as a means of identification between Muslims; I found myself on the way to a study circle wondering if I was on the right route when I saw a group of sisters wearing the hijaab. We greeted each other with salaam and went on to the meeting together.
My father was worried when I went out in long sleeves and head-cover even in the hottest weather, but I found that my hijaab protected me from the sun. Indeed, it was I who also felt uneasy looking at my younger sister's legs while she wore short pants. I have often been embarrassed, even before declaring Islam, by the sight of a woman's bosom and hips clearly outlined by tight, thin clothing. I felt I was seeing something secret. If such a sight embarrasses me, one of the same sex, it is not difficult to imagine the effect on men. In Islam, men and women are commanded to dress modestly and not be naked in public, even in all male and female situations.
It is clear that what is acceptable to be bared in societies varies according to societal or individual understanding. For example, in Japan fifty years ago it was considered vulgar to swim in a swimming suit but now bikinis are the norm. If however, a woman swam topless she would be regarded as shameless. To go topless on the south coast of France, however, is the norm. On some beaches in America, nudists lie as naked as the day they were born. If a nudist were to ask a 'liberated' female who rejects the hijaab why she still covers her bosoms and hips which are as natural as her hands and face, could she give an honest answer? The definition of what part of a woman's body should remain private to her is altered to suit the whims and fancies of either men or their surrogates, the so-called feminists. But in Islam we have no such problems: Allah has defined what may and may not be bared, and we follow.
The ways people walk around naked (or almost so), excreting or making love in public, rob them of the sense of shame and reduce them to the status of animals. In Japan, women only wear make-up hen they go out and have little regard for how they look at home. Muslims are accused of being over-sensitive about the human body but the degree of sexual harassment, which occurs these days, justifies modest dress. Just as a short skirt can send the signal that the wearer is available to men, so the hijaab signals, loud and clear: " I am forbidden for you."
It is an error of judgment to think that a Muslim woman covers herself because she is a private possession of her husband. In fact, she preserves her dignity and refuses to be possessed by strangers. It is non-Muslim (and "liberated (?)" Muslim) women who are to be pitied for displaying their private self for all to see.
Observing the hijab from outside, it is impossible to see what it hides. The gap, between being outside and looking out, explains in part the void in the understanding of Islam. An outsider may see Islam as restricting Muslims. Inside, however, there is peace, freedom, and joy, which those who experience it have never known before. Practicing Muslims, whether those born in Muslim families or those returned to Islam, choose Islam rather than the illusory freedom of the secular life. If it oppresses women, why are so many well-educated young women in Europe, America, Japan, Australia, indeed all over the world, abandoning "liberty" and "independence" and embracing Islam?
A person blinded by prejudice may not see it, but a woman in hijaab is brightly beautiful as an angel, full of self-confidence, serenity, and dignity. No sign of oppression scars her face.
"For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts within the bosoms that grow blind," says the Qur'an (Al-Hajj 22:46).
How else can we explain the great gap in understanding between such people and us?

(Nakata Khaula is a citizen of Japan and a Muslim by faith).