London, 1984: A dark, triangular figure emerged from the door of a limousine parked directly in front of Harrods' Department Store. It was the body of a woman, covered from crown to ankles in the darkest of garments, so black that it stood stark against the overcast horizon. When she turned, I saw no face. Instead, a slit in a black gauze cloth revealed only a glimpse of brown skin and black eyes rimmed with kohl. As she and two similarly costumed companions moved steadily towards the door, other shoppers moved out of their way.
Snickers, stares, and startled head-turns failed to evoke a reaction from the women as they passed through the halls with the rest of the shoppers, selecting items for purchase, comparing opinions with each other and passing on the same pound notes as everyone else. While all eyes were on them, they looked at no one and soon passed out of the doors in the same deliberate walk, reboarding the limousine that had waited for them. All around people stared, shook their heads or sighed in relief.
I felt angry: at their men for forcing them to dress in such a degrading fashion and at them for accepting to wear it. I was furious that they dared to violate the rules of Western society so blatantly, without the slightest attempt to tone down their attire to suit the norms of English society. It was arrogant and insensitive. If they rejected the West, even in its dress, they never should have left their own countries, I thought and shivered with relief knowing that this could never happen to me.
Boulder, Colorado, USA 1986: Triangular shapes appeared all around me at the University of Colorado. Some wore long cloaks and headscarves, some long black abayas that ran from head to toe. A few covered completely, revealing only eyes that offered no clue as to who was inside. They walked quietly past the stares and comments that followed them everywhere. I watched in silent curiosity.
Although most large university cities have sizeable Muslim populations, Boulder in the 1980s had an especially large group of graduate students from all over the Islamic world. Unlike undergraduates, these students were usually married and brought their often large families with them. Although not all of the wives studied, they could be seen throughout the city in their Islamic dress.
They walked with a modest dignity that suggested that they were something other than the oppressed, subservient slaves to men that everyone said they were. Where I found them in class, their intelligence and confidence shone through. Where I bumped into them on campus, in the library and in stores, they seemed encased in a bubble from another world. No matter what people said out loud about them, they never shrank back or ran off in tears. Something lay beyond the mysterious veil that I could not understand with my American mind. I had to put a foot in through their door to comprehend.
On the first day of a course I took on Islam, the professor warned us that many students found Islam to be irresistible and converted right in class. This frightened but intrigued me. Several other students must have felt the same fear. The class fell to half its number by the next meeting.
The more I learned, the more I realized how ignorant I was about this religion. All I knew, I had learned from books, newspapers and magazines... everything written by non-Muslims. One by one, myths fell apart. Evidence came from the Islamic texts themselves. In our small class, we were able to get to know one another well. Several American students had grown up in the Middle East and wanted reminders of their childhoods. One Arab Muslim man recited Qur'an (Koran) for us and chanted the call to prayer. One American woman was engaged to a Saudi and wanted to know what to expect. I absorbed their admiration for the religion, pleasantly shocked at Islam's simplicity and straightforwardness. White was white, black was black and everyone had a specific place and job in society. In such a permissible society as the U.S., the idea of daily laws to govern even minute actions appealed to me.
It wasn't until Aisha, the professor's research assistant and an American convert to Islam, delivered a talk that I could actually believe that Islam indeed preached a high regard for women. Here was a highly educated woman from Iowa, standing in front of a class covered in her veil. Her clothing concealed her beauty and figure, but revealed her mind and personality. She could draw back or let show exactly as much as she wanted. I realized that the veil was just the opposite of what I had always believed it to be. Rather than oppress and hide, it empowered and gave a woman control, forced others to contend with facets other than her physical appearance.
Aisha explained that real incidents of abuse and horror fuelled the misconceptions about the veil. Muslims did not always practice what Islam prescribed. The veil was meant to liberate, not oppress, but many still used it that way. Some women were forced into the veil; others wore it as a cultural habit with no religious meaning. Some Muslims took it to mean that because men were not religiously required to veil, they had complete control over women. There were Muslims, she explained, who sometimes misunderstood their religion or disregarded its teachings. And then, she said, there was Islam.
Islam was an ideal that had not changed in over 1400 years. Those who practiced it fully--the so-called fundamentalists--were branded medieval and violent. Aisha was neither. She was modern and serene, fully devoted to her religion, no matter what other people may have thought about it.
The Arab Muslim friends I was slowly gathering all demonstrated the same love for their religion, the same certainty that they were in on the truth. Never did they try to force me to convert. They accepted and answered all my questions, often apologizing for what I perceived to be inconsistencies. They often said, "We really aren't supposed to do that," or "We are bad examples. Don't look at us, but learn what Islam teaches."
As part of my university studies, I travelled to West Africa and worked with Muslims on a construction project. In the rain forest of the Ivory Coast, Islam came to life in front of me. This time there were no apologies, though. Prayers were made on time, alcohol was forbidden and women were veiled and treated with honour. My bare arms and uncovered hair met with disapproval in the town until I expressed an interest in learning about Islam. Then I was excused: I would learn, I would understand and then I would do the right thing.
Returning to the U.S., I longed for the peace and certainty of faith I had felt among the African Muslims. I looked for that same tranquillity among the Arab Muslims I knew, but did not find it right away. Most of the Muslims I knew were westernized and shy about the actual practice of their faith. Few of them could answer my questions or direct me in any other way but to say, "If you become Muslim, you will be happy."
As I studied Islam, I tried hard to turn back to Christianity, to make sure I was ready to leave it. The more I studied the Bible and the history of the church, the more Islam made sense to me. I found questions in the Bible, answers in the Qur’an. I found verses requiring women to cover their heads in the Bible, which satisfied my questions about that. As I sat in class with Muslim men who dressed like Jesus and women who dressed like Mary, I began to confirm what the Muslims had told me --that they followed Jesus more carefully than Christians did. The Christian faith that I had tried hard to grasp and study since childhood but had never been able to believe slipped quietly away. . I was certain in my belief in God, but for several months I hung between Christianity and Islam, with no religion. Before I converted, I wanted to make sure I was not adjusting my beliefs to fit Islam -- that I truly believed in my heart what I was accepting. I could not turn back after having known Islam, but I was not sure I could dive in, either.
The more I resisted Islam, the more it drew me in. The more I tried to convince myself that I could never live an Islamic life, the more I realized I could not live any other way. I "practiced" being a Muslim. I gave up pork and alcohol. I wore more modest dress. I read the Qur’an on a regular basis, looking for the answers to my questions. I sought out more religious Muslims, more women. I spent more time simply asking God what to do. Facing certain difficulty at work, with my family and friends, swimming in the middle of a society that only knows bad about Islam, I made my decision. Hard or not, I knew it was what I believed and I was willing to accept what came with it.
I walked through the door of Islam in 1989 by pronouncing the testimony of faith in front of my closest friends. We all cried, in both joy and fear: joy for the step that had been so painful for me to make and fear of what I faced as a Muslim in America.
Everything changed: my clothing, my manners, my sleeping habits, my friends. I changed jobs to one where I thought I would feel comfortable covering my hair. First, I wore a scarf and loose clothes. Then longer clothes. Then an over cloak. The more I learned about Islam and devoted myself to it internally, the more I longed to express it externally.
Many of my friends covered their faces. Some covered out of custom, following what the people in their countries did, but the ones who drew my admiration and interest were the Western Muslims who covered by choice. They insisted on being respected for whom they were, not for how they looked. After living in an open society all their lives and experiencing the dangers and discrimination, the threat of men's eyes that many American women faced, they had set a barrier. No men except very close family could look upon them, let alone dare touch them or harass them. Among women, they were free and uncovered down to modest clothing. Their relaxed laughter when unveiled reflected the safety they felt in the company of their sisters.
I knew it was not easy, though. The veil was difficult to get used to. It could get hot in the summer. Until a woman practiced walking in it for some time, it was easy to trip over the abaya or get it caught in doors. Some women had tried it and just could not adapt to the stares, the clumsiness, and the "un-Americanness" of it all. It was often hard to dress completely covered and realize that men did not follow the same. They, too, were to observe modest dress but to a lesser degree due to the more public nature of their Islamic duties. However, many wore tight jeans and T-shirts -- even husbands of women who were totally covered. Fully veiled women often encountered criticism from unveiled Muslim women who insisted, in spite of clear evidence from the Qur’an and other Islamic writings, that it was not part of Islam. For a woman to accept the face cover, she would have to be able to stand firm in the storm of all these difficulties.
What made the veil worth it all, though, was that it was an expression of religious devotion, much as a nun’s habit marks a devotion to God rather than to man. Although covering the hair and body is the minimum requirement for an adult Muslim woman, covering the face is a commendable act. I found in the face cover a means to externalize what my heart was feeling. I loved being a Muslim and I wanted the world to know exactly who I was. I wanted to be protected by the veil, covered in the expression of my faith.
I wind an oblong black scarf around my head. A gauze veil covers my face, all but my eyes. I put on an abaya, then socks, and then gloves. My heart pounds when I see myself in a mirror. I remember the Muslim women I had seen in Harrods' and realize how brave they had been. May God help me do this, I pray.
My husband has seen me "practicing" in the house with this clothing, but I have never gone out in it. He offers his encouragement, knowing it may be very hard for me. He puts his hand on my arm and we walk out the door together.
I see but cannot be seen. The veil does not suffocate; I feel free and strong. I thought I would feel tremendously self-conscious, but I feel certain and assertive.
As we drive along the highway, I am aware of stares and snickers, fingers pointing. I do not return the looks of the others. I simply don't care what they are thinking, I don't care if they understand. No one can see my reaction, my expression, my features beyond the veil. No matter how hard they look, they can see only my abaya and veil. I feel not smothered or hidden, but protected. No one can enter that private area behind my veil unless I allow it. From now on, I choose who sees what of my body, just as I choose to whom I wish to reveal my deepest thoughts. I sink into this refuge of cloth and wonder how I possibly could have come to the point that I could embrace what I had once so passionately hated.
The veil has become beautiful to me, not for its outward appearance but for what it says about what I believe.
Again, I shiver with relief, but this time because of the liberation I feel.