I am someone who defies convention. I converted to Islam shortly after 9/11. But that didn’t mean I would become a conventional Muslim. I wanted to know God in a way that made sense to me. Every time I pick up the Quran, I’m in awe and feel even more sure that this revelation is how God wanted me to become closer to Him. But that epiphany is far from beautiful and inspiring for the majority of non-Muslims and Muslims I meet. There’s a simple explanation: I don’t wear the hijab (headscarf). My decision not to wear it is not out of defiance, but because it doesn’t work for me.
Shortly after I converted to Islam in November 2001, I was told that I needed to “dress like a Muslim”. I needed to trade in my jeans and designer shirts for modest dresses, and to conceal every strand of hair on my head with a scarf.
When I asked why this physical makeover was necessary when my conversion was related to an appreciation and love for God, creation and justice, I was told that the Quran requires women to wear it. Furthermore, I was told that it is the only way a women can protect herself from men.
I followed this advice. The first day I walked out of my apartment as a “Muslim sister” people I knew didn’t say hello. I was stared at in the street. But, it wasn’t the furrowed brows that proved to be my setback. Instead, it was the unwanted advances from Muslim men in my community. I felt like a teenager locked outside of the girl’s locker room, wearing only her underwear with men surrounding her and leering.
I ran home and tore the hijab off. For the first time since I accepted Islam I felt embarrassed, weak and confused. Why was I told to do something that made me feel so physically vulnerable by those who were supposed to guide me in the religion?
After a year of having the same experience repeatedly, I decided that wearing the hijab wasn’t working for me. I wanted to look normal in my culture so that I could encourage others to find God as I had, without being on the defensive.
I studied the Quran, and concluded that the hijab is not a requirement. What is required is covering the chest, and the body’s curves as well as modest interactions for both men and women. In spite of this, many Muslims feel they need to accept the headscarf as a requirement because Islamic scholars told them so.
Apparently, my job as a convert is to agree and not challenge this. But if I were the type of person to just do what I was told, I would not be a Muslim in the first place.
I came to peace with the concept of hijab after my departure from the U.S for Brazil in 2007. Here, men wear Speedos without shame, Havaianas can be worn to formal events, and professional women wear tube tops without eliciting a second glance.
In São Paulo, the surest way for a woman to make herself visible is to wear a hijab. In the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen four hijabis – Arab immigrants who didn’t speak the local language. Yet, there is a large Muslim community here.
So are they really Muslims if they don’t dress as Islamic scholars decided they should? I believe that is for God to decide their authenticity and sincerity. Only God knows what lies in the hearts of those who believe in Him.
Living in Brazil, I believe that modesty is a great way to avoid harassment by men. No man has ever approached or harassed me here. In California, I’d receive at least one inquiry per week. And, if I was at the Friday prayer at my local mosque, two to three Muslim men would approach me in one day – but only if I was wearing hijab.
Either Brazilians don’t find me attractive, or I blend into this society while maintaining modesty as a Muslim. Men don’t turn their heads at what is normal to them. Interestingly enough, my most dangerous travel experiences of unwanted advances occurred in the most conservative Muslim societies that observe the strictest dress codes, even though I was covered.
It is my opinion that hijab as a concept rather than a headscarf can be adapted into any society. I asked myself, how can I use the concept of hijab to protect myself from unwanted attention here in Brazil? Becoming invisible to avoid being robbed or even killed for theft is important here. I leave my wedding ring in the safe, and wear casual work-out clothes in the street. I walk my two-year-old to school every morning with my seven-month-old in a Baby Bjorn. This is my hijab in the country I now call home.
I’ve finally accepted that I don’t need to fit into other people’s opinions of how I should appear. I just need to believe in God and be smart about the society I live in. That is what makes me Muslim.
Angela Collins-Telles is a contributor to the book Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Soft Skull Press, 2012). The following essay originally appeared at www.loveinshallah.com. Angela Collins Telles lives in São Paulo, Brazil. Before her relocation, she served as the Director of a private Islamic School in Orange County. She has appeared on CNN, Inside Edition, The Today Show, Fox News, and Al Jazeera and been featured in People magazine. Angela and her husband Marcelo are proud parents of two sons, Gabriel and Ryan.