The truth is that although I was raised Muslim, I came to feminism before I truly came to Islam. That says more about how each was presented to me than it does about the inherent value of either feminism or Islam. I am telling you the chronology of my allegiances only to say that I was consciously and ardently feminist in the year 2002, at the age of 28, when I began wearing hijab.
I remained somewhat detached from my faith tradition during college. I was the only Muslim woman on campus, struggling with fasting, haphazard with prayer and lacking community. Instead, fervent discussions about how to make the world a better, kinder, more equitable place and the study of the American Left shaped my moral compass in those years. It was a time for which I am endlessly grateful. My steady boyfriend was veering towards post-Christian, with a ponytail and a thing for Pete Seeger folk songs. Nearly 2,000 miles from home, I felt free to wear sundresses and explore young love. In 1998, at the end of my first year of law school, he converted to Islam, and I married him.
My marriage ended dramatically in my final year of law school when I learned that my sensitive, spiritual husband had spent a considerable amount of time as a voyeur in a particularly creepy context. I went a little bit crazy. Not the way I might have gone crazy from simple infidelity, but a deeper, persistent mental vertigo. I could not stop flipping back and forth from mirage to reality when I looked at my husband.
It was disturbing of course that he was, in some sense, not sexually faithful, but what crushed me was the realization that my husband was not morally who I had imagined him to be. I said to him one day in the car, in the aftermath of his revelation: “It’s like after eight years of knowing you to be a good human being, I found out that you really enjoy swerving the car at the sight of a squirrel to see if you can kill it. You wouldn’t expect me to ignore that, right? You would expect me to be repulsed.” And so I was. With him and with myself for having loved him so much that I made him my center.
I am not sure why the truth came out, in the end. I had begun to earnestly shift my center, becoming more focused on my quest for the Divine presence in my life, more committed to prayer, to studying the Qur’an. Maybe our marriage had evolved into something comfortable and that sense of familiarity and ease allowed my husband to reveal his darkest places. Maybe it was simply the hand of grace clearing my path for better things. Maybe it was all of those things.
In 2001, still reeling from the divorce, I was torn loose from my spiritual moorings. I had fallen into a tailspin that made being in one place, either geographically or emotionally, excruciatingly painful. At the same time though, I was starting a career as a new attorney at one of the top non-profit legal services firms in the country. I cared about my work and my clients and I wanted to excel. Then the 9/11 attacks happened during my first week on the job. I watched my country decimate Iraq without provocation, take countless civilian lives in Afghanistan, and detain Muslim Americans without charge. The world went mad and my tailspin hastened. I was still recovering from the trauma of personal betrayal. I didn’t stand a chance of deflecting my country’s sudden determination that Muslims had become the enemy and that Muslim lives at home and abroad were now of little value. I found security and comfort in prayer, but could not hold on to them when I left the prayer mat. I felt as if I walked in the world not only naked, but without a skin.Hijab became my skin when I was skinless. Tweet This! As I wrapped an oblong scarf around my head each morning, I felt as if I were securing a bandage to a wound. It was a soft reminder that in a world of chaos, and in the lonely process of making a new life in a strange city, I could exist in a state of grace. I belonged to my Maker. I felt liberated from the excesses of the world around me, both the personal excesses of individuals, and the violent excesses of nations. My hijab was the equivalent of finding a fixed point on which to focus your eyes and mind when your yoga teacher tells you to balance on one foot: It might seem unrelated to the goal, but it is absolutely essential.
The connection between Islam and my profession–practicing public benefits law in one of the toughest urban neighborhoods in the country—also became clearer. My hijab made it so that my faith was no longer a quiet, personal observation but a public declaration. Tweet This! With my head covered, it became relatively easy to be in the tumultuous world, but not of it. And like a skin deflecting infection and disease, hijab deflected everything extraneous to the healing I had to do. It curbed my spiraling need to fill the void left after the divorce; it stopped flirtation dead in its tracks and limited my social connections to those with the clearest of intentions. I became more discerning and the way in which people interacted with me became simpler, cleaner, more about the business at hand. I began to see how muddied my life had become in unexamined intentions and expectations. I was no longer waiting for romantic love to fill a spiritual longing and no longer dressing my body for anyone else’s gaze.
It was a gift of grace that I wore. And then one day, I stopped. I was still working as an attorney. I was still deeply invested in my faith. In fact, I was perhaps more spiritually engaged and personally satisfied than I had ever been in my life; I prayed in my dreams, even. But hijab became less essential to maintaining my focus or my faith. I noticed that it sometimes was too much of a barrier for well-intentioned people to see beyond, but that alone had very little to do with my decision to stop wearing hijab.
I stopped because it had become enough to cover my hair as a part of the elegant, if sometimes rushed, ritual of prayer. My skin had grown back and I no longer felt the need to bandage myself so tightly. Tweet This! Now, the prayer scarf is more of a step out of the mundane and into the sacred, a chivalrous cloak spread over the muddy puddle of the daily grind. It draws a special circle around me, now mother to two young children, marking me as child of God. It has become a celebration, a sanctuary, a sensory experience of God as ar-Rahman and ar-Raheem, the womb of mercy and of compassion.It baffles me, the politics of hijab today: the designation of it as anti-feminist, as regressive, as a collusion with backwards extremism. Tweet This! Because what is the legacy of feminism if not the conviction that this body and this spirit are mine to steward? And what better example of backwards extremism than demonizing a woman, or worse still, physically assaulting a woman, because she wears a scarf on her head instead of around her neck? I find the designation of hijab as a symbol of the degree of one’s devotion equally confusing. How could anyone possibly presume to know another’s heart by what they wear on their head? Hijab is not any of these, but neither is it just a bit of cloth. It is an essential part of the spiritual practice of many millions of women in many millions of ways; it was an essential part of my own. Now it’s not. And perhaps someday it will be again, if the spirit moves me.
Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer now writing from outside of Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her recently viral post, “Dear Non-Muslim Allies,” and other writings can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.
Photo Source: Buzzfeed