Getting over the hump

The New York Times” recently published an opinion piece in which Ayesha Nusrat—-who, like me, is a new hijabi—defended her choice to wear hijab as an act of agency and empowerment. I have been blessed enough to live in a tolerant and open-minded community and can’t complain, so far, of any instances in which I felt harassed or ostracized because of a piece of cloth that sits on my head.
I am aware, however, that I likely belong to a fortunate minority and that for many hijabis, this seemingly innocuous article of clothing comes charged with messages they must defend or assumptions they must refute. Despite the strange sort of power it confers on its wearer, once I chose to don the head scarf, I was determined to have fun with it. I decided to do a “hijab world tour” of sorts and using YouTube tutorials (you’d be surprised how many there are), learned how to wrap my scarf in dozens of fashionable styles from around the globe.

An unintended, but welcome, benefit of walking out the door each day with my hijab tied in yet another new style—some more successful than others—is the assumption made by many non-Muslims that because I am choosing how I don my head scarf, the decision to wear it in the first place must also have been my own. Plus, my deliberate creativity, especially when a particular style fails, seems to suggest that no husband, however domineering, would have insisted I go out in public with that on my head.

In perusing YouTube tutorials on how to wrap my head scarf, I came across one in particular that intrigued me. Seeing a fellow Muslimah bobbing her head to Willow Smith’s song “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth” while demonstrating how to create the drama of the Khaleeji style hijab (Khaleeji meaning “of the Persian Gulf”) was positively inspiring. The look involves pinning an enormous clip of clustered artificial flowers onto your crown beneath the hijab to create the illusion of volume. Before I could excitedly Google “Where can I buy giant, poufy Khaleeji clip thing,” I happened to click on a link that led me straight into the arms of the hijab police. This well-meaning but didactic blogger had taken it upon herself to post photos of women wearing various styles of hijab that she deemed immodest. The line-up included the usual suspects—head scarves that left the neck exposed or revealed pieces of hair—but this was the first I had heard of a hijab that concealed both the hair and the neck entirely being dismissed as improper.

To be fair, the argument against what is disparagingly referred to as the “camel hump hijab” has not been plucked from thin air. It is based on a hadith which narrates that Prophet Mohammed warned, “There will be in the last of my ummah [global community of Muslims] scantily dressed women, the hair on the top of their heads like a camel’s hump. Curse them, for verily they are cursed” (At-Tabarani and Sahih Muslim). This condemnation has led to a disclaimer in step three of the Khaleeji hijab tutorials; when the flower is clipped on, a nervous, apologetic giggle follows with a “Now this step is not necessary, but if you would like to do it, here’s how.”

Well, what to say? My hair forms into a little bump all on its own without the help of a volumizing barrette, so I’m not too concerned with creating an artificial “hump” that sits atop my head, but I was surprised by how many girls changed their hijab style to avoid the ‘camel hump.’ And more power to them. After all, at the end of the day, it is about identifying what you believe is prohibited by your faith and then abiding by those religious parameters. But, based on debates among bloggers and YouTube tutorial viewers, it seems some of these women are choosing not to wrap their scarves Khaleeji style because its artificial height suggests they have thick, lustrous hair beneath their hijabs, and, they argue, it is deceptive to flaunt what their mommas didn’t give them. Besides, they reason, the hijab is a tool of modesty. If women use it as a means to appear more attractive to men, they are subverting its very purpose. Yet, I have to wonder, if false advertising is the problem, then what of mascara or lipstick? And dare we ask—Spanx?

Let’s say we do ask. Next question: Who do we ask? Several of the bloggers thought it made sense to bring men into the conversation. After all, most of our attempts at enhancing our appearance do target the opposite sex. In all cases these hijabis reported back with a resounding no—the men in their lives did not find the ‘camel hump’ cute. A few were candid enough to describe it as, well, frighteningly alien-like. So now what? Should we assume it’s okay to sport the Khaleeji style hijab because if we’re kidding ourselves and we don’t look any better, then we are not culpable of using the hijab as a tool to attract men? In fact, we may even be actively repelling them.

In eavesdropping on the “camel hump” hijab discussions, I see that for most it is a matter of intention. Why are you choosing to don the hijab and why are you choosing to wear it the way you do? Some wear to conceal their beauty but style it to enhance their beauty. Some, particularly defiant women living in countries or families that impose the head scarf, wear it to conform, but style it to covertly subvert. Others are left debating the “camel hump,” but I am more concerned that my love for fashion and “having fun with it” could reduce my hijab to a mere accessory. In “The New York Times” article, Nusrat explained that she wore hijab because “[it] is basically an expression of spirituality and a personal bond with one’s creator, a tangible spiritual reminder that guides everyday life.” This is what I aspire to say is my reason for wearing the head scarf. In the meantime, it’s comforting to know that so many other Muslimahs are out there somewhere under the same sky struggling with their hijab pins having an ironic dance party to “Whip my Hair.”
Shifa Ali lives and studies in Amman, Jordan. She hold an MA in Near Eastern Studies from NYU and was a Fulbright Fellow in creative writing from 2006 – 2008. Her academic and creative work focuses on Tangier, Morocco, and how much she wishes she was there right now.

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