“Don’t be offended, but why is it that sometimes you dress up looking like a rich Arabian prince’s wife, and other days you dress like this? It’s like there is no in-between when it comes to how you dress.”
I laughed at my friend’s question.
On that day, we had been called for an impromptu meeting by our lecturer. So I had thrown on a casual, red-striped gown and a grey scarf pinned underneath my chin, one end tossed across my shoulder. The scarf reached my waist and covered my arms to my wrist.
This friend of mine has seen me in a jilbab, covering all parts of my body except my face and hands. She has also seen me in jeans, a long top, a fancily-tied turban, and cute earrings. She has seen me in a long straight skirt, ballet flats, and a chiffon top with a black turban, for that corporate look. Most of all, she has seen me rocking what she calls ‘the Arabian prince’s wife’s look’ when I wear a black abaya, a black scarf wrapped properly around my head to cover my hair, ears, and chest – complete with sunglasses.
“That is because there is no in-between when it comes to my dressing at this time, when I am still stuck in this school,” I replied.
This conversation made me think back to the very beginning when I decided that I wanted to wear the hijab.
It all started when I was twelve years old.
I came from a home where religion was never forced on me. In fact, I didn’t really know what it meant to be Muslim. All I knew was that we all went to the mosque on Fridays and attended madrasah with my cousins anytime I visited. I only covered my hair when I was going for such Islamic gatherings. Yes, I did see my parents pray. But I assumed that it was just something they did as adults.
When I turned eight, my family moved from Lagos, Nigeria to Abuja. The way Islam was practiced in Lagos was quite different from the way Islam was practiced in Abuja.
In my area in Lagos, religion was something that was only practiced on the side, by adults. Being a Muslim was like being part of a particular culture. People didn’t really go the extra mile to learn the deen. There wasn’t any real obvious difference between the Muslims and the Christians. Most families had people of both religions mixed in their households. Madrasah there didn’t have a structure –I was practically stuck learning only the Arabic alphabet for years.
But in Abuja, I saw a lot of people wearing the hijab. In fact, I had never seen a niqabi before until we moved here. My parents enrolled me in a new madrasah where there was an obvious structure and variety of subjects. I made real progress and learned how to read the Qur’an.
But I went through a lot in this new school. It was hard to fit in, I struggled with poor self-esteem, and I needed something to soothe me. So I began the journey of having a connection with my Creator.
At that time when I decided that I wanted to practice Islam, one of the influences came from the madrasah I attended. I enjoyed going there and understood what was being taught. Islam started to make sense. The ustadh (teacher) that taught me was always ready to answer my numerous questions regarding Islam.
With the combination of my curiosity, the Muslim teachers that surrounded me, and all that I gained during my weekend madrasah, I decided that I was ready to give practicing Islam a try.
I decided that I was in need of a new environment too and convinced my parents to change my school. I needed a fresh start. I felt like peer pressure would affect my new lifestyle and I didn’t want to face the judgment of my friends.
During that summer holiday before beginning my new school, my life changed.
It was Ramadan, so I decided that I was ready to spend my first Ramadan fasting. My mother did not like the idea at all as she felt that I was way too young to start doing so. I have never fasted before, so she was scared for my health. Hence I was only allowed to fast under two conditions – I could only fast for half of the day, and for only five days a week. Of course, it was torture that I wasn’t allowed to fast the whole day. But I had to take what I could get or else, my mother would refuse to wake me up for Sahour (pre-dawn meal).
I also started to get used to praying five times a day. And I did that gradually until I could complete all five prayers in a day.
At that time too, I decided that I was ready to put on the hijab. I can’t exactly say that something special prompted me to do so. I only just wished to practice Islam in its entirety and seek the pleasure of Allah. Then, hijab just meant a headscarf to me. It covered my hair, ears, neck, and chest. I wore tight trousers and long-sleeved tops, as that was the only modest clothing I had. I didn’t own a single long skirt.
Before that time, it wasn’t that I never wore the headscarf. I only wore it to places that had been approved by my mother; namely the mosque on Fridays, and the madrasah during the weekend.
So you could imagine the shock on my mother’s face when I was sent on an errand to get something from a nearby shop, and I wore my headscarf.
My mother thought that I had lost my mind. Of course, my mother made me drop it, and the next time something similar happened, my father was there to defend me and allowed me to pick up the headscarf.
Then, it came to going out with my mother. One day, my mother and I were going out; I put on a pashmina scarf and wrapped it neatly around my head to cover my ears, neck, and chest.
Of course, that didn’t go well with my mother. She told me that in the Qur’an, what it says to cover is only my hair, and anything extra is being an extremist. That sparked a curiosity in my mind to learn about the hijab, as I wanted to be sure about what I was doing.
One thing I would always remember is the fact that I read the translation of the Qur’an from cover to cover, looking for what my mother talked about. Well, I didn’t find it, of course. What I found was:
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron) and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks, and bosoms)…” [An-Nur: 31]
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That would be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Al-Ahzab: 59]
Twelve-year-old me thought I was reading some form of extremist translation of the Qur’an when I saw the above verses (May Allah forgive me). But then, the Qur’an I was reading was my dad’s copy. So I felt that it must be the right thing. (I had the mindset that everything my parents did was right). I didn’t just want to take from only what I read in that Qur’an that day. I really wanted to understand it so that I was sure about what I was doing.
In the next couple of years, I spent my time reading more and more books on hijab -mostly online, trying to understand the proper way to wear it. Towards the end of 2013, I started my new school. Here, my uniform consisted of a longer skirt past my knees with white pantyhose, a beret to cover my hair, and a long-sleeved shirt. That period was the beginning and the peak of my practicing Islam.