For the next three years, I spent my time building myself.
Memorizing the Qur’an, reading the translation of the Qur’an every morning, taking madrasah seriously, having those arguments with my mother from wanting to cover my hair and chest with a scarf anytime I leave the house, to wanting to wear looser garments. By the time university was around the corner, I already had plans for how I was going to dress. I was already considering buying jilbabs once I entered the university, and starting my niqab journey there. I thought that I was going to be finally free to do what I wanted to do with my life.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t so.
It started with the fact that I didn’t gain entry into the Federal University of my choice. So I had to settle with going to a private university. A Federal University is owned by the government, hence there is the freedom to do whatever you want to do – no one cares. But on the other hand, a private university is owned by an individual. He/she then has the right to dictate whatever rules and regulations were to govern the university and punish the offenders accordingly – whether the punishment is justified or not.
The problem with private universities in Nigeria is that most of them are Christian-owned and purely religious-based. The private universities owned by Muslims did not offer the course that I wanted to study, and the rest of those universities had issues with accreditation from the government.
So when my parents finally found a university that was secular, didn’t have accreditation issues, and offered the course that I wanted to study, they jumped at the opportunity to enroll me. All I was concerned about was whether I would be able to wear my hijab, and the school constantly reassured me that I would. But it turns out that when a school tells you that you can wear your hijab, the representative only speaks for himself and a few others. Subsequent events reaffirmed that fact.
On my first day of the orientation program that was made compulsory for us to attend, I heard that students weren’t being allowed to enter with their hijab. Here, hijab refers to a scarf that covers the head, neck, shoulders, and chest alone. I thought it was all a rumor until I got there myself and was told to remove my hijab by the authorities. I burst into tears and started dialing my mother. One of the authorities attempted to stop me from doing so by calming me down and trying to explain the rules. He told me that I could wear a cap/turban/underscarf to cover my hair alone, but not my headscarf.
I told my mother about it and was surprised that my mother supported me. I later understood that what my mum wanted was for me to be grown up before I made any decision to wear the hijab.
From there, I was told that I was only allowed to wear a turban/underscarf when going to classes, and I could wear whatever I wanted outside classes. I tried to be positive about it, even though I felt crushed by the revelation. I consoled myself with the fact that I could finally wear my jilbab, even if it was only outside classes.
The first-year exam rolled in, and an incident occurred which made me realize that I was in a much bigger mess than I thought. On the day of an exam, an authority walked in and went through the hall, seizing all the scarves and headcovers of the Muslim female students. The emotion that overtook me still haunts me to this day.
I did my first mind-numbing, in-shock walk of shame to my hostel with my hair uncovered. The incident was reported to the authorities, and we were assured that it was never going to happen again, but that was only the first of many more to come.
By the second year, things went back to normal, and I kept on tying my scarf into a turban which only covered my hair to classes and my jilbab to the mosque at night. I assumed that all was well again.
On one Friday, as I was finishing up classes and preparing to go for Jumuah salah, I loosened my turban and brought down my scarf to cover my neck and ears –just as I normally do when leaving classes. Unfortunately, I had brought it down way too early that day. I bumped into an authority who stared at me for a second, then forced me to follow him to the university’s registrar’s office.
The registrar reminded me that they were all doing the Muslim female students a ‘favor’ when they allowed them to still tie their scarves into a turban to class. But as I had disobeyed, she forced me to remove my scarf completely, seized it, and made me do my second walk of shame back to the hostel.
It took me a day before I could leave my hostel, and a week before I could go to the mosque wearing my jilbab. And of course, I never put my scarf down again until I had gotten safely to the hostel.
In my third year of school, a rule was passed stating that Muslim female students could not enter the college building for classes unless they took off their turban-tied scarves. When I heard that, I missed classes for a week. But on the day I had a test in class and so I removed my ‘scarf’ to enter the building. It took a lot of tears, the support of my friends, and a reminder from my dad that they would never have the ability to remove the eeman (faith) from my heart, no matter how much they tried to remove it from me physically.
In my fourth year, another incident occurred when I had to leave school for training at the State Hospital. I normally wear my jilbab anytime I am going out to get food or anything else outside of classes. I assumed that I would have more freedom outside of school. But I didn’t realize that authorities from school were still around me.
On that fateful day, I bumped into my hostel matron outside while I was in my jilbab. After she insulted me for dressing that way, she told me to remove the jilbab outside in front of everyone. Fortunately for me, a Muslim brother came to my rescue and begged the hostel matron on my behalf. I was able to keep my jilbab on.
I didn’t leave my hostel for one week after the incident. I still went for my hospital shifts in my scrubs. But outside of that, I couldn’t handle wearing the hijab, and I couldn’t go out without it.
By the time I returned back to school, I no longer wore the jilbab when going out, and I no longer went to the mosque. While the world complained about the pandemic, I was grateful that I finally had time off from my oppressive school.
In my final year of school, I wore a turban to class. I had to remove it before I could enter the building and then put it back on, all the while being constantly alert to avoid those who could punish me for covering my hair. I loosely wore a scarf around my head outside of classes because part of me was so scared of having an authority force me to remove my jilbab again.
I started going to the mosque again, and only wore my jilbab at night to the mosque. When I am attending Islamic programs on Sunday, I wear an abayah (an outer garment starting from the shoulders and stopping at the feet) with a khimar (a headscarf that covers the head, ears, neck, shoulders, and chest, leaving only the face visible), rocking the “Arabian Prince’s Wife” look – as my friend so elegantly put it.
Now, alhamdulillah, I have graduated, and I am able to wear my khimar and abayah whenever I leave the house. I still aspire to wear the jilbab and the niqab in the very near future, insha’Allah.
To answer my friend’s question from the beginning – the way I dressed had nothing to do with the level of my faith. Rather, it was my struggle with the restrictive environment and bleakness of the situation.
From my research, I came to understand the ayahs I read in my father’s Qur’an a bit better. The books I read¹ and the lectures I listened² to explained what khumurihinna and juyubihinna meant, from which khimar and jilbab were derived³. I learned what the companions had to say about it and what they understood those words to mean, and how the female companions practiced those verses of the Quran.
Additionally, I learned the conditions of what constitutes the proper dressing for the Muslim woman based on the Quran and Sunnah⁴.
Furthermore, I understood the stance of the niqab and gloves versus uncovering the face and hands, and the general conclusion that the minimum is to cover all of the body except the face and hands, the recommended is to wear the niqab and gloves (even if some scholars deem this to be compulsory), and the best is for a woman to remain at home⁵.
I learned the importance of wearing the proper hijab, and the importance of obeying Allah’s commandments so one can live a life of peace and tranquillity in this Dunya, and enter into Jannah in the hereafter.
1. Hijab: The Islamic Commandments of Hijab by Dr. Mohammad Ismail Memon Madani; The Hijab…Why? By Dr. Muhammad Ismail; Evidences For The Obligation of a Muslim Woman’s Headscarf (Khimar) & Outer Garment (Jilbaab) by Rameez Abid.
2. To Veil or Not to Veil by Mohammad Elshinawy
3. The scholars have defined the khimar to be a headscarf that covers the hair, ears, neck, shoulders, and chest; and the jilbab to be a large overgarment that covers all of the body except for what has been exempted (i.e. the face and hands according to the scholars that don’t view the niqab and gloves to be compulsory)
5. (Q33:33) “And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance…”