Returning Hijabi: A Passage to Identity

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Rites of Passage. Read other perspectives here.

The fall of 2013 was a time of several major life developments for me. I went for Hajj, I started a new job, and I started wearing hijab.

For some people, donning hijab is a decision that takes months of planning. They think it through, weighing the decision, slowly change their wardrobe, then strategically pick a time they will begin wearing hijab.

I didn't do that, which is odd and surprising even to myself because I am a thinker and planner. But when it comes to faith, I trust in Allah (SWT) and believe that he has a plan for me. My journey was a bit more organic and the seed was planted during the heart of Hajj, the day of Arafat. I joke to people that both my father and I came back from Hajj without hair — he because he shaved his head for Halq and I because I started wearing a headscarf.

We arrived in our ihram to Arafat, a dusty plain of patchwork tents stretching as far as the eye could see. It was scorching hot and the heat made me sleepy. I could barely keep my eyes open as I quietly recited supplications and counted deliberately on my tasbeeh doing dhikhr. In the afternoon, our maulana conducted a small majlis/seminar. We held several of these throughout Hajj, discussing various aspects of the spiritual journey in greater detail.

On that day, one of the topics we discussed was the significance of ihram, the clothing and state of purification. Allah (SWT) required us to approach him in a very specific way during Hajj and on the day of Arafat, when we seek his forgiveness and wash clean our skins. We bare our soul to him on that day. What are we required to wear? As a woman, I had to wear simple, loose-fitting, white clothing and a white chador over my head, leaving my face exposed, stripped of worldly markers and adornments. This is the way in which Allah (SWT) finds it pleasing for me to approach him, with humility in purified clothing.

Up until that point, I had been observing hijab in Saudi because I was required to first by the law of the land and then by the law of God. Before I stepped off the airplane in Jordan, I had pulled a black abaya and scarf out of my backpack and pulled it on in preparation for the journey to Saudi. At the time, it seemed like a temporary change. I was wearing it to adapt to and respect the environment I was in and to fulfill the requirements of Hajj. But that idea of how Allah (SWT) found me most pleasing struck me and stuck with me. I left Arafat feeling cleansed and renewed, and I left Saudi a Hajjia, with a sense of peace and assurance about my identity.

We departed Saudi from Jeddah to spend a week in Dubai visiting my uncle. In Dubai, I was no longer obligated to wear hijab in public, but I kept the scarf on my head. In the past month, I had become accustomed to wearing it and suddenly the prospect of not having it on when I was in public made me feel exposed and partially naked. (In the months after I started wearing hijab, I would occasionally have stress dreams about going to work or being out without wearing a scarf, the way people have dreams about going to school or work in only their underwear.)

That week in Dubai ended up being a trial run for me in wearing hijab and I was fortunate that no one questioned this phase of experimentation. I was free to sort out for myself, as is my right, to see if hijab was truly right for me. And it became clear to me there that it was.

Most women who wear hijab do so for a multitude of reasons, and I am no different. For me, wearing the headscarf is the way in which Allah (SWT) finds it most pleasing for me to dress. It is both a public symbol of my religious identity and a private reminder of my religious obligations. It also affords me the simple pleasure of being recognized and receiving greetings of peace by my fellow Muslims and Muslimahs, who, as I am constantly reminded, are a vast and diverse range of people. It makes me acutely aware of my responsibility to be watchful of my actions and character, as my Creator is watching me. I also recognize that I am always representing more than just myself; whether I like it or not, others will form impressions of other Muslims by how I behave. I do not, however, wear a scarf because I feel ashamed of my body being seen. For me, the scarf is worn out of love for Allah (SWT) and pride in being Muslim, not because I am ashamed of the body I was given by my Creator or fear that a man will see my hair.

As a woman who began wearing hijab as a young adult, I made it a point not to forget what it was like to be a Muslim woman who does not wear a scarf. Wearing a scarf gives one a certain privilege (and yes, sometimes a target for hate) in recognition and voice, and for those who do not wear it, their Muslim identity is often rendered invisible to others.