The following article, “Cover(ed) Girl” was written in response to an article by Naushaba Burney in The Review, a weekly publication of the esteemed Dawn Newspaper.
You read the title of this article and think, ‘It’s another one of those pieces where oppressed women in our conservative society have been pitifully described!’ I think we’ve had too many of those without giving an ear to the other point of view. I may come across as a young Pakistani Muslim girl who is covered up and oppressed, to you but I have a voice of my own and I wish to exercise this right on a platform where expressing different views should be (yet no longer is) the norm. In these same pages, a while ago, there was a brief discourse on the latest fashions in covering up. The response to that opinion indicated a divide in the readership – a divide which can only be bridged by giving each side a right to state their case without censorship.
I can only speak of my personal experience with the Hijab, which I currently take in the form of draping my dupatta firmly over myself. About until five years ago, I hardly knew much about my faith Islam. I would pray the five daily prayers like an automaton, fast in the month of Ramadan and recite the Quran occasionally, sometimes going through the translation too. On the whole, my parents are also practicing and inculcated these basics of Islam in myself. However, a deeper understanding of our faith, which was defined for us in the form of a lifestyle by Allah, was not the case. I remember my father advised us sisters twice or thrice in our childhood, to adopt the Abaya (cloak-like garment) or at least a headscarf but it always seemed like a terrible inhibition on our wishes and desires at that time. I tried avoiding discussions on covering up and effectively blocked it out of my mind, feeling I was practicing my faith quite enough as it was.
With time, I came to study under a teacher at college, who took voluntary Quran classes during the lunch breaks. The way she opened up the Quran for us, inviting us to ponder and reflect upon the Words of the Creator, had a profound effect on me. No, I didn’t suddenly start covering my head, in fact, I only covered it lightly while I was in the Quran study circle, as is the case with most people. However, I did give up bad habits like backbiting, hating people and started exerting greater control over my anger. I started seeing the world in a new light, guided by a deeper understanding of the faith and love for the Creator Who guided me. New vistas opened up, my whole paradigm changed and I became a happier, optimistic person with a will to help my community with the myriad problems that plagued it. Eventually, even though my teacher never said a word or made a suggestion, I wanted to please my Lord, adopt the lifestyle He set for us in His final Book and thus, be entitled to His Rewards. It was a desire so strong that step-by-step I moved towards it and over a period of two years, I took the Hijab completely, according to the directives of Islam.
I did a lot of reading during this time and never really found any controversy in this matter. The Quran and authentic Hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) are clear in defining the extent of the Hijab (mentioning proofs here would exceed the limits of this article). The issue of the face veil, too, is not as complicated as it is made out to be when you read what the scholars have said about it. It is more a case of what is good and what is better, and these are not my own words but those expressed by the great multitude of scholars through the ages.
“And who is better in speech than he who says: ‘My Lord is Allah,’ and then stands straight, invites to Allah, and does righteous deeds and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’.” (Quran – Chapter 41: Verse 33)
Today, like millions of educated Muslims around the world, I cover-up proudly, whether I am at my Medical University, at home around my male cousins or at a wedding party. The Hijab is a badge, a label from my Creator and Sustainer – it defines me as a believing Muslim girl who understands that each and every directive of Islam is applicable for all times, not just for fourteen centuries ago. My ‘label’ tells people that I am not to be messed with, I am to be taken seriously for what I say and not judged by the shape of my legs, the length of my tresses or how much skin I show. I am not a fancy product that men go shopping for in the market, looking for the one that’s all glitz and glamour. I’m not a poster-girl for the slogan, ‘If you have it, flaunt it!’ I am a person with my own rights, performing my duty towards Allahswt and aiming for higher goals – to make the world a better place through reason, learning, charity and well-wishing. And for the record, Islam doesn’t say that I should remain ugly and dull – not at all! In fact, in the right circles, I may dress up to my heart’s content, more so when I stand for prayer.
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Every religion has a distinct call. For Islam it is haya.” (Ibn Majah)
The Hijab was a matter of choice for me – a natural choice after I understood my faith. I agree that it cannot be enforced but it must be encouraged. The recent case of the murder of a sixteen-year-old girl in Canada, by her own father, over the wearing of Hijab was a great tragedy and such cases highlight where we Muslims have gone wrong in our approach towards such matters. Elders believe in forcing their children to subject before ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ in Deen without inculcating in them the love and understanding of the faith as a foundation. In fact, in some families, covering up is simply a tradition, which teenagers today are leaving behind, along with other traditions, feeling no guilt at all.
In such a scenario, when educated upper-middle class and elite youngsters start returning to the Deen, they are condemned for sticking to so-called backward traditions. They are blamed for giving Muslims a bad image, for being the reason Pakistanis are labeled ‘extremists’. The beard and the Hijab are being projected as the root cause of our problems. Nay, it is in fact a result of a very pick-and-choose attitude towards Deen by reducing it to a set of rituals. In the end, we have in our urban societies, a division along these lines – there are people who express their faith and there are those that argue on the necessity of such expression. This is not the time for such arguments and infighting. What is to be gained from it?
In my meetings with people from different walks of life and their varied responses and comments on my Hijab, I have found that we need to talk out our issues. There is a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust towards those who frequent Islamic learning institutes (such as Al Huda for women) and take the Hijab. What good is it to fling accusations and negativities about such people in the pages of a newspaper when all that these people (excluding some erring people, in the minority) have done is return to the Islamic lifetyle, without harming anyone? What freedom of life and liberty can we offer to the Kashmiris, as a nation, if we can’t tolerate women covering up of their own choice?
We have bigger issues to deal with in Pakistan today – poverty, depression, suicide, physical abuse, assault, street-crime, intolerance, illiteracy… let’s each work in our own capacities, together, to aim for higher goals. I have much to contribute to society… don’t belittle that by starting up on my head-cover, please!