Hijab : 11 years on
(In the Name of Allah, the most Gracious and the most Merciful)
I am compelled to share my story on the recent hijab issue that is now gaining a lot of attention in Singapore. Well, it's not new, but this time, definitely we all want our voices to be heard. In this small corner of my blog, I dedicate this entry to all hijabis and pray that our struggles and patience be rewarded by Allah swt.
11 years ago, I decided to put on a very warm, perhaps a faux, thick black pashmina over my head on the way to meet my besties to share with them the news of me getting married. I just wanted to know how it feels being out wearing hijab if I were to decide about it permanently. It was an impromptu moment and I didn't discuss with anyone about it. My friends, upon seeing me all covered congratulated me (at that time, none of them had hijab on) but I was not sure how to receive the congratulatory comments so I let it pass without any paying any attention. It was going to be my journey and I wasn't ready to explain anything. Not even my fiancé (who was away at that time) knew at that moment what was going through or on my head. When we finished with dinner it was already pretty late, and on a weekend night close to midnight, had troubles getting a cab home from Marina Square area. We had walked quite a distance but every time, someone would just turn up out of nowhere and cut our queue. One of my friend had her young child with her. Still, no cabby would stop for us 3 ladies and a child. After more than an hour perhaps, a taxi zoomed passed us, screeched to a halt and reversed to where we were standing. We couldn't believe our luck. First thing he said was, "I stopped because you are wearing hijab", referring to me. That, sent shivers through my spine and my hair stood. Literally. Was it a sign from God? We dropped off my friends first and since I was the last one he dropped off, we had a little conversation about Islam. I don't remember the topic but I was quite amazed how the piece of cloth has changed one's perception of me. If I were in my normal attire, this conversation couldn't have happened. That night on, I decided to put it on permanently.
It was the same year earlier when the 4 young girls were expelled from school in Singapore because of hijab. I wasn't wearing one at that time but I remembered feeling angry and sad for them. More so because they had no choice but to leave school because of it. According to my religion, the hijab becomes compulsory at puberty. And puberty is just few short years away for the girls but hijab ain't gonna happen for them then or later. Along with the community I felt sad with the decision that was taken but didn't think that I was going to put hijab on that same year or how that decision by the government will affect me (or my daughter) later.
With marriage and migration plans on the way, I didn't pay much attention to my new attire. I continued going to classes to meet like-minded friends whom I befriended two years ago during my Islamic orientation class when I was "soul-searching". It was then that I found all the answers I was looking for all these years about my faith, about my existence and most importantly getting to know who God is. All along, I only knew Him through his "punishments". If I don't do this, I go to hell, If I'm rude to the elders, I go to hell, If I don't pray, well.. I go to hell too. I resented practising the religion because of this old fashioned-hard-pressed negative psychology that was pretty much suffocating and well, unattractive to a hormonal teenager from a broken family. The "hell-you-go-theory" deeply imbedded the sense of guilt and fear to Allah, which in a way, prevented me from doing many things wrong when I was young, but didn't do much in encouraging me to do any of the Islamic practices like praying, reading the Quran, hijab and all the other obligations. I didn't even know how to pray at that time when I donned the hijab but made it a point to do so now that I want to improve myself spiritually. At the Orientation class (which I highly recommend to all Born-again muslims and reverts-to-be), I was taught about Allah's Love, His Mercy, His Compassion and all the beautiful His attributes. This was/is a good reason to submit to the religion, I do want to get into Allah's good books because I was already so blessed with His love, and the fact that I got this far, was through His mercy.
I was pretty much homeless at 16, moving out from my guardian's protective home to my (divorced) parents homes, then later to rented rooms and apartments when I don't feel belonged or accepted. I worked at a young age, but am always lucky to be surrounded with good people/housemates around me all the time. I couldn't continue my education like my peers because I had no financial support. I moved to K.L soon after turning 19 to look for my natural mom but it didn't work out either. Work in the theatre kept me busy and focussed and again I was lucky to have had the opportunity to make a living even though I remembered there were times my housemates "donated" an egg or so for my meal that day. It became my favourite, fried egg sandwich. I went through a lot those years in my early 20s and perhaps that hard life also prevented me from having the "normal experimental" phase that young adults my age should be having. Most of my friends were older, so they had already finished college and working in their field. College was a far fetched dream. But grew up I did. I stayed out of trouble and immersed myself in my work and passion at that time. At 21 or so, I returned to Singapore to continue my studies with my hard earned money from a big job in K.L. With the support, encouragement and a roof over my head by my dear aunt, who has always had my back even when no one else did. Her only condition was that I attend a religious class. That was how I ended up at Darul Arqam's Beginners Orientation Class for Islam.
Pic of me at 19, leaving Singapore for K.L, sent off by close friends
This wasn't going to be an autobiography but the story I told you should give an idea how difficult being an outcast can be. I was different from the other kids at school since I started going there at 7. Growing up without parents like the other kids caused any erratic or rebellious behaviour on my part to be stereotyped as a "problematic child". It doesn't matter if my crime was bad handwriting, forgetting to hand in homework, my nails were too long or that my school-shirt was tucked out too much. I was already designed to fail. But I was a thinker, ponderer, reflecting every event in my life no matter how small. I question a lot, and for those questions that had no answers - I started writing them in diaries because it's the only space I could talk to without being judged or reprimanded. Many things did not make sense to me, the idea of God or submission to religion was too far away from my interest at that time, but I knew He exists. I talk to him all the time, sometimes making "deals" with God, if I passed an exam, I'll start praying... well, that didn't happen. I continued to be busy chasing the idea of success (unsuccessfully I might add) that everybody was talking about. It started with capital letter "M" for Money. It seems that without Money, one can be homeless, hungry and labelled a scum of society. My choice of career at that time wasn't helping much, as theatre/tv work wasn't paying the bills either.
Fast forward year 2002 : It was not an easy journey, learning about Islam at a somewhat late age. I didn't have the basics and barely could read a letter. Quran was too difficult to read, what more to understand. But learning it gave me a renewed sense of purpose. At the class I attended, I noticed there are several others who were much older than me who was also only just learning to read. There was a sense of calmness and peace every time I go to classes to seek knowledge. Even the teachers are so soft spoken and their faces seem to glow.
Migration to Germany wasn't a bed of roses either. Wearing a hijab in a western country? I must be kidding right? Well, despite my worries, I didn't falter. I realise there are many muslims in Germany too, and I didn't need to feel awkward or out of place, in fact, it made me a stronger Muslim. I now stick out like a sore thumb amongst my neighbours and the fact that I wasn't turkish or arab made it even more challenging as I do not have any support group other than my husband. I became very conscious of myself and my role as a Muslim, having to explain almost to everyone why I am different. Most of all, in seeking these explanations, I had to be convinced first. In a foreign land, learning the religion was even harder, and once I had to bring an english-arabic and german-english dictionaries to communicate with an Egyptian lady who volunteered to teach me. It didn't work out as losing in translations was draining me out. The good part is, in the long winter months, most people are covered up from head to toe anyway! There are some bad days, I recalled once a group of boy teenagers hurling insults and provoking me from their bicycles near my apartment. And people think we are the terror*st!?
I got this far, making the mistakes I did, and those I didn't, it was all already part of the plan. If I had suffered pain, homelessness - it was all part of life's portion for me. No one, I figured, is free of problems. These are our tests. Around us, we'll find people with all sorts of problems, but none we can compare with ours. Our tests are tailored for us - to make us better should we overcome it. Then again, I'm not yet free from His tests. Life is just beginning for me. Everyday is a reason to be thankful. Everyday I remind myself how temporary everything is. The good or the bad. Never take things or people we love for granted. Here today, who knows about tomorrow? Life is too short to be consumed with our ego and self-centred wants. Dear Sisters, as we are wondering whether or not hijab will look good on us (or for us), many years are passing on and our little children will be children no more. Many opportunities to become closer to Him will pass, and many a moments that could have been done differently will fade by. If you have faith, then don the hijab out of pure faith. Faith that Allah KNOWS best, and He knows why we need it, and why it is better for us. If we fill our heads thinking about it, we are just wasting our time debating with our desires against the Wisdom of our Creator. If you already believe there is a Creator, then there is no need to question it. Let Him lead you and you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if you find that you're lacking the conviction, I suggest, we should not be discussing the Hijab, but the existence of Allah. Think of it like, e.g your science teacher just gave you a big tip for the upcoming exams - to pass the exam you have to read this chapter or do xxx - wouldn't you? This was where I started (and I didn't even know it). And the rest, they say, will fall into place. InshaAllah.
Was it difficult to start wearing Hijab? Sure it is. I considered myself someone who was free to express myself in my own clothes and style. The hijab surely sets that back a little in a way that I have to rethink my fashion sense. Was fashion even allowed, isn't that contradicting? Was what I was doing (working in the industry) allowed? I had to question everything and be very honest to myself. So it was all about suppressing my desires? What did that lead to? More discussions, more honesty and more inner searching of what I wanted not only for myself, but for those I love as well. Honestly I was still struggling for identity because I attached identity with who I am. The irony was that, I wanted to look like everybody else (before hijab). Am I what I wear or what my ideals are? Was it acceptance that I was looking for? Then another truth smacks back right in the face now because with hijab, I may not be readily accepted. Job opportunities became narrower I thought, but then I discovered my other talents I never knew I had. It was a journey of self discovery and when I had the opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia, my perception of hijab differed again. This time, my eyes which was the only thing you'll see when I was wearing the niqaab (face veil) opened wide.
for foreign magazines, newspapers and blogged since 2003.
In Saudi Arabia, I found my new found freedom to dress in whatever I desire. Yes! No one told me before that I can still dress up pretty and sexy but within the Islamic context of what is Halal - amongst women and in front of my mahram! Because separation was natural in Saudi Arabia, there were tons of girlie parties to attend. I begin to discover my feminine side once again and picked up the make up brushes and colours that I so missed since I threw away make up right after marriage. I wanted to become better muslim but without realising, for years I was oppressing my innate desires as a women. Which women does not like beautifying themselves? We all love shoes, handbags, clothes and pretty things - that's just how we are. We are pearls in the oysters, pretty but wrapped up for protection. I never knew this concept existed because I grew up in a mixed society where separation didn't exist. I am loving dressing up again, for myself, for my husband and for girlfriends when we meet for coffee mornings. Most Asian women are not used to this concept, hence they struggle to meet halfway and set a bold fashion statement whilst donning the hijab. That's how we see hijab went so dead wrong with pictures posted all over Facebook of hijabis in tight fitting clothes, clearly visible g-strings, face loaded with make up etc. It's just hard for a women to stay away from those things, because we can't. We are programmed to be beautiful. But in the right settings, we can!
In April 2012, I initiated and organised a party to introduce this concept of a Girls' only event. I invited some friends to come together and we organised a talk, fashion show, make up tutorial amongst other things to bring women of all walks of life together to just have fun in the right environment and called it the "Excluzif Party". We booked a function room, catered food and invited participants to join in, hijabis or not. It an intimate event, but most of all, we all had fun. Girls only kinda fun and we strutted our stuffs, yes we did. I urge more and more ladies to follow suit, organise your own parties in the comforts of your own home. Bring out the girls in you, bring your daughters too, tell her she's is more than welcome to dress up here, where no one will ogle at her legs or try to seduce her innocence. This makes sense finally. I dress for myself, not for anyone else (well, except for my husband, who has every right to :))
Hijab need not be a hindrance, it's the first thing that people notice about you, that you are a Muslimah - first and foremost. The other roles comes later. We still see nuns wearing head covers in churches, and they consider themselves pure and spiritually closer to God. Islam gives this right to be spiritually closer to ALL women without having to be part of a monastery. Every women have the same right to be as close to God as she wants to be. Wearing the hijab makes us conscious of our behaviour and characters as a Muslim. We are not perfect and will continue to make mistakes, and the hijab will be a reminder of that and we will continue to strive to be a better person in all aspects. It does not hinder our ability to work, study or participate in the community just as any other person - muslim or not. Hijab makes me answerable to my deeds - towards my husband, children, family, neighbours, friends and even strangers. We are rewarded even we remove an obstruction from the road! Subhanallah.
Just think of me as someone who is eagerly collecting mileage points - only my destination is the afterlife.