I often find myself staring off into space, deep in wonder. A seriously bad habit. It makes me look like I stare too much, which creeps others out. Maybe I do, but I truly try not to. Sitting in the car with my family as we drove off to yet another brown-people party, faintly hearing the traditional Bengali music my mom was playing, I watched as the scenery blurred past me as we picked up speed on the freeway.
Momentarily, I glanced at my mom, with slight annoyance at her choice of music. My gaze landed on the cloth wrapped elegantly and stylishly around her head, concealing the long, silky hair only a few in her life had witnessed and marveled at.
I then looked towards my dad. “Abbu?” I call him. He hummed in response. I don’t know what compelled me to ask that day, but I did.
“When I’m older, am I gonna have to wear hijab?”
And I listened to his response.
I was ten at that time.
A few years before, I actually had worn the headscarf for a good amount of time. But not exactly for the right reason...
I winced in pain as my mom tugged painfully on my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying not to let them water. God, she was so harsh! Would it kill her to be more gentle?! “Got it,” she said with satisfaction, as she pulled out something from a strand of my hair. She dropped it in my palm to let me look at it. I stared at the ugly, crawly thing in my hand. A louse. I crushed the pest, smiling with satisfaction. Sadly, having the lice in the first place was not nearly as fun. My mom sighed as she peered closer at my head. This session was taking longer than normal.
Sensing the frustration in that sigh, I looked up at her questioningly. “What’s wrong?” She gave me a look. “They’re laying too many eggs to keep up with.”
My eyes widened and my face scrunched in disgust. “What can we do about it then?” I asked. She then looked as if she got an idea. “Tell you what. Let’s go to the barber, and we’ll have them shave your hair! Sound good?” she asked me. Let’s clarify. I was an idiot. I didn’t know what she meant by that. Don’t ask me how. It was pretty straightforward. She was going to have all my hair shaved off and make me look like Caillou. Sounds great! How did I not know what she was talking about? As a matter of fact, I didn’t realize I was about to lose all of my hair until the day it actually happened.
I cried for days.
I went to school and received stares. I rolled my eyes. I expected this. My best friend came up to me to ask the golden question. And no, she didn’t ask me why I was bald. Truth be told, no one could even tell that I was bald. But what they were wondering was…
“Since when did you start wearing hijab?” she asked me. I shrugged. “Since now.” No way was I gonna tell her the real reason. Honestly, I don’t know why she was so concerned about it. She wore hijab from such a young age, and now she was looking at me as if it was a crazy thing to do. I guess it was just shocking ‘cause it was me.
From that day on, I wore hijab anywhere and everywhere. Whenever people came over, whenever we went to people’s houses, out at the store, school, parties...no one was gonna see my bald head.
But it never failed to make my face heat up in embarrassment. Because wearing a hijab still earns you as many stares as a smooth head would. It was pretty miserable, and boy was I relieved when my hair grew back. (Lice-free, too.)
I was seven at that time.
So after my hair had grown back, I ditched the hijab just as quickly as I had embraced it. And I firmly believed that I was never going to truly wear it full-time. But something my mom told me one day had me second-guessing myself.
I sat at the table absentmindedly, playing with my food. I heard the garage door open and automatically knew that my mom had returned from Publix. She came inside, holding the bags of groceries and putting them away in the kitchen. After she was done, I watched her unwrap the cloth around her head and let her hair down. “Ammu?” I called.
“When did you start wearing hijab? And why did you start?”
She then smiled in my direction. “You know what’s funny about that?” she asked me. I dumbly stared back in response. “I started wearing it when you told me to.”
….Say what now?
She continued on, saying how when I was five years old, I came home from school one day and asked my mom why she didn’t wear hijab, explaining how it was a duty from God and an obligation of all Muslim women. She told me how she started wearing it after that.
I was quiet after that, contemplating what she just told me. I didn’t remember that in the slightest, but the fact that that was true just surprised me. And it made me wonder...would I have to wear it soon?
So growing up and attending a religious school for the majority of my life, at some point in middle school, we covered a unit about hayaa, which loosely translates to ‘modesty.’ It was pretty much a unit that taught the reasons behind wearing the hijab and the benefits to dressing the way most Muslims do. I must say, those lessons truly opened my eyes to the world and forced me to look at the concept from a new perspective. While as a young, immature child, I just saw the hijab as a piece of cloth, I now understood that it was much more than that. It was an identity, a barrier, and a form of protection from evil and wrongdoing.
I remembered when I was younger, I often talked about how I was probably never going to wear it full-time, simply because I thought it was inconvenient and frankly embarrassing. But I realized how narrow-minded I had been. I felt enlightened.
I was eleven at that time.
This religious school I had been attending since I was three that taught me about the many beliefs I hold true to myself and made my faith stronger with every passing day, was also the epitome of gossip. Rumors and slandering lay in every inch of the place. It was just something to live with, no matter how much it bothered me how insensitive people can be towards one another. I always chose not to engage in meaningless gossip.
But what I heard that day left me stiff.
A Muslim woman had died in a car accident.
It baffles me how quickly and efficiently news can spread. I haven’t the slightest clue as to how my classmates knew about this, but what’s important is that hearing this changed me.
It woke me up when I didn’t even know I was asleep.
It opened my eyes when I didn’t know they were closed.
It made me see things when I didn’t know I was blind.
As we grow up, typically we wisen up. There was a time in everyone’s life when we all believed the world was perfect and nothing could go wrong. And as if we get splashed with freezing cold water, as we get older, we’re smacked in the face by reality. My once idealistic side was dead, and now my realistic side was thriving.
Life is short. And it’s a test. You either pass. Or you fail. And your destiny is a direct result of your actions. I had to learn early that life is not something to be wasted. We never know when our time will come. We don’t know if we’ll be lucky enough to grow old and live a long life, or if we’ll die tomorrow. I’m sure that that woman didn’t expect to leave the world so soon on that day. So you can either take it...or leave it.
And I made sure to take it.
It was impulsive.
It was quick and not thought out whatsoever.
One day, I showed my hair to the world.
The next day and the days since, I concealed it from the world.
I was twelve at that time.
“Abbu?” I call him. He hummed in response. I don’t know what compelled me to ask that day, but I did.
“When I’m older, am I gonna have to wear hijab?”
And I listened to his response.
“The decision is up to you. You can choose to wear it, or you can choose not to. But just think of this when you make that choice: What would God want you to do? What would make God happy? Let that guide your decision.”
My dad’s words in the car that day still drive my motives to this day. For three years, I’ve been wearing hijab. Truthfully, it was an impulsive decision that I’ve only ever given thought to here and there in my years, but I can say for a fact that it was the best split decision I’ve made in my life. What others see as a piece of cloth around my head is an identity for me. It defines me and my reason for living. It connects me to God, and gives me the confidence I need to get through in life. It guides the choices I make by reminding me of who I am.
And it makes me proud to be who I am. So when I see people giving my funny looks, people whispering to themselves, and little children staring at me, I simply smile and carry on, telling myself that they’re just jealous.