A dear friend once mentioned, casually, that she didn’t think that she would ever wear the hijab. When I approached the topic with great caution, she told me that the hijabis she knew were dressed just like her, save the fact that they covered their hair. I took it to mean that they behaved no differently – with no great distinction in respectability or modesty –than their non-hijabi counterparts. “Is it just about the hair, then? I don’t think it’s just that.” As I stared ahead into the highway, I felt that I could understand.
Before I wore the hijab myself, I fancied myself a liberal. Educated, open-minded, and a true feminist. It only fit. I hated guys for their chauvinistic arguments and general combination of stupidity and immaturity, and I thought that my hair looked pretty nice.
And then, with the emergence of reborn Muslim, Wardina Safiyyah, came the hijabi boom. Suddenly, it was fashionable to be covered. That woman and her scarves changed an entire fashion industry. It was no longer prudish to want to be covered. It was an assertion of willpower and strong faith in the physical sense – proof of self-actualization, if you may. All of a sudden, my respect grew for the hijabi, who I once viewed as unliberated and choosing to remain hidden. I did not know then that wearing a hijab was one of the greatest means of exposing oneself.
Thus began my relationship with the hijab. I started wearing it the way my ‘covered’ peers did – with reckless abandon, thinking it enough to just retain my hair from being seen, and not caring however I dressed either way. The clothes I wore had not changed. I just didn’t have to bother with my hair anymore (or so I thought). Truthfully –and this is not just a retrospective view, but a continuous nag at the back of my mind back then – I wasn’t comfortable in the tight clothes I wore. It’s just that it was fashionable. It was what my friends did, and the conformist within decided to play along.
One day, before the family left for a day out, I decided to expose the beading on the front of this shirt I was wearing. It was – is, since it still exists – very nice beading, and the top fit me well. So in the name of fashion, I didn’t pin my hijab across my chest as was becoming my usual manner.
My mother noticed, and she scolded me. I was slightly taken aback, because previously, she had never objected to the way I wore the headscarf. I had always thought that she was fine with the idea. “The purpose of the hijab is to preserve your modesty,” she told me sharply, “not to flaunt your chest on full display. What then is the purpose of the piece of cloth you wear?”
Startled, I hastily grabbed a pin and mulled over her words as I studied my reflection in the car’s rear-view mirror. From that day on, the hijab was something I needed to think about, not just accept in passivity.
Despite this, I had a love-hate relationship with the hijab. On one hand, I liked the superior air I felt I deserved; there was an unspoken understanding that I thought I was the better Muslim merely because I was covered. On the other hand, what modesty I retained prevented me from being just like my peers, and I often stood in front of the mirror, wondering how differently they would see me if I was just like them.
During that time, I had tried not wearing the hijab. It was within the hostel compound (although there wasn’t just girls) and it was a quiet day, with no one outside. I dared myself to step outside without my hijab, for a quick dash to the washing machine.
I felt stark naked. I had to look down to make sure my clothes were still there, because psychologically, I felt bare.
It took me a while to understand the jurisprudence behind the Muslim dress code. The only way I had read the Qur’an was by recitation, and I did not know its meaning. Only in the past few years have I started reading the translations of the Qur’an, and I was surprised to read a verse with the instruction for the hijab to be worn.
With the years that passed, my sense of proper dress began to be ruled by instinct, and that instinct was becoming harder to satiate. I began to constantly cover my chest (after learning that the instruction in the Qur’an was for the head and chest to be covered), and that became an innate requirement of dress for me. Again, anything other than would constitute psychological nudity. I began to enjoy wearing tunics and loose clothing, which were more comfortable and feminine (this was after my unfashionable tomboy phase). After a while, I couldn’t stand it if my arms were bare – I became conscious whenever they came into plain sight, even by accident.
Shopping became more and more difficult, especially in metropolitan Subang, where religiosity has remained fashionable and accessible only to the housewife and elderly demographics. Just ask my mother, who has to deal with her daughter, the anal shopper with scant fashion creativity.
To me though, what I wore was important on the basis of modesty. Wearing the hijab automatically enforced on me behavioural changes, which I took a while to quit rebelling against. I became more courteous towards guys, even, and some of the more uncouth mannerisms that were second nature suddenly felt out of place. It was never a means of ‘preserving myself from the lewd gazes of men’, although having been harassed verbally and on the streets, one can’t help but feel protected by the hijab, even though it isn’t a safeguard from unwanted attention.
Neither is the idea about rebellion, as the secularists in France argue against the hijabis. It is about distancing oneself from all that nonsense, where women play second fiddle to men, but are free game to sexual exploitation. The hijab forces men to look at women via standards other than lust, and to respect that they are not objects, but people. I was reminded of this when I caught glance of a classmate’s mobile phone – adorning its screen was the image of a women’s cleavage, unidentified. Her chest was the only thing he bothered to notice and thus, to be reminded of. It was disgustingly chauvinist and disrespectful, and as my hand caught hold of the fabric that covered my head, I heaved a sigh of gratitude that when God asked me to do something, I did.
Other than the fact that it is a religious obligation (which is not merely restricted to women, but to men as well – poor things, we always overlook them), covering is a statement – a bold declaration of one’s identity. A breakaway from the norm. A woman who dons the hijab is not shy by wanting to inculcate modesty. A hijabi cannot be shy, because by choosing to respect the Muslim dress code, she places herself out there for the world to see. She enables herself to be pinpointed in a crowd, easily recognizable. The first thing you recognize is her faith – after that, she forced you to judge her for what is within. She does not merely cover her hair from sight; she upholds modesty and courage.
Calluses have formed over knuckles Hardened with the gently caressing winds Fingers trace the deadened skin As they trace regret back to its source For the wandering mind thinks of that beyond it The unexplained The unseen and hidden Plainly written Somewhere Long before This The heart holds secrets mystified within itself A vagueness farther than the seas That carries bottled melancholy beyond that distant shore Abandoned Chills bring tears to the fore The musty smell of yesterday seeps hard and deep Beneath the surface Protecting selfish dreams with realism Disappointing, for fear of hope. Tilt your sight and see the Light Emitted in plain horizon Taken for granted Ignored The dark holds boundless sympathy But the soul needs empathy and Love Sorely missed from distant moments Amid raging Sun, raging Light Raging passion for Truth Today Cynicism is the fashion Contemplation far and few The past is made anew While history stares you in the face altered Which is why today You do not shy away From dastardly blows so humanely cruel So humanely blatant So humanely You Pull your chair towards me, dear Let our calluses mark each other’s As a reminder of those ruthlessly selfish nothings We solemnly kept to ourselves Bottled beyond that distant shore They will never account for anything More.
My mother often laments after my brother, Amir and I have had one of our nasty yet regular spats, that we were so nice to each other as children. And for some reason, whenever she does, I can see it in my mind – an old snapshot of the two of us (for it has always been just the two of us) in our pajamas in our parents’ room, plastic containers on our heads, pretending we were at the market, just before breakfast.
With that excellent memory of hers, my mother can recall the days when I actually anticipated my brother’s birth (something I find hard to believe now). I was so keen on being a big sister, I had volunteered to do away with my Pampers far before my time – a decision much regretted by my parents, as they apologized to the cleaner lady at a shopping mall, after my first attempt at being diaper-free.
My mother says that I was a doting sister, who took pride in my brother’s full Beatles’ 60’s mop and constantly showered him with kisses and hugs – a scene I would have even greater difficulty believing, were it not for the many pictures of us as toddlers, my arm dangerously positioned in a strangle-hug around my brother’s neck. There were clearly no homicidal tendencies; just pure sisterly affection.
And then, my mother recounts in a slightly wistful tone, I went to school and started yelling at my brother. Everytime she tells us that bit, I almost don’t have the heart to tell her that as far back as kindergarten, I played by social rules. And the sick social rules back then was that younger siblings were uncool. Basically, all younger kids were uncool. And I lived with one, so I was in the high-risk category. Or so my twisted six-year-old mind thought.
I used to bully Amir all the time. We both learned Taekwondo from a young age, and I was especially generous with my punches and slaps. I distinctly remember a regretful encounter that ended with my brother having an imprint of my palm straight on his back – which lasted for some time. We feared our mother to a fault, and that meant that anything bordering profanity – even the word ‘idiot’ – was forbidden. Physical revenge (hidden from Mama, of course) was the only means we had, and we were well trained in it. I took advantage of my age and size all the time.
It horribly backfired by the time I reached twelve, and my brother started growing at a faster rate. All he had to do was pull my arm back in a fierce lock, and I would start apologizing for anything and everything profusely.
It can’t have been nice, being him. I’ve only recently learnt how awful the teachers at school were, always comparing him to me. The first child apparently sets the standard. Right. He was never good enough, it seemed to be implied. But in every way, he was the better child. He had sound common sense (something I sorely lack), natural intelligence (another missing feature of mine), a critical mind (which people seldom listen to, much to their loss), charming genteel manners (which make even little baby girls blush with admiration), a solid religious foundation, and overwhelming patience and faith in the human spirit. He was never judgemental, except maybe to his own flaws – but never in others. He always saw the good in people.
I always forget that behind his rough exterior, he has a huge, warm heart – tender and easily hurt when betrayed.
My big little brother is strong in many ways; fragile in others. And I can’t believe that he’s all grown up. He got accepted into Law Matriculation at the International Islamic University. He’s happy, going off to do something he excels at (talking his way out of messes) and he’s doing something I never had the guts to. It’s unchartered territory. He’s slightly scared but excited, I can tell, even a continent away.
I’ve taken to the habit of looking up old Beatles’ hits lately, and as I listen out for the familiar chords and drum cues, I’m constantly struck by the image of my brother and me, arguing over Paul or John’s lyrics as we struggled for elbow-resting space on the seven-hour car trip to our mother’s hometown.
And when I found this song, I knew I could share it with no one else.
The Signor asked me an important question, which belied its nonchalant appearance:
“So, are you going back home? To Malaysia?”
And I faltered. It was, I think, the first time I was asked that question, and wasn’t sure of my reply.
I have always had ideals. Big dreams. Of how I’m going to go home to Malaysia and fix things. Make the world a better place to live.
I know it sounds selfish. But now? I’m not sure I want to go home.
Home is where the heart is. I’ve repeated that phrase more than once. And the answer to that would be the same, except that the priorities in my heart have changed places.
Right now, my heart lies here.
It’s not that I don’t love my country. It’s not that I don’t see what an addled mess it is, and how badly it needs a fixer-upper. It’s just that I have a life here now – a busy existence where I actually have things to do; where to some extent, my voice actually matters. Where the things I do matter – where what I do makes a difference (or so I think). Where I am not demeaned or undermined or imposed on.
Where it seems enough for me to be me.
Back home, I’m never good enough. I’m never enough. The things I do don’t matter, and my words don’t count.
It can’t be that I’ve grown so much in three months. So I surmise that it’s just the way things are here.
Here, I’ve come into my own. I feel like I belong someplace.
Whereas in Malaysia, I’m the outsider who never has – maybe never could – fit in.
And so when my mother drummed into me the oft-repeated study mission for my finals, late last night, “Study hard; do you best; come home and help your nation –“
I cut her short by saying, “What if I don't come home?”
I could almost hear her shrug over the phone line.
In essence, I could never leave Malaysia alone. Not just like that. But I know that in the near future - in the here and now, which is the only realm I dare plan - I don't feel yet like going home.
14th July 2007 Old Arts Building - Melbourne University
Assalaamu alaikum (Peace be upon you), Welcome to the official website of the 25th National Annual FAMSY Conference, entitled "Islam: My Way, My Purpose"
Muslims can no longer afford to be passive bystanders within society. The Australian Muslim community needs to develop a vision that fosters commitment to community participation and recognition of the importance of political awareness as an essential element of communal contribution. Reaching out and engaging the community, and contributing positively to the wider society - without compromising our religion - requires building strong leaders.
For these pertinent reasons the 2007 FAMSY conference focuses on the issues that matter to us today – Community participation, political awareness and Muslim leadership. The conference will include an exciting mix of international and local speakers & community exhibitions.
These past three months, I have been torn, I will admit as much here.
For a long while, I used to be a follower. I used to follow the crowd; try hard to fit in. Someone once asked me, “I thought you said you didn’t care what people thought of you."
Right I didn't.
Early this year, I came back to Melbourne, finding that once again, the kaleidoscope with which I viewed the world had changed. I had visited reality - it wasn't pretty, but that reality was mine. And I knew that certain things that I had taken for granted - from this point on, they had to be questioned and re-evaluated.
And so I tried to tread my own way – to listen to the 'real' me inside, that I seemed to have lost touch with some time ago. The one that didn’t like mindless conformity. The one who questioned before judging, and definitely before accepting. The one who balanced everything with moderation. For Muslims, we walk the middle path between two extremes, the Furqan as our guide.
And I learnt that just because I didn’t think like everyone else, did not mean that tolerance was out of the question.
It’s true, at times I feel almost singled out. I feel like I am the weird one for questioning and searching for answers. I feel like an outsider, for not necessarily adhering to the societal mores (for I feel like I never have, anyway).
So I see my past lives (for I have had several), and know that God has prepared me to be a ghuraba’ either way – to be a stranger, walking foreign lands.
Political theory has always been my thing. And so I delved into it. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi once wrote in one of his many treatises, “...a person sometimes gets carried away by paying attention to the enticing broad sphere of politics and conflict.”
And yes. I was carried away by it, for a long while. I started looking into everything and anything at the same time. Somewhere along the way, I lost focus, despite my eye always on the main aim (my darling housemates made sure I had my head stuck in reality). I became wide-eyed by big names and ideals, which though pressing nonetheless, had sucked me in and whirled my mind.
All of a sudden, talk and action was all that mattered.
And so alhamdulillah, a little bit of dialogue occurred not too long ago, which had me seriously considering the balance between the mind and the heart. A fellow blogger I had come across had negated my opinion, which was that the dealings of the human heart (in its spiritual form) sometimes held higher importance when it came to matters of religion. His claim that even traditional scholars had not classified the mind and the heart unsettled me.
Not confident of my own knowledge, I turned to a learned and trustworthy friend for clarification.
Just the other day, I managed to catch him for a brief discussion on the topic. And having braced myself for his blatant, uncompromising honesty (which, I had thought, might be amazed at my incredible ignorance), I asked him about the theoretical separation between the intellectual mind and the spiritual heart in the context of Islamic spirituality. We discussed the work he had recommended me, which was Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine’s dissection about the Muslim’s understanding of the position of the heart and the mind as mentioned in the Qur’an. And I asked him if my understanding was right; that the heart and the mind, in all its simplistic terms, had equal credence in understanding religion.
“Well, you know, the mind is definitely important… it’s just that the heart, it’s more so.”
And that sentence, more than anything else, struck a chord within. They were simple words, yes, but they related to me more than so many other things I had heard these past three months – the ideologies and the huge plans. All the political theory I had been keen on digesting sounded impressive, and no doubt they made me think, but they did not fill the little furrow that was beginning to dig deeper within me. By instinct, I felt that his words were true.
I was too busy with doing the physical, that I had abandoned my heart for a bit. I may not have lost my way, but my heart was suffering out of malnourishment. For the longest time, I had felt as if my lungs lacked air, and I desperately longed to go away for space to breathe. I think that other times, my intention may have gotten skewed.
After discussing the study of Imam al-Ghazzali’s Ihya’ Ulumuddin with him, it dawned on me just how much I have been neglecting that most important part of my life – the spiritual one - that part of religion that the secular world despises for its ability to transcend minds, and expand the soul.
And I suppose that Banoffee, in all her maternal concern for me, had it right:
“Sometimes, when you don’t feel at ease with yourself, when your heart is uneasy, ask yourself time and again – how is my relationship with Allah? For if that part of your life is good, then everything else should be as well.”
P.S: - Title duly borrowed from Sheikh Yassine's book, 'The Muslim Mind on Trial', available here.
Some people punch walls. Some wallow in empty spaces. Some people become vindictive. Me? I just corner you and let my gob speak for itself. Welcome to the inner recesses of my life (sounds almost pathetic, dunnit?)