Women in Islam

By Sr. Diana Beatty

I can remember when I first converted to Islam, I was afraid of hijab. Part of it was fear over how people would treat me, but that was not the main thing I worried about.

I had preconceived notions about what a Muslim woman was supposed to be like. I am sure most of those ideas came from stereotypical things from the media, etc., but also from my own impressions of what a lady in hijab must think like. I thought a "good" Muslim woman was supposed to be quiet, submissive, obedient, and happy to stay at home, unambitious, domestic, docile, and dependent on men. I felt I was not like the ideal Muslim woman that I was supposed to be. I was afraid of wearing hijab because to me it symbolized giving up myself to be what I thought was expected of me.

I don't know if any of you ever had similar thoughts or experiences. But as time passed, I did realize that hijab was required (I did not know that at first), and I felt I needed to wear it even if I did not understand why or what the implications might be.

When I put it on, everything changed. All the fears I had about how people would react quickly dissolved as the problems I had were minimal outside of my own family.

I found I felt more feminine, a little more protected, like I had more privacy, and that people in general respected me a lot more and treated me better. It was like night and day from what I thought hijab was like to what it really turned out to be like. I felt like my faith solidified on that day, I felt like I was finally identified as a Muslim. Previously, I felt so lonely because I saw myself as distinctly different from all the Christians and Jews around me, and yet the Muslims did not recognize me as Muslim or if they did, many I felt did not really accept me.

But when I put hijab on, I was defining myself as a Muslim openly; I was no longer worrying about what people thought and instead just trying to do the right thing. I had started to carve out that new place where I "belonged". And I felt real peace for the first time. It is amazing how you think you know what peace is, and then when it really comes to you, you realize what turmoil was within you. When I put on hijab, I knew who I was, finally. The struggle I had gone through in converting, of reevaluating everything I had ever been taught and building up a whole new world view that included the realization that my parents, my neighbors, my teachers, everyone I had ever loved, was wrong.

The struggle had some closure now, I had "gotten" somewhere to a new me, something closer to the real me that I had been missing.

It is just a piece of cloth, some say. But it symbolizes a great deal. When anyone looks at a lady in hijab, they think something. They may think of piety, or evil, or oppression, or peace. Even if they do not know that the hijab is a mark of a Muslim woman, it still symbolizes something to them; perhaps because it is different, or perhaps because it really is more than just a piece of cloth. I have seen ladies who wear hijab but just can't seem to help letting some of their hair show, or their neck, or whatever. And I never understood it, I never understood why they could make the step to put it on but just couldn't put it on all the way. I figured the reaction they got from the non-Muslims was the same either way. I imagined that they didn't feel good about being Muslim and were struggling internally between western culture and Islam.

I have also seen ladies who cover their whole face. And even though I was wearing hijab, I found my reaction to these ladies to be quite negative. I looked at them and felt uncomfortable and felt they were unapproachable. And that maybe they were looking down at me for not covering my face. And I found that all those stereotypes I was brought up with about Muslims came back, but now it was for "those Muslims" that covered the face.

It is still just a piece of cloth but the reactions it invokes certainly go beyond that. But after a while, I noticed that I was using stereotypes again and that many of those ladies were just like me trying to do what they felt was the right thing. Perhaps someday I would feel the need to cover my face. It does seem impractical to me in the West, but in some circumstance it may be a wise course of action.

I have met Muslims from a variety of cultures and from each of them I have met some of the greatest people in the world (in my opinion). But I have also found a lot of them persisting in looking stereotypically at those not of their culture.

When I put on hijab, it covered my hair but uncovered my eyes. And that is such a blessing. But in so many facets of our life, even as Muslims, we persist in keeping the eyes covered and letting stereotypes judgments and assumptions pass. Nationalism/racism is only one example, there are many more. It seems to be a disease of humans to think in terms of Us and Them.

But Islam is not about Us and Them, it is about everyone, it is We. And I could be wrong, but I don't really see room in Islam for Us and Them - it seems almost directly opposed to the ideology.

When I became a Muslim, particularly in a community where Muslims were few, I felt myself as an example to every one of what a Muslim is. Seeing an American lady who decides to be Muslim and wear hijab in their class is a shock to many of my classmates, and it forces them to change much of the views they have held of Muslims. They finally see a Muslim as a real person that is in many ways a lot like them. And I am the new model that they define Muslims and Islam by. If I mess up, it can effect how other Muslims are thought of and treated, how my classmates teach their children and co-workers about Muslims. So it worries me when I find my Muslim brothers and sisters dividing themselves into Us and Them.


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

January 2000
Shawwal 1420
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