What to Wear: Reflections on Choice

It was a Sunday night and I was preparing for the upcoming week by hitting Facebook in my pajamas and there, amongst the selfies and memes, was a cartoon that caught my eye.  It depicted two women staring at each other.  One woman was in full abaya and niqaab – an outfit that covered every bit of the Muslim woman except her eyes.  The other was a woman in a bikini wearing nothing else but oversize sunglasses. The thought bubble from the Muslim woman looking at the other woman read, “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel, male-dominated world.” And the thought bubble emanating from the bikini-clad woman read, “Everything covered but the eyes. What a cruel male-dominated world.”

Never has there been as much interest in the outfits of Muslim women.  The New York Times published a guide to Muslim veils this May. Recently, news services have been reporting the story of a student who had been accepted into the Citadel, a public military college in South Carolina, but was not allowed to wear a hijab with her uniform. The student ultimately decided not to attend the school. France banned the wearing of the burqa and niqab in 2011 and other European nations have imposed bans in certain cities and certain areas. Even our neighbors to the north imposed a ban on the niqab and a resulting lawsuit had a significant impact on their federal election in 2015.

In this environment, I evaluated my own history with clothes.  I attended an all girls’ school where a knee-length kilt and a white shirt were the required uniforms. No one cared what I wore as every student in the elementary, middle, and high school all wore the same outfit. Clothing was not a personal statement. The lack of males on campus ensured that it was also not a sexual one. I grew up completely oblivious to the power of clothes. My mother ensured that I wore appropriate attire to Sunday School at the mosque and to the homes of relatives and Muslim friends. This impacted little on my clothing psyche as the chosen outfits seemed little different than other ensembles worn for specific occasions – shorts and cleats to play soccer or a shalwar khameez for Eid prayers.

I remained happily oblivious to the clothing and hijab debate until my daughter was 5. There was an Islamic school in our area. My husband and I were desperate to have her attend. The admissions process was rigorous as the school had many more applicants than available spots.

The final step of the process was a parent interview. My husband pleaded with me to wear a hijab. My father insisted. My best friend who had been through the interview was adamant that without the headscarf my daughter didn’t stand a chance of acceptance.

I stood my ground – no hijab. I do not wear a headscarf on a daily basis, and it seemed hypocritical to wear one to scam our way into an Islamic school. Surprising all, my daughter was accepted and enjoyed her time at Noor-Ul-Iman School. We pulled her out in fourth grade and enrolled her in Catholic school because the Islamic school required mandatory hijab for all girls in fourth grade and above.

I believe that the decision to cover is a personal one and not one made by a school committee. At the end of the day our ability to wear what we chose and cover what we wanted negated the facts that our children could read and recite the Quran like native Arab speakers, fasted with their friends during Ramadan, and thrived in a loving and spiritual environment. Freedom of choice dominated our decision to leave.

I’m blessed to live in a country where I can choose what to wear (ballerina flats and Anthropologie shirts), how to practice my religion (with less attendance at fajr prayers than I would like), and whom to befriend (my peeps in the Sisterhood). And during this holy month of Ramadan where I literally like to count my blessings, I am thankful for the gifts I have been given, grateful for the country in which I live, and freedom to make my friends, make my mistakes, and make my choices in any way I choose.

By Nausheena Bhayat, Treasurer, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®

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