“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” ~Benjamin Franklin
“Do you cover your hair out of choice?” is a question I am frequently asked, both by people from non-Muslim as well as Muslim backgrounds.
There is blind, unseeing faith and there is reasonable, calculated faith. It is commonly accepted that the two are exclusive and no compromise can be made between them. I agree to the second half of this statement and strongly object to the first. My faith is at once blind and reasoning.
“There is no compulsion in religion.” This is a much-quoted verse by proponents of open dialog between Islam and other faiths. It is true that though Islam is the only right path, the Quran also establishes that there is no obligation for all humans to follow this path if they do not wholeheartedly believe. It is impossible for a human with willpower and intellect to be coerced into believing something. The human mind can be reasoned with, argued with, given proofs and logic that appeals to intellect. One can only be invited to Islam, not dragged into it unwillingly. The faith that results from questioning, intellectual discourse, and logical sense is not blind faith.
Once you have entered the fold of Islam, however, all tenets of practice become obligatory for you: the choice no longer exists.
I believe in One God and His Last Messenger. This is the first criterion of faith. Since I have accepted that Allah communicated to us through His Book (the Holy Quran) and His Prophet (Muhammad saws), and that He has given us his oath for the protection of every word in the Quran, it follows that I must believe in and accept whatever is stated in the Quran, and whatever has been recorded (by reliable sources) to have been stated by the Messenger. Once the basic tenets of faith have been established, whether the actual practices do make sense to me or not is another matter altogether, because I already have unshaken faith in their authenticity. This part of my faith is blind acceptance.
I would like to illustrate this with the help of the example of hijab for women. Hijab, which means ‘to conceal’ is an obligation in Islam for both men and women. The reason why men’s hijab is never in discussion is because the prescribed dress code for men in Islam is a subset of the prescribed dress code for men by society today. Men are required to cover from the navel to the knee: this is their hijab. Society, however, requires men to cover far more than this. It is unacceptable for them to cover any less in most situations (except perhaps at the beach or sauna). This is why it is never an issue.
Women’s hijab is constantly an issue in discussion, because the extent of hijab prescribed for women in Islam covers far more than the dress code commonly accepted in society today. Women are required in Islam to cover their entire bodies, from head to ankle, and the only visible parts are the hands, feet and face. This is obligatory, just as men’s hijab is obligatory for them. Further, some women choose to cover their faces, as well (which is optional according to common consensus).
Many people do not agree that there exists a dress code for men and women in secular society today. I strongly disagree. Dress codes are in effect (officially or unofficially; openly or discreetly) all over the place. They have always existed, only evolved over time and with changes in culture and fashion. At a point in time, it was unacceptable to enter a restaurant shirtless and without shoes. Even today, some restaurants do not allow dining without a blazer; some clubs do not allow entry without formal dress shoes. Some places of worship require a hat or other head covering. St Peter’s Basilica does not allow men and women to enter without covering the arms or legs. It is unimaginable to enter a corporate office for an interview wearing a Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and thong slippers. More unacceptable is piercing location and intensity, unnatural hair color and tattooing. Most of the examples I have mentioned are of private spaces, ie privately-owned institutions, which have the right by law to disallow entry to anyone they please, and to impose any dress code they wish. Public places, too, have accepted norms of dressing. You cannot wear a bikini bottom and a T-shirt to go shopping at a mall. Neither can you appear nude at a non-nude beach. Men wearing women’s clothing are also looked down upon in many places. Dress codes are being enforced everywhere, and whether there are written laws against certain ways of dressing or not, there are unspoken but widely-accepted rules that everyone inadvertently follows.
The difference in men and women’s hijab is another common issue. Because men and women are different, anatomically, emotionally, intellectually, their working style, method of dealing with problems, choices, likes and way of dressing is different. And this also has a corollary in secular society. There are different standards of dress acceptable for men and women everywhere. Let’s take the most common denominator, where the least clothing is acceptably worn: the beach in the West. Women wear bikini tops and bottoms, and no less is acceptable. Men wear bottoms, and no less is acceptable. Here, too, women’s acceptable extent of coverage is more than that of men’s. So hijab (concealment) is not all that unnatural or alien; it exists everywhere in different forms.
Questioning why hijab exists, or why men and women have different rules and roles is the same as asking why we must pray five times a day and not three or eight or just once a week, why God chose an unlettered man as his Final Messenger, why we have ten toes and not two. There is much speculation and theorizing, and most times logic and scientific discovery are used to explain and support these tenets, but questioning technicalities is futile. Whether we are capable of grasping the reasoning behind everything in the world or whether we ever will or not, the bottom line is that it exists.
Returning to the topic of choice, as stated earlier, accepting Islam as the only way of life means accepting all its requirements. Whatever has been made obligatory by Islam is obligatory, without exception. Hijab is stated to be an obligation (as has been established by intensive study of Islam by scholars), and so, it is not a choice. If you wish to be Muslim, you must follow hijab, just as you must pray five times a day in the prescribed format, and just as you must fast through the month of Ramadan. Whether you actually do it, or not, is of course up to you, as long as you accept that it is obligatory. The only difference is that no one other than you keeps track of your prayers after you become an adult, and no one can count your fasts, and no one can really tell whether you eat halal or not, but everyone can see it when you don’t practice hijab. This is why, though accountability (for all the aforementioned practices) lies with you alone, and the time for such accountability will only arrive on the Day of Judgment, and the only one who can question or judge you is the Judge of the Day of Reckoning, people seem to hold you accountable, or judge you if you do not practice hijab, and may even push you into doing it. This is where the schism is created, and most of the time overlooked. Just as no one can enforce the belief in Islam, no one can enforce the practice of Islam upon fellow Muslims. Just as one’s intellect must be appealed to when one is invited to Islam, one must be invited to the wearing of hijab rather than coerced into doing it.
Perhaps this is why I am constantly questioned whether my wearing of hijab is by my own choice. To this, I have a counter-question for those women (Muslim or not) who ask me this: was your not covering of your head your own choice? And before anyone can answer, let me put forth a few scenarios and more questions. Were you ever asked by your parents whether you would like to practice hijab? Were you ever told that such an option even exists? Were you ever bought a stole or scarf to wrap around yourself, as a head-covering or face-veil (apart from its obvious use as a wrap) if ever you should so please? If you did cover your head on your own during play or to protect from the sun, were you not chided and told that it was old fashioned or overly girly, and that you could use a hat instead?
Because most people who don’t practice hijab may say they don’t do it because it’s a choice, but the real reason is, they don’t do it because they think it is more acceptable not to, for whatever reason. They may think it is wrong, or inappropriate, or wish to follow other dress codes that secular society has set. Which is why they never give their children this choice. If you truly believed that a certain way of life were good for you, would you not introduce your children to this way of life, and allow them to decide whether to accept it or not? And contrarily, if you believed a certain path to be wrong, wouldn’t you make sure your children never came to know of it, and if they did, wouldn’t you discourage them from following it?
Similarly, if you believed that a certain way was the only right way, wouldn’t you make sure your children followed it? Would you tell them it’s their choice and risk their well-being? For example, we have over-whelming evidence today that smoking is deadly not only to the one who smokes but to everyone around them. Would you introduce smoking to your children as an alternative lifestyle?
My parents believe Islam to be the only right path, by the Grace of God. They don’t believe that there are multiple equally-right paths that I could follow if I wished to. So they introduced me to Islam. They believe that hijab is obligatory. So they made me practice hijab, just as they made me eat my vegetables and made me go to school. Sometimes, I didn’t want to do it because I hadn’t yet grasped why it was obligatory. Sometimes, I didn’t want to go to school because I didn’t understand that I must endure it in order to be successful in this life. But my parents made me go to school, they forced me to sit in my room and practice math; it wasn’t a choice.
My continuing adherence to hijab today (unmonitored by anyone) is also not out of choice. It is out of understanding that it is an obligation. I don’t need the crutch of logic to support why I cover myself. I don’t need to explain how it is a protective barrier from immodest gazes, for I have endured a lot of curious and condescending glares for wearing it. I don’t need to explain that hijab was enforced so that non-Muslim men would recognize me as a Muslim woman and leave me alone; for it is well-known how much negative attention and sometimes violence being recognizably Muslim provokes these days. I don’t need to explain how covering up and wearing loose clothing automatically draws attention away from my appearance and toward my intellect, that people listen and understand more than look when I speak, which is how non-Muslim women have been clamoring for ages to be recognized. I don’t need to stress that wearing hijab evokes so many questions about Islam that it gives me a platform to dispel countless doubts and misconceptions. I don’t need any reason other than that God prescribed it for me. If you believe in that God, you don’t have a choice but to obey Him, you don’t dare to disobey Him, it is a compulsion. It is a force that makes you follow His law unquestioningly: once your eyes have been opened to the truth, you can never close them again and forget. Once you have taken the red pill, you can never go back and take the blue pill into oblivion.
My appeal to the intellect of those women who think I didn’t have the choice to practice hijab is: if hijab truly is optional, were you ever given that option? Or are you being forced to expose yourself?
Yes, I believe in Islam by choice.
No, I do not practice hijab by choice.