Me and my hijab

I started wearing the hijab right after I performed Hajj. For those who do not know what Hajj is – it is a religious pilgrimage that is performed in the holy city of Mecca. It is a compulsory rite to every Muslim to at least perform it once in a lifetime. For the most part, it was assumed that I would automatically start covering my head after I got back home. For the month that I was away, I kept asking myself if I was ready to do this and if I really wanted to go ahead with it or not. Sometimes I feel like the greatest battles we fight are not with others but with ourselves. When I got back home, it is customary to greet family members who visit with ‘salaams’ and the head covered so for some time, I did cover my head. Other times at home and elsewhere I had my scarf around my neck as usual.

My husband didn’t approve of me doing this. Every single time we left the house to go out to see a friend or for a cup of coffee, he’d confront me about covering my head. “Why isn’t it on your head?”, “did you forget to put the scarf on your head?” were common questions. They were asked in the manner which made me feel like I had done a great sin and had a sinking guilty feeling inside me. I’d look at him in a pleading way and almost expect him to understand where I was coming from but he never did. I’d reluctantly then cover my head.

I don’t mean any disrespect to those who do wear the hijab and do it so well, but I was very uncomfortable doing this. I didn’t feel like because it was not coming from within me and I was simply doing it because I was told to. I wasn’t asked to; I was told to. This went on for a few weeks and it came to a point where one day my husband said to me, “I’m telling you as your husband to wear the hijab,” and that was that. A command. I’m someone who won’t easily bow down to anyone unless my heart was in it. But my husband and I had been arguing over the subject for some time and I just wanted it to end and wanted to be able to go out without instigating yet another argument over covering my head.

I told myself that I’d do it for him. Not God, but for him. I told myself that I’d try my best to keep at it; to make peace with the notion. I told myself that if I ever felt like I couldn’t do it, I’d still make an effort to plaster a smile on my face and get on with it. I did it for five months. When it came to a point where I felt like I was being a hypocrite, I sat my husband down one day and I told him I wasn’t happy doing it.

He looked back at me shocked. “I thought you were happy doing it,” he said. “How could I be when it wasn’t my choice in the first place?” I asked back. “Because you are doing it in the name of God Almightly.” “I’m not; in my heart I’m not doing it for Him, I’ve been doing it for you. For you so that we won’t argue all the time and fight about it.” “You need to make yourself be okay with it and do it for His sake.” “I don’t know if I can.” “Try.” “I am trying.”

The conversation went nowhere.

I thought I should put more effort and heart into covering my head. But a year and a couple of months later, here I am, still covering my head not for the right reasons. Muslims argue over the topic; some claiming it to be a choice others claiming it to be compulsory. I’m not one to argue. It is meant as a sign of modesty of women; but my argument is, does it mean I am not modest when I am not covering my head? What is modesty in today’s world anyway? Men look at you no matter what you are wearing; be it the abaya or a mini skirt and crop top. I believe that modesty lies in what’s in your heart. My faith does not confine women to shun themselves from the world. My faith celebrates women and whatever it may be, I know that I am a good Muslim whether I cover my head or not. What will prevail in the Hereafter because of my actions and choices is up to God.

My husband knows I am not happy covering my head even to this day. I’ve brought up the subject once more in recent times and I was yet again left with no choice. People can argue over it being my choice and I should defy my husband over this. Believe me, I’ve tried. But what is there to gain of it arguing over it when life almost becomes unbearable with the constant fights?

But the choice should be mine, right? What is better – to argue constantly or let things be? I can’t seem to decide. I’m tired of being pulled apart in this manner. I’ve lost sight of who I am because of it. I feel like I have no identity. I feel like a hypocrite every time I step out of the house. Yes, I also think in a practical manner and the heat has been killing me. It’s hot around my neck and all I want to do is shove my scarf down a drain. I miss my long hair and being able to style in so many different ways. I cut it almost like a boy because I didn’t see the point in having long hair and covering my head. I cried over it in the bathroom. My husband does not know it upset me that much. And yet, when I step outside this afternoon to meet a friend, I will carefully pick a scarf that complements my outfit and wrap it around my head and go out for a bite. I’ll pretend like everything is fine when inside me, I am unhappy. I’ll laugh about an incident that happened a day ago and adjust my scarf well if it happens to slide down. We’ll spend an hour or two catching up and I will go home, where I will immediately discard my scarf. The day comes to an end and I will sleep and then wake up to yet another day that I will do the same – wear the hijab not because I want to, but because I was asked to.

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My personal Hajj experience

As the fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj is a religious duty of each Muslim around the world. It is said in the Holy Qur’an that a Muslim must partake in Hajj at least once in a lifetime, unless unable to do so due to financial and other personal reasons.
To me, it was a scary thought. Hajj isn’t easy they say, Hajj tests you in all ways they say, Hajj is a sacrifice they say, Hajj is a blessing they say. I’d heard too many stories, possibly not much. Whatever I’d heard, I’d seen on the television and tried to imagine through photographs couldn’t do justice to the experience itself however.

I was scared, I was nervous and I was also just as excited.

Saudi Arabia is not as daunting as many would say it is. Yes, life becomes a little monotonous there but it is the spirit of Islamic brotherhood, the inner faith and undying love for religion that keep the people going and their lives moving ahead each day. For there is nothing else to offer in the city of Makkah except prayer, supplication and faith.
We reached there on a Monday. Ten kilometres away from Makkah (on flight) pilgrims are asked to enter a state of holiness (known as Ihram). Men’s outfits consist of two seamless clothes and for the women ordinary maxi-like dresses (often in white or a pale colour). In heart and mind, the intention to perform the pilgrimage is declared. The ideology behind entering into Ihram is to show equality amongst all pilgrims; there is no difference between one another.

The Haram and the Kaa'ba
The Haram and the Kaa’ba

Tawaf and Sa’ay
Upon entering Makkah (after waiting in the airport and struggling with personal luggage, travelling a couple of miles to get to the hotel, taking a small nap and once again getting ready to leave – still in the state of Ihram) pilgrims perform a welcoming Tawaf. Tawaf means walking seven times counter clockwise around the Kaa’ba. To those who don’t know what the Kaa’ba is, it is a cube-like building covered in a black cloth. Known as the House of Allah, it is located within the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah and is the most sacred location in Islam as during all prayers conducted around the world, Muslims face the Kaa’ba direction. I should add that this is not to be associated with idol worship for the Kaa’ba is representative of the House of Allah in the heavens. The direction of which all Muslims pray towards is what is most significant in this act.

Our Tawaf was conducted in the heat of the afternoon. This was a test of strength and faith. One can do this at one’s own pace but as Hajj is most often conducted in groups, it is best to stick with the group and perform each ritual together. Once Tawaf is completed, pilgrims are asked to conduct two rakaat prayers by Makam Ibrahim. This is another important site within the Masjid Al-Haram. Prayers are followed by drinking holy water known as Zam-Zam. The original well was located in close proximity to the Kaa’ba but today the well is closed up and the water is available in multiple locations around the entire Haram.

The next step is known as Sa’ay. This is the act of running or walking between the two hills, Safa and Marwah seven times. Before the expansion of the Haram, this was conducted in open air and on bare ground. Today Sa’ay can be performed inside the Haram, in a cool air-conditioned space and on three separate levels. On either side of this pathway are remains of the two hills. After Sa’ay the men shave their heads and the women clip a portion of their hair. Once this is complete, the state of Ihram can be removed.
We were given a day’s rest before we moved to Mina.

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Mina

 

Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah
Mina is where Hajj begins. Mina would be our home for the next three to five days. We had to pack light and also ensure the bags were small for we would also be travelling to Arafat for a day and Muzdalifah for a night.

Before heading to Mina, we had to once again enter into a state of Ihram. This must be kept until we returned to Mina, which used to be bare land. Those who partook in the pilgrimage decades ago would tell you they had to sleep under the starry skies on the bare ground. Today, it is filled with thousands of tents and cushioned sofa beds for added comfort. The Hajj pilgrim in today’s world does not truly in that sense experience Mina. We spent a single day there and then headed to Arafat on Thursday night.
Arafat is quite similar to Mina but there are no comforts in terms of cushioned sofas here. Pilgrims often come prepared with floor mats and bedding instead. The group scholar delivers a sermon firstly. The significance of doing this is because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his last sermon on this very ground. It is here, that pilgrims then offer supplication, repent and atone for their sins and seek forgiveness. One can do so from noon onwards and this is known as ‘standing before God’ (Wukuf). Hajj is incomplete if this is not performed.

By evening, pilgrims leave for Muzdalifah. Here, there are no tents. We slept under the starry skies after gathering small pebbles for the next part of Hajj. On Saturday morning we returned to Mina. This was the day of Eid ul-Adha, Hajj festival. It is also the first of three days where pilgrims walk to Jamaraat and demonstrate the stoning of the devil. Three large stone pillars exist in Jamaraat. These pillars signify the devil. Each pillar can be stoned on each of the three days.
Once this is complete, a few more rituals such as an animal sacrifice and trimming of the hair follow. On the same or following day (Monday) we returned to Makkah and performed a final Tawaf in completing Hajj around the Kaa’ba on Tuesday.

Inside the first floor of the Haram
Inside the first floor of the Haram

A change
On a personal note, there are no true ‘difficulties’ during Hajj except for having to deal with large crowds of people, the blazing heat of the desert land and perhaps having to use a common washroom at all times. Even though the crowd can get overwhelming, even though the heat can dehydrate you (it did!) and even though the washrooms are not all that clean at all times, you somehow pull through it all. That I find is the most amazing thing about going through this enlightening experience. On a normal occasion, I would never have survived and made a huge fuss about everything but over there, on holy ground, it’s different. You are different. You find that you are stronger, patient and more determined than you think. Strong enough to walk miles from place to place, deal with the heat, be patient enough to face trying ordeals and determined enough to finish what you came to do.

People are right when they say that Hajj changes you. Maybe not drastically but in some ways at least. There’s an inner part of you that is completely satisfied, a part of you that is amazed, a part of you that is also a little sad that it’s all over, and a part of you that longs to go back once more.

 

**As published in the Ceylon Today newspapers**