In light of recent debates about the H-word, Afia R Fitriati reflects on her own hijab journey.
I started wearing the hijab in my last year of high school. Before the first semester of that year began, my school made it compulsory for every Muslim student to participate in a religious camp. The mentor for the girls’ camp was a stern lady who made me feel that I was definitely going to hell because I didn’t cover myself from head to toe and because I kept coming up with critical questions that sometimes made my parents angry.
But that wasn’t what made me don the hijab.
I guess it has always been in my nature to make sense of an idea first before taking heed of it. The mentor’s words of advice didn’t make sense to me because none of my elders, including my late grandmother who ran a religious school in a remote area in Java, wore the waist-length head cover – defined by the coach as the only definition of the hijab. My grandmother’s head cover had been a light, semi-translucent shawl wrapped loosely around her head, leaving part of her hair and her neck exposed. So, was she saying that my dear beloved grandmother was going to hell?
The final year began and I went to school as usual – and found out that one of my close friends had started wearing the hijab to school. As she was an athlete (and this was back in the day when hijab styles were limited), I was curious about her decision.
I began studying carefully about the idea of the hijab, and suddenly it felt right to me to put it on as a means to please God. It was a very personal decision to me; one that was not influenced by anyone else’s opinion except my own. In fact, my parents were quite surprised with my decision because I was the first person in both sides of my extended family who decided to cover up.
But I had made up my mind, so my mother took me to the market to shop for hijab-friendly schoolgirls clothes . They were ridiculously hard to find at the time. My mother had to hire a tailor to make long-sleeved dresses for me. Even then, my father frequently complained that my clothes looked drab and outdated.
On the other hand, I relished the new experiences that I gained with my new outfit. I didn’t have to worry about how I crossed my legs. My new look seemed to make me appear more formidable among boys. At the same time, I gradually realised that with my new outfit, came new expectations and limitations. Hijabis were often mistaken as ‘saints’, and I no longer could participate in swimming class (there were no burkinis yet in those years).
But new expectations took on a whole new meaning when I continued my studies in the United States. Even though this was before 9/11, I still experienced the discriminative attitudes that some people had towards hijab-wearing women. Meanwhile back home, more and more of my friends and my sisters started to wear the hijab as well, and hijab clothing vendors were becoming increasingly easier to find. The hijab fashion trend wave had just begun.
As the years went on, I continued to experience a variety of struggles that were more or less related to my choice to cover: the conundrum of finding a workplace where covered women were welcome, social pressures and the constant feeling of being the odd one out. I’ve been through different periods where no hijab-wearing women were seen on Indonesia’s televisions. Today, hijabi presenters and brand ambassadors are a normal phenomenon (yes, I’m old). I guess those experiences have enabled me to appreciate and empathise with the many complexities and debates surrounding the H-word today.
I just wish that one day people would stop thinking of and treating the hijab as a contentious thing. I don’t need a beauty pageant to defend my choice to wear the hijab or set me apart from non-hijabis. I don’t like people to think negatively of my sisters who chose to no longer don the veil as much as I don’t like people to question my choice to put it on.
The debate about hijab should be between me and God only; it is not a political debate, nor a fashion debate where hem length seems to matter more than humanitarian issues. If Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks can walk around with peace of mind in their chosen outfits, why can’t Muslim women – whether they wear the hijab or not – do the same?
I think the recent ad campaign of an Ontario hospital summarises my hope of how Muslims and non-Muslims should view the hijab: ‘We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.’[i]
Because after all, that is how God views all of us.