What the Niqab Taught Me About Myself As A Muslim Convert and a Latina
The year 2019 is only few weeks in and already has its very own social media challenge, the “How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge,” with its accompanying hashtags, the #10YearChallenge, #2009vs2019, or for the more seasoned veterans, #1999vs2009. The goal? Compare how your appearance has changed over the past decade or two. Have you aged gracefully or are you a hot mess compared to when you were younger? Simply find an old picture of yourself and place side by side with a current picture, post on social media with the appropriate hashtag, and voila! Let your followers comment away and tell you how gorgeous you are, lie about how you haven’t changed a bit, or laugh at the photos of you with no facial hair or loads of acne.
I have only started sharing pictures of myself recently on Facebook as a means of rekindling relationships with distant relatives, but the temptations to cave in to the latest social media trends pop up every now and then. I was thinking of finding a picture from 2009, but then it dawned on me that a lot more than my appearance has changed since that year. In fact, there would be little benefit in trying to compare a picture of me from 2009 with a picture of me now on Facebook, because back then my face was covered. I was wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil). It has been so long since I stopped wearing it that I had almost forgotten.
In 2009 I was just returning to the US from Egypt, still high off an increase in iman (faith) after being in a Muslim land surrounded by towering minarets, the melody of a dozen adhans, and the sight and smell of the street markets where smiling Muslims sold warm flatbread and falafels. I started reflecting on why I had chosen to wear a face veil, and then later remove it. To me, that has more weight than how many wrinkles I have gained in ten years.
A little background… Prior to moving to Egypt to study Arabic for a year, my husband and I were living in Northern New Jersey. We were attending a predominately African-American mosque in Paterson which strictly adhered to what they described as the “Salafi” methodology, taking guidance mostly from a list of “approved” Saudi scholars. As such, most of the women who attended the mosque dressed in all black and wore niqab. Some of them wore niqab “full time,” while others only wore it to and from the mosque and at Islamic gatherings. The male congregants often complained or inquired (for marital purposes) about the sisters whose faces were uncovered, causing newcomers to often feel awkward and uncomfortable, myself included. Most sisters opted to bring along a niqab to wear to the masjid rather than deal with unwanted attention and unsolicited marriage proposals.
Before you, the reader, make any assumptions about this masjid based on the above, I want to express that I still consider it to be one of the most welcoming centers I have ever attended. There was a warm, family atmosphere that I have only found in one other mosque in the years that I have been Muslim. The sisters helped each other in taking care of the children, they never reprimanded anyone for bringing their young children to the mosque, they hosted regular classes for free (up to three or four times a week), the imam was approachable and relatable (a convert, himself), and they were very particular about following the Sunnah to the most minute detail.
Nevertheless, as the Spanish saying goes and the Prophetic hadith confirms, Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres (Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are), you are on the religion of your close friend (At-Tirmidhi), so I believe my decision to don a niqab was prompted by this environment. As a convert, I was even more inclined to follow the people around me. I would not say I was completely ignorant; I did read about the reasons why women wear niqab, general ahadith about hijab, and different scholarly opinions. I also knew that eventually my husband and I would be moving overseas, and I thought it would be easier to wear it in a Muslim land. Why not get a head start, I thought. What I failed to grasp was the lifetime commitment that it necessitated.
One thing that I was not willing to do was disclose this choice to my parents. As a Latina, Puerto Rican, and ARMY brat, there was no way that my family would accept such a thing. It had been challenging enough to get them to tolerate the headscarf. Telling them that I would be wearing all black and covering my face would either enrage them or give them a heart attack, or both. Likewise, some of my husband’s family, like his 90-year-old grandmother, would probably not take it well.
Being Latino and Muslim around non-Muslim family is, for a lack of words, crazy hard. Aside from some aspects of our cultural traditions that need to be tweaked to make them halal, we tend to be very affectionate, family-oriented people, and that includes with extended family. Forget navigating the corporate world without shaking hands with a woman as a Muslim man, try not kissing all your 50 male cousins on the cheek at a family gathering! Women from Latin America also tend to be meticulous when it comes to their looks. Some of the conversations that I have had with my mother, even as an adult, go something like this:
Mom: Why don’t you just wear the scarf with a pair of pants?
Me: Ma, I have to cover my figure.
Mom: But you look like a vieja (old woman). You’re so palida (pale), put some make-up on.
Me: I did… er… put a little bit.
Mom: Don’t listen to your husband, you don’t have to be submissive to him! Here’s some lipstick (pulls out red lipstick from purse and begins to smear it on me).
I couldn’t even imagine the telenovela type of drama that would unfold if I tried to cover my face. The compromise was that I would wear the niqab as much as I could, but never around my parents or my husband’s family. I stocked up on black abayas and long khimars, along with the Saudi niqabs that tied in the back and had an extra thin veil that flapped over the eyes for extra coverage, should I feel the need. I later realized that wearing this style of all black or even very dark colors was more of a regional thing, than a strict ruling. I could have just as easily, and comfortably, covered my face with one of my colored scarves. But, alas, as the saying goes, we live and learn. When anyone asked me, “Why do you wear all black?” I used to respond, “It makes me look thinner!”
Contrary to popular opinion, the niqab was not restrictive, it was empowering. As an introvert, I welcomed the sense of privacy and complete ownership of my personal space. If I cried, I could do so without displaying my vulnerability to the world. If I smiled, I could do it from ear to ear without being self-conscious about something being stuck in my teeth! It also tamed my Latino non-verbal communication methods of exaggerated body language and hand gestures that I had been told by some “born Muslims” were not compatible with the modesty and manners of a Muslim woman (I stopped believing that after living in Egypt).
But, of course, with this empowerment came great responsibility. If before, with hijab, I was a billboard for Islam, now, with a niqab, I was a billboard for oppression. On the one hand, non-Muslims looked at me with disdain or pity, and on the other, fellow Muslims either saw me as an extremist or looked up to me like I had vast amounts of knowledge, like the niqab and abaya were my cap and gown and I had just graduated with a PhD from Islam University.
There is something about the niqab that brings out other people’s insecurities. Either they feel guilty because they put you, the niqabi, on a high pedestal of understanding and spirituality (even though you do not deserve it), or they are envious for not having the courage to also wear it (giving more importance to a piece of fabric rather than their relationship with Allah), or they hate niqab with a passion, think you are absolutely crazy for wearing it, and they constantly lecture you about how it’s not obligatory. This added stress, ridiculous accusations, and false expectations make wearing niqab a real test of faith, in which one can easily fall prey to arrogance, self-aggrandizement, religious doubt, exhaustion, or even depression. I felt like the best way to avoid these issues was to isolate myself from people.
I wore the niqab for two years mostly on, but sometimes off. I found it easy to wear in New Jersey, especially surrounded by other sisters who wore it, and in Egypt, where it provided the extra benefit of filtering the sand, dust, houka and exhaust fumes. I felt comfortable and well-protected. However, it was when we returned from Egypt that I started noticing the increasingly negative attention I was getting from strangers for the way I dressed.
In one incident, a couple of Latina women began speaking about me in Spanish, not knowing that I could understand their conversation. I was standing behind them in line at a store in the mall with my 2-year-old in a stroller. They were saying, “Poor kid, having to be raised by ‘that’ in that horrible culture.” They shook their heads and looked at me condescendingly. Rather than be confrontational (I was pregnant at the time), I simply turned to my son and started speaking to him in Spanish, making sure they overheard. Both women turned away embarrassed. I thanked Allah for the niqab, because my cheeks were burning out of anger.
Similar incidents occurred to me whenever I would go out, but it was when I moved to Maryland that I felt afraid for my safety and that of my children. At that point, my eldest was 2 and a half years old and my second was a baby. The verbal abuse came more frequently. I was called a terrorist by Walmart employees in front of my children. I was also violently confronted at a gas station, while my children were in the car, by a man who thought I had been staring at his wife, even though I was not even looking her way (I guess he couldn’t tell because my face was covered). A gentleman who worked at a grocery store where my husband and I would frequently do our shopping stopped us and demanded to know why my husband forced me to “dress like that.” Again, in front of our children. These hate-driven incidents grew until I could no longer go outside alone out of fear.
I started to feel helpless and lost. The niqab no longer offered me a sense of closeness to Allah or protection. Not only was it a physical veil, but it had also begun to obscure who I was as a person. I questioned why I was wearing niqab, and I questioned why I was questioning it. I read and reread fatwas, articles, and books about hijab, and make du’a for guidance and strength. I no longer had a community of niqabi sisters to support me, and as I learned more about Islam, I saw that things were not as black and white as they had once seemed. I realized eventually that I was guilt-shaming myself for something that I had never considered obligatory in the first place.
Once I resolved to take it off, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary. Alhamdulillah, I sought advice from a friend about my struggle and surprisingly, she shared with me her own failed niqab story. She had also worn it and removed it after years for the same reasons, and although some people in the masjid shunned her for some time, she felt it was the best course of action for her and her family. She reassured me that it was my decision and advised me to seek comfort in the mercy of Allah.
When I removed the niqab, I started to find myself again. Now, ten years later, I feel reconnected with my culture and have accepted that I can be Puerto Rican while being a Muslim, and that I can be modest while maintaining my identity. I understand now that the process of converting and then really “owning” your faith take time, and we will hit many bumps along our journey. Wearing the niqab was part of my learning process, and I appreciate both the good and the bad from it. So, for those who want to compare how they looked ten years ago to now, I challenge you to instead reflect on how much you have learned about yourself.
Note: This reflection is by no means a criticism of the niqab. Many sisters, some Latinas, wear niqab with pride, and the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us. May Allah make your personal journeys easy. Ameen.