Before I met my Malay Muslims, hijab was for me the most irreconcilable of all the differences in Islam.I could not accept that such a restrictive code of dress was reasonable, and honestly, the fact that Muslim women were pressured to dress this way made me angry.
Now, seven years later, I still find hijab to be a bit at odds with my world and my faith. But I'm no longer mad about it. I finally understand why Muslimas dress the way they do, and I can happily accept their way of life
My journey to understanding was not easy or fast, and I did a lot of kicking and screaming along the way. As it turned out, my mind, heart and soul each needed to stretch and grow so that I could accept what hijab truly means.
Headscarf styles vary widely, depending on age, event, and personal sense of style. This bride is rocking a glittery headband over a sheer veil atop a snug lacy headscarf, and the grandmas are totally old school. I personally love them all.
Intellectually, I struggled to understand why Muslim women should spend their lives in shrouds. My heart broke to see the young Muslim girls at our school, wild and free in their childhood, suddenly withdraw from playground games as they grew older and were expected to keep head scarves in place and ankles covered at all times. During our annual trips to the water park, while the Christian girls enjoyed the slides and swimming pools in reasonably modest one-piece swimsuits with board shorts, the Muslim girls either sat around and watched, or jumped into the water, hoodies, jeans, headscarves and all. Emotionally, my heart ached for their loss of freedom and I felt my first pangs of anger at a religion that demands a sacrifice of playfulness for what seemed to me like a never-ending campaign to stamp out their innocent sexuality. And my soul deeply desired that Muslim women could understand the joy and beauty of their own bodies, not hidden away as a secret but confidently shared with the world.
My journey toward understanding began in earnest when I met my Malay Muslims.
I began to ask questions about hijab.
A lot of questions.
And I tried to be tactful but sometimes I was just angry and pestering and persistent.
Why do you wear hijab?
Doesn't it make you angry?
Do you assume western women are all sluts because of how they dress?
Why is it fair that women have to cover from head to toe when men can wear almost anything?
I listened as my new friends patiently explained.
Wearing hijab cuts down on unwanted attention from strange men.
We don't waste as much time and money on our appearance as you Western women do.
Covering up is what we Muslim women do to help our brothers avoid temptation.
Modest dress ensures that rape is not a problem in our world as it is in yours.
Hijab isn't just for women; men are required to dress modestly and cover their aurat as well.
But my overactive brain picked apart every rationalization offered to me, and my frustration grew.
Until one day, when I was ranting away on the topic to my first and best Malaysian friend, Jurie.
"How would you like it," I demanded, "if you had to wrap yourself from head to toe in cloth every day, never to feel the sun on your arms or the wind in your hair or the waves lapping at your bare legs?"
And he answered in a way I never expected: "If I was a woman, I would be glad to do it because that is what God asks of me."
All my angry push-backs melted away in an instant.
Of course. The Muslim dress code is not an intellectual requirement - it is an act of faith. Muslim women dress as they do for one simple reason - to please God.
And that is a choice that I can truly understand.
The number and variety of headscarves available for sale at Kuala Lumpur's largest pasar malam - night market - will blow your mind. Trust me, I think we looked at each and every one.
When I made my first trip to Malaysia, I couldn't wait to see how hijab habits play out in real life. Do the Muslimas don their headscarves in drudgery, suffering through their public day and yanking them off again in great relief when they return home? Will they be embarrassed and shy to show their hair to me? What will they think of me, with my head brazenly uncovered and my pale American legs bare in the tropical heat?
Now, all Muslim cultures are not the same and that is particularly true when it comes to customs of dress. Malaysian women do not wear the solid black burkas of the Middle East nor the somber tones and heavy fabrics of many American Muslim women.
Like the tropical birds that they are, Malaysian Muslimas cover themselves
in all manner of brilliant colors and bright prints,
intricately folded and ruffled headscarves held in place with bedazzled pins and clips;
high heels flashing under their skirts,
designer handbags on their arms.
Their headscarves are just one more element of their stylish ensembles and honestly, just one more fun reason to go shopping.
And while it's true that my Muslim women friends do usually pull off their headscarves as soon as they walk in the door at the end of the day, they are no more or less eager than I am to kick off my shoes and put on yoga pants. Shaking off their scarves and straightening their pony tails, my friends did not seem to wonder for one moment about what I thought of all this - headscarves are just a part of life, unworthy of comment or consideration.
Did the Malaysians judge or shame me for my code of dress? Well, that's a complicated answer. My friends didn't blink an eye at what I wore, but some members of the older generations did look a bit uncomfortable. Jurie came to my rescue once again, suggesting that I certainly was welcome to wear whatever I wanted, but I might avoid some stares by covering my legs.
That did not offend me. We all respond emotionally to how others dress, and if a woman from the Amazon showed up topless at my house, I would probably offer her a tank top to wear around town.
Sure enough, a pair of leggings worn under my skirt seemed to calm everyone down and that was an emotional response I can truly understand.
My favorite Malaysian playmate sporting her favorite fashion look.
One of the great joys of my visits to Malaysia has been getting to know Jurie's daughter. Aleesya was three when I first met her, sassy and playful and full of high spirits. I silently mourned to see her heading off the preschool dressed in her proper little Muslima uniform complete with a chin-choking headscarf, and I felt sad for what I assumed to be the burden of hijab that her little soul must bear.
One of my happy privileges during my visits has been giving Aleesya her baths. Just as with my own baby girls, this simple task grew into great rituals:
making gravity-defying shampoo hairdos,
playfully dumping buckets of water onto the waterproof floor,
wrapping her up in her towel like a little burrito and singing Rockabye Baby,
powdering every little wrinkle and fold of her sturdy brown body,
and brushing out her tangled hair.
But Aleesya added a special twist of her own. Each time, as I attempted to wrangle her into her fresh clothes, she would put her underwear on top of her head, adjusting it so her face was looking out one of the leg holes, and proudly exclaim, "Tudung!"
Tudung means headscarf.
Oh my gosh. Just as my little girls pulled white socks over their hands and up their arms, pretending they were wearing fancy long gloves, Aleesya was play-acting at being a beautiful woman by donning her underwear tudung.
She did not see the headscarf as an object of oppression. To this little girl, the tudung represents womanly beauty, and she was already itching for a piece of the action.
And that is a sweet dream that I can truly understand.
They don't look too oppressed to me.
Now make no mistake, I am still not quite completely on board with the concept of hijab.
As a westerner, I consider my arms and legs to be fit for public display and will always cringe at the idea of giving up the personal freedom to dress as I like.
And as a Christian, I struggle to wrap my head around the idea that my God is one and the same as the Muslim God, Allah, yet He asks such extraordinarily different things from us.
Those ideas are not likely to change any time soon.
But now, thanks to my Malay friends, I totally understand that Muslim men and women alike view hijab as an obedient response to God's will, and to them, that manner of dress seems acceptable and normal and downright fun.
I'm not mad about hijab any more.
I love and accept my friends' differences without fear or frustration.
And I might just be a fan of the underwear tudung.