Unapologetically Muslim, I know, I know another article telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing as a Muslim, about how important it is to embrace hijab as a Muslim woman. Well, this article is not about telling women whether they should wear the hijab or not; it is. however. about empowering women to embrace their full identity as Muslims so they can live out the truest expression of themselves. In today’s Islamophobic society, Muslim women often feel they have to diminish or denounce their beliefs in order to be successful, that somehow if they practice their faith less, if they model their hijab or clothing to mirror that of non-Muslims, they will somehow be more accepted in society. It doesn’t work that way. If anything, when Muslim women do this, they create confusion about what hijab actually means and what is its overall purpose. As a Muslim woman born to Muslim parents, I must say I struggled with hijab for a time. I struggled with observing a physical hijab–yes hijab is defined as being visual, physical and ethical—and as an adolescent, I felt that hijab prohibited me from having the friends, experiences, job and ultimately the free, fun-loving life I wanted to lead. Until I had started attending college, I considered myself a devout follower of Islam, someone who attended the weekly Muslim Jumah religious worship every single Friday except when I had major examinations at college. I also proudly stood up for my faith at every opportunity; whenever someone had questions, I would put on my cape and swoop down to offer up how non-threatening Islam was, answer their question or address their concern. But at that time, I wasn’t wearing the hijab for me, I was wearing it because my parents had told me this was what was prescribed in the Quran.
As I alluded to earlier, by the time I reached senior year in high school, I was exhausted being the face of Islam and carrying the weight of everything Islamic on my shoulders. While I don’t have experience with what it was like to grow up as a teen post 9/11, I do know what it’s like to grow up pre- and post-Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). I recall one incident when I was in my sophomore year, I was riding the train to get to school. That day was my first experience with blatant religious discrimination on the 45-minute ride to school on the 1-Train. I remember feeling uneasy as the doors closed behind me that morning. I took my usual perch by the door as there were usually no seats on the train. It didn’t take me long to notice a middle-aged Caucasian woman, from behind her spectacles, she fixated her eyes on me in disgust. I’m not sure what about me or which part of my outfit set her off, whether it my all-black hijab that swooped in the front, draped over my mustard yellow coat, or my black Henley top that peeked slightly from under my waist-length coat. Or, was it possibly my blue jeans that were slightly tucked into my black Dr. Marten boots that all the kids were rocking at the time? Whatever triggered her, she let her intentions for her disapproving stare be known as soon as we locked eyes. “This is what’s wrong with this country”, she said. Part of me wanted to look away, but another part of me wanted to hear what she had to say. “My son is over fighting for this country because of you,” she said in disgust. I looked behind me, confused. I thought to myself she was possibly talking to someone else. As a 14-year old high school student, my knowledge was limited to what I read in the newspaper or the friendly morning debates in American History or Humanities class. My parents taught me to keep a low profile on the train and to be respectful, so I showed restraint and withheld any response. But she continued for the duration of the train ride with her vitriol. I never took my eyes away from her and remained silent, perplexed.
I thought to myself, I wasn’t personally responsible for the war. I come from a family who had had served in two generations in the armed services for this country. I was still silent, our eyes locked as she continued, while was I charting the path of my life and trying to figure things out for myself. So, what did I have to do with her son fighting in the war, why was she fixated on me? It wasn’t until years later that I understood her rant wasn’t personal, it had nothing to do with me.
That incident on the train. and others like it, became major contributing factors in me removing my hijab 2 years later. I’m certain my hijab-clad friends can relate and have their own story about struggling with hijab. I knew I loved Islam, but I didn’t have a full understanding of why I wore the hijab, and in spite of having learned to recite and even memorize the Quran, I had never fully understood the verses that expounded the meaning of hijab for myself. But now, I know them well and the verses of 24:30-31, 24:60, 33:53 and 33:59-60 resonate with me in ways they did not when I knew Islam second-hand, interpreted by my parents. I would spend the next 13 years at a distance from my religion and working to figure things out for myself, and still another 7 years trying to figure out how I was going to make the transition forward not only as a practicing Muslim but an identifiable Muslim. This was the start, perhaps not the full extent of what it means to be “Unapologetically Muslim” but a needed first step all the same.
In the corporate world, many of the Muslim women I encountered did not cover with the hijab, something that brought back memories of my first day on college campus and the consequent years. But I wanted to reclaim the faith I loved and the most significant aspect for me was being a visible Muslim, which meant that in a world where hijab is not readily accepted, I wanted to embrace wearing hijab. I wanted to embody what it meant to be Muslim, to become a role model, something I didn’t have myself when growing up, the visible examples of successful Muslim women who chose to wear hijab. For me, it’s one thing to say you’re a Muslim and still another to be “unapologetically Muslim,” adhering to all the tenants of the faith. Part of this transition meant that I would work a 60-hour week, skipping lunch so I could take a 2-hour lunch on Fridays to attend Jumah. And while attending Jumah prayer is not obligatory for women in Islam, I have found the experience to be truly beneficial to increasing my knowledge and acquiring a sense of support and community.
After having my own spiritual awakening, I started having more open conversations with other women who were tired of living the lie themselves. I read once that a woman truly embraces religion around age 35; here I was at 36 experiencing a revival of faith. I was searching for a reason for living, a purpose, if you will, and the more women I encountered in my travels, women who were struggling with practicing their faith and becoming successful in business, the more I knew I wanted to help by sharing my own story. The 20 years that I spent finding myself and studying other religions had prepared me for what has now been 4 of the most amazing years of my life. By unapologetically embracing all of who I am, I have somehow helped others to have the courage to do the same.
Love What Comes
What kept me away from the religion for so long was this need to prove that I was everything a Muslim wasn’t, that I needed to somehow become this successful person and show people what I was for them to accept the face I would inevitably show them when I put my hijab back on. I was resisting the desire to be this spiritual person who craved to be connected to source, to have a relationship with God, and let’s face it, wearing hijab is not the most popular profile.
But I love everything hijab stands for, I love that it shows that I’m Muslim and that I’m proud to have a connection with my creator. There are days when my hijab is uncooperative, when I prick myself with a hijab pin or I find my it sliding to one side. These days remind me that I’m not perfect, that I have flaws, not the religion. Being “Unapologetically Muslim” means I believe in Islam as my way to connect to God, seeking and striving to please my Creator while here on this side of life. Now when I’m met with stares and the occasional unwelcome outburst, I take it as an opportunity to educate the other, either by ignoring or having a teachable moment with the inquisitive other. I’m confident in my choice to practice my religion openly, no longer needing the approval of others to affirm this choice, and I’m no longer craving to outwardly demonstrate how Muslim I am or need to be. I acknowledge that I have human emotions like everyone else, sometimes I feel like crying, or I get frustrated, sad and even angry. Being unapologetic means not having to apologize for being human or being Muslim. It means no longer needing to explain away the news, and honestly, I have stopped watching the news on a daily basis 4 years ago and rather keeping up with current events in doses, allowing me to take control back the energy I allow into my space. I am no longer trying to make amends for people I know or I don’t know, Muslim or otherwise, who have done something wrong, or not.
Instead, I spend my time as my authentic self, living out the truest version of myself. Working to help others find their own way, offering up advice after a stage play, a workshop or lecture, spending time answering questions, some basic and others bordering on the absurd. I welcome them all just the same, they help me embrace my religion more, while the questions push me to increase knowledge on the subject of hijab and women in Islam. Welcoming questions is an opportunity for many non-Muslims to have a positive encounter with a Muslim and possibly dispel some of their pre-conceived notions or misconceptions. I am no longer coming from a place of needing them to feel a certain way after our encounter. My life, values, morals and practice of my religion remain intact, whether they agree or not. As Surah 49 ayat 13 reads, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (Not that ye despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things).”
That God created us in tribes resonates with me as I strive to empower and educate others about the implication and application of hijab in today’s modern times. This is not just speaking about race, it really speaks to all of our intersectionalities and through this awareness, we can better acknowledge and become grounded in the differences among us. God created us different not so that we judge and condemn one another but so that we can share ideas, learn to appreciate our own and come together for the greater good of humanity. No matter your religion, I pray that you say “Not Without My Hijab” (not without my divine covering) by shining your light as an Unapologetic Muslim and that you unconsciously inspire others to do the same, creating a world full of authentic people bringing their whole selves to the table.
Halimah DeOliveira a New York native, Speaker, Author and Coach specializing in workshops and events for Muslim Women and other Women of faith offering empowerment, resources and education to uplift the narrative of muslims. Halimahâ€™s â€œNot Without My Hijab Platformâ€ has held a few dozen workshops, written an 11 step self-help guide and produced a national Stage-play in two short years. Through these endeavors Halimah aims to create a diverse community of women who together make a social impact further strengthening our communities both locally and globally. Visit her website atÂ www.beyouinhd.comÂ to find out more about her current projects and upcoming events.