If it isn’t clear already, I am not a hijabi. But while other young Muslim women would express disapproval (in a not-so-keen patriarchal tactic of pitting women against each other) at the trope of the hijabi who goes clubbing with her friends and wears vivid makeup while simultaneously donning a “modest” persona, I would almost always immediately arrive at her defense. I love the stealth hijabi. Other than the fact that I don’t wear a headscarf, I am the stealth hijabi. I’m the woman who removes her pantyhose as soon as she walks out of her front door.
You see, the stealth hijabi doesn’t actually do anything wrong. She doesn’t drink or gamble or gossip—her biggest “shortcoming” is disobedience. (And dancing, apparently, but we’ll get to that in a different post.) She does not mean to be deceitful. Unlike her falsely attributed counterpart, the man who drinks and sleeps around yet demands a virgin wife, she does not impose her judgments on others or set double standards for the opposite sex.
Arguably this is a variety of the stealth hijabi—granted I never did sneak off to parties late at night. I did, however, go to the library in the afternoon on weekends while my mother, at work, had no idea, and also to the movies with friends I haven’t seen for a long time. And how did I justify this? It is not easy to lie to one’s mother, but the way I saw it, I was restoring something of mine that is a right, and something I needed from which I had been continuously obstructed. In my childhood I never went to sleepovers or hosted them, I didn’t see a movie in theaters until Pirates of the Caribbean 3 in high school, never went shopping with friends until university. None of these things are against Islam, but they are against the overprotective regulations of my mother, who cannot to this day allow me to run to the store alone.
To understand this, you should know two things. The first is that immigrant parents, though they come from countries that are a thousand times more dangerous than the US (or at least mine did), can not move past their fears of the unfamiliar to the reality that this nation is more foreign and foreboding to them than it is to their children. Though my mother knows from evidence that I can demonstrably get myself out of any situation, she’s convinced that I’ll be left stranded somewhere and she’ll have no way to reach me—even if that “somewhere” is less than ten miles away, and even if, had we resided in her country of birth, she would have allowed me to travel anywhere in the city I desired despite the higher risk.
The second is that I was abused as a child, and my mother also endured domestic violence.
Let me explain the resulting dynamics by starting from the beginning: When I was very little–about four to five years old–I would invent new toys from our old toys for my little brother (who was one to two at the time). He would wake up from his nap and play with them. When he tired of them I would take them apart and make new toys again, and he would return to playing with them with new interest. When my mother was asleep I would sneak out with my brother and take him to the park and push him on the swings and we would run back home before my mom woke up. (Until she discovered, at which point we ceased.)
As we grew older we were growing accustomed to our little world–and it was an abusive one. Except the abuse didn’t stop with the perpetrator. I was very soft at school, attentive, responsive, bright–at home I turned into a monster. I became extremely controlling. I stopped making things for my bother to play with–I took things from him instead. Especially if these things were books I wanted to read, or time on the computer (we only had one then), anything–anything!–that would allow me to escape. He needed to play too, but he was young. I was three years older and that means I had the power. And I used it.
I cried often. (So did he.) And I continued to take things from him, because if because of the abuse I couldn’t have control over myself then I had to have control over someone else! In a few long years my brother watched the sister who had told him stories and made things for him to play with and never yelled at him even once and made excuses for him when he broke something or made a mess turn into someone absolutely unjust that he was forced to hate.
Eventually, I learned to live with what was happening to both of us (an opportunity my brother never had because he had no way to act out), and I came back around again. (“We all return to our nature,” my mother once said.) But the damage was done.
Although I was always aware of the devastating irony that my mother did not want me to leave the house in fear that some danger would befall me when in fact my own house was the most dangerous place I could be, it took me a long time to realize that my obsessive controlling nature toward my brother as a result of the abuse was almost exactly like the overprotective nature of my mother toward us. (She was much kinder though, and genuinely was afraid she would lose me to a world of kidnappers and murderers.) I have no doubt that she already had the inclination to be overprotective, all factors considered, and overprotection is not intrinsically a negative thing that stunts the joys of childhood, but had we not been in this position, she would have been freer and more open with allowing us to participate in regular activities of which childhood is composed. And indeed, as the atmosphere of our lives shifted, she began to accept that she couldn’t supervise me at all times–and shouldn’t.
The reacquisition of my freedom, and the right to live my life, was something I deserved, something I saw–and still see–as rightfully mine, the retribution of a deprived childhood.
Those who insist that Muslim women who engage in supposedly religiously dubious activities whilst modestly dressed are championing a façade of modesty are as mistaken as those who insist it is just an “expected” natural rebellion against the restraints of an intensely confined society that does not allow them freedom. Both these allegations fail to compassionately approach the structural complexity of subverting two patriarchies and neglect to recognize the stealth hijabi—and the Muslim woman—as an agent fully seizing her opportunities and her personhood to play the system and restore her rights within her Moral framework. The approach of the stealth hijabi to life is a careful and restorative one, and not the irresponsible “damaged beyond redemption” state that Muslims suppose or the simple “rebellious child” that non-Muslims perceive.
The woman taking off her pantyhose as she walks out of her house isn’t intentionally duplicitous. Nor is she a helpless thing to be saved who is slipping out of one patriarchy and stepping into another. She is fully conscious of her identity, a lover of beauty and of quiet pleasures; she may arguably be a coward for avoiding confrontation—or she may be too tired to give a damn anymore.
There is a point of recognizing that not only is there no explanation owed, there is no time to deliver one.
And while I can understand, as a woman who does not wear a headscarf, the bitter temptation to disparage a hijabi praised by patriarchal society by magnifying her “falsity,” I simply refuse to engage in deriding any of my sisters.