I used to teach at an Islamic school, situated within a masjid, when I was around 17. There was a lot that didn’t sit well with me; the mosque had a barrier–I also taught students who were about 8 years old, and I believed it to be ludicrous that I was expected to cover my hair around 8-year-old boys. Or that any of the 8-year-old girls were expected to do the same. But I followed the “rules” in terms of my appearance, if only to appease the parents, who I imagine must already have been suspicious of what on earth I might be teaching their children.
One day, for a school-wide event, though I can’t remember what, the boys were pulled out of class. I bid the last one goodbye, closed the door behind him, whirled around and exclaimed, “The boys are gone!” and threw off my hijab. The black waves leapt to the air with the blow of the rising fabric and then fell to my waist. The young girls laughed and did the same, pulling off their headscarves.
“Can I leave my hijab on?” she asked me.
I gave her a funny look. “Of course!” I walked back to the front of the room, ready to continue the lesson, but the girls were talking excitedly amongst themselves, clearly distracted, and I thought it was unfair to expect them to study as long as the boys weren’t also in a stuffy classroom learning to read Arabic with them. And to be honest, I had a desire to know these girls. So I walked among them and we spoke while they braided each other’s hair and talked about faeries.
“I love your hair,” said the small hijabi. She ran her fingers through it. “It’s so pretty.” Then she added, “I wish I had hair like this. My hair’s not like other people’s hair.”
The child was black. Something hurtful burst inside me.
“Is this why you didn’t want to remove your hijab?” I gasped.
She nodded. “My hair’s not pretty like yours.”
“Darling, your hair is beautiful!” What else could I have said? I spoke what I knew, to her, must have been empty words.
She made a face. “You haven’t even seen it.”
“I can imagine it.”
She looked worried. “It’s not like you imagine.”
“No, love, it’s not like you imagine.” I sighed and sat on top of a desk. Was it too early to speak to her about white privilege? I looked around at the other girls, none white, but none of them black. Neither was I. I tried to form words but I couldn’t, not over the force of my heart breaking. I wanted to hold her and sob, an act I was certain would alarm her.
“Sometimes, when you help the other girls fix their hijabs, I feel bad,” she said.
“Because you do their hair. And you’re so nice. And no one knows how to do my hair.”
“Your hijab is always on so perfectly, it never needs to be fixed,” I remarked. It was true. The other girls’ hijabs would constantly slide off; they would struggle with it for a few minutes before complaining loudly, at which point I walked over to their desks, did their hair, and neatly fixed their hijabs over it while still teaching off the lesson plan. But this girl’s hijab was always firmly planted wrapped around her head, as though it were a protective second skin. “But if it ever slid off, of course I would help you fix it.”
“Do you want to see my hair?” she asked.
“Do you want me to see it?”
She pulled back the hijab. Her hair was sectioned into five different parts at various heights and braided.
“You see?” I said. “It’s lovely.”
She looked less sorrowful, though I was uncertain whether it was my imagination. She seemed to warm up. I began to align the hijab along her forehead again, and she grinned and tampered with my hair. “You think it’s pretty?”
Maybe the words weren’t empty to her yet. Maybe she hadn’t yet gotten to the point where white beauty standards were so forcefully bombarded on her person that wouldn’t believe her hair was pretty matter how many times she heard it, to the point where your hair is lovely was just something people said to be kind or even dismissive.
Obviously, I was unequipped to deal with this. I don’t know if I did well at all. There was so much I wanted to say–but I was afraid of overwhelming the situation. My point is that I should have been prepared, that I should have known what to do; that we, as Muslims, majority non-white, ought to know how to handle circumstances pertaining to the comfort of black students in our classrooms, to the struggles of races that are not our own.
And that is the purpose of a caring, giving, and supportive community. Not one that’s just preoccupied with going through the movements, preoccupied with merely discussing Islam with a reluctance to confront the anxieties that deter us from living it in its full compassionate capacity.