Black Hair

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.

Except one.

“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.

“Why?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.

On whether the hijab is mandatory

I’ve been avoiding this post. I’ve successfully avoided writing it for four years. As most of you know I’m conscious of the context to which I contribute exegesis (or anything), and whether or not hijab is mandatory is a question that is irrelevant in a context where women are harassed for wearing the hijab—and for not wearing it. Because of this context I have, reluctantly, written more posts here about hijab than I ever cared to write, and all about men minding their own business.

There is one verse that is used by male scholars to “encourage” women to cover their hair. Humorously (or not) enough, this verse does not explicitly make this command; it reads, instead,

And say
to the believing women
that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty; that they should not
display their beauty and
ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
that they should draw their veils
over their bosoms
(Qur’an 24:31)

In case you’re wondering how “bosoms” is understood as “hair” when they are pretty clearly distinct body parts (insert joke about judicial male “expertise” knowing nothing about female anatomy here) let’s look at the word “veil.” The verse already hints that a veil existed; it doesn’t command, for example to veil as though the action is revolutionary or unpracticed, but to draw their veils, as though the women already owned fabric they understood could be used as a veil. And that’s exactly correct. The area where male scholarship is wrong, however, is in arguing that the veil was already used to cover the hair, and that 24:31 merely commands the inclusion of the bosom with the hair, thus advising that both the hair and bosom are covered.

But there are problems with this—mainly that the assumption that the sole purpose of the veil was exclusively to cover the hair in pre-Islamic Arabia is an incorrect one.

As Lee Ann explains,

“The cloth was more utilitarian in purpose than just as a piece of clothing. It served to protect against weather, to carry babies, to haul such things as wood. It was tied around the waist and used like a tool belt of sorts, to stick things in it, etc. The “hijab” [before the Revelation] was never exclusive to be used as a head covering because it would have to be removed from the head in order to use it for those other purposes. The ayat in the Quran is basically telling women to use that piece of cloth, that they already have and are using (to make it easier on them, no need to get a special “hijab” so to speak) and use it to cover your chest/breast.”

If the line of argument for scholars is that hijab is commanded in the Qur’an because the cloth to which the Qur’an refers in advising women to cover their bosoms is the same cloth women used to exclusively cover their hair (which is the male scholarly line of argument) then it is an inadequate one. And it’s inadequate for the simple reason that hair-covering was not the exclusive purpose of this fabric. Would it have made sense to interpret that women should cover their bosoms and with the same fabric we use to hold tools? If our logical standards are that all previous purposes of the cloth have now become mandatory with the inclusion of covering the bosom, then it does. Otherwise, there is no reason for scholars to focus solely on the cloth’s purpose to cover hair as an extension of the command to conceal the bosom.

The command to conceal the bosom was given because non-Muslim men would harass Muslim women due to prejudice (you know, all too familiar) while knowing full well these women were Muslim, but since all Arab women exposed their chests, when confronted the men claim that they did not recognize that the woman was Muslim and couldn’t tell, and therefore had not been harassing her for her religion. The verse was revealed to blast away this poor excuse. Muslim women were defined clearly from non-Muslim women, so that, in Lee Ann’s words “those men had no excuse other than they were assholes.”

This is why the verse cites the reason “so that they will not be harassed” in advising the hijab—it’s not meant to be interpreted as the responsibility to avoid harassment is placed on the woman: it’s meant to be interpreted so that the excuse given by men (“I did not recognize her as Muslim and therefore was not committing the 7-century version of a hate crime.”) is rendered illegitimate.