A Muslim woman wearing a smart-looking hijab caught my eye as I rolled out of the now defunct Borders Books and Music after a quiet hour of reading and drinking coffee. I wanted to emulate her but how? Glancing down at my scruffy high-top sneakers, faded blue jeans and T-shirt, the road ahead to hijab-dom would be long. I wondered how or if I’d ever get there. That was ages ago not long after 9/11 when Americans often scoffed at Muslims, holding them all culpable for the shocking, horrific events on that fateful day in September 2001.
Although I was raised Catholic, I shied away from religion most of my life. I was a profound disappointment to my mother that I didn’t join the convent or throw myself at the church the way she did. Sorry mom but I just couldn’t be the nice Catholic girl you wanted.
Now and then I church shopped trying out different ministries, including Quaker and Unitarian, to see if one fit. None ever did. I looked around for a Buddhist temple to fulfill my inner soul but that wasn’t satisfying either. So I shrugged off religion and settled on a spiritual life communing with God, nature and the universe in quiet, peaceful settings at home or healing centers. For years, I remained defiant. Religion wasn’t for me. That all changed when I lowered my guard especially after a serious car accident in 1994 that almost took my life. God spared me for a reason. I had to find out why. Without realizing it, I was on the road to Islam, slowly uncovering hints along the way. Allah’s plans became clearer in 2013 when I met Diba, a Muslim woman from Afghanistan, who walked me across the final threshold.
As a Muslim woman, I too would cover my head. It’s an art, a skill, that most Muslim girls learn from their mothers, older sisters or grandmothers. Converts like me can be challenged or frustrated with the hijab. There are dozens of books available about Islam but none about proper headwear etiquette. A simple instructive “how to” chart or website would’ve been helpful. So I started hijab watching. To avoid being accused of peeping, I stared at Muslim women’s heads without being overly obtrusive. Who wants to be stared at? Surely not me. I may have turned around and stuck my tongue out at someone staring at me. I just wanted to get the hang of the hijab so I would look proper like everyone else. A few sisters showed me headwear hints but I either looked like I had a dust rag on my head or a vacuum sucked on my scarf. Clearly, I needed practice, lots of practice to catch up and be natural in a hijab. Muslim women looked so stylish. Not me. In the beginning, I looked like a hag.
After I said my Shahada, also known as the proclamation of faith, sisters in my community showered with hijabs, all kinds of hijabs. I received colors that ranged from pastel to bold and bright. I was so humbled and appreciative. In fact, I received so many gifts that I had to buy a large wicker basket to hold them all. My dresser drawer overflowed with hijabs. Each one spoke to me desperate to be worn. OK girls, calm down, you’ll all get a chance.
Inside one of the gift bags was an under-scarf, an item new to me. Until then, small scarves that I used to wear around my neck substituted as under-scarves to hide pesky hairs that stuck out from the hijab. The gray under-scarf had a lovely decorative front. I slid it over my mop of hair but the pretty part faced the rear. I tried again. No success. Frustrated, I tried once more and still nothing. OK, I said to myself, I hold a master’s degree surely you can manage an under-scarf. I looked in the mirror, hair sticking out this way and that, and the result was the same. About to hurl the under-scarf across the room, I said a prayer asking Allah for patience. I counted to ten to calm down and finally the under-scarf fit right.
Maybe I’ll develop an app for proper hijab wear to help new converts. I can call it happy in a hijab or something. After all, learning to wear a hijab is not like throwing a table cloth on your head. There’s an art to wearing a hijab. I still don’t have it but I’m better than I was.
Now that I’ve somewhat mastered my outer hijab, I’m devoting myself to my inner hijab. Every day, I learn about the Quran especially at the weekly Halaqa, a Quran study group. I attend mosque services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. I read books about Islam. I pray five times a day. Maybe my mother would be pleased that I’m praying again. It’s not easy but I’ve cleaned up my gutter mouth. I avoid cursing and swearing as that’s not proper behavior for a Muslim. Actually, it’s not proper for a lady my age. I grew up in a lower class New York City neighborhood and using salty language has been a way of life with me for years. My father cursed and swore a lot. Shaping up is a good thing.
Ramadan, the most sacred Muslim holy day, approaches soon. Muslims fast from sun up to sun down for a month. I cannot refrain from water because I take anti-seizure drugs that leave me with an incredibly dry mouth but I’ll do my best to stay away from food. I got a late start but I want to be a good Muslim. I failed miserably as a Catholic. So miserable in fact that in junior year of Catholic high school I failed religion as a subject. I had lost interest and couldn’t answer a single question on the mid-term exam. The principal who I secretly called big mama said if I didn’t pass the final I wouldn’t graduate. I sucked up my mule-headed behavior and passed the exam. I still wasn’t interested in religion.
I am happy as a Muslim. I found a place inside a community of people who care about me. I feel settled and content. I found my inner hijab. Thank you to all the people who helped and guided me on my journey. You all know who you are. I finally arrived after a long, difficult struggle. May Allah always protect and watch over me. Always. And bless me with the skills to figure out the hijab would also be appreciated.