Please Don’t Ask Me About Hijab and Freedom Now That I’m Muslim

Surah 55
Surah Ar-Rahman by Everitte Barbee

Responses to the news that I am Muslim have ranged from excitement to confusion to surprise to silence, and a bit of everything in between. Luckily for me, I was born to two amazingly cool parents; they and my sister were among the first people I shared this news with earlier in the year. Once they got beyond the initial shock over my belief in God (I had been a decided non-believer for quite some time), I think it seemed natural to them that I had embraced Islam. Their nonchalance and the fact that they have not made a huge deal over my being Muslim have been incredibly refreshing. As my dad once put it (in the most loving, non-dismissive way possible), “Why should anyone care what religion you are?” And he is right; I certainly wouldn’t find it necessary to announce to many if I had become Christian, yet when an American becomes Muslim it is seen as something quite newsworthy. One feels an obligation to go out and alert the presses! In reality though, it isn’t the type of thing that you can shout out from the rooftops or always casually slip into conversation. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been incredibly happy to share news of my new faith with those close to me, but I have preferred to do so on my own terms. Overwhelmingly, most people I’ve told have responded with words of great support and encouragement.

Of course, there are those who have reacted with less – shall we say – enthusiasm. These concerned voices are primarily interested in how I feel as a woman in Islam. I’m sure to no one’s surprise, this has centered on those couple extra yards of fabric that are the source of so much obsession and intrigue. In the moments when I try to diplomatically explain my reasons for not covering my hair and other parts of my body, a part of me wishes I were in hijab. After I explain myself, the visible relief on those concerned faces makes me uneasy; would my Muslim identity be less easy to stomach and accept if I were covered from head to toe? Others have already raised worries à la Not Without My Daughter, about how my currently-non-existent-but-hypothetical-future-Muslim-husband will treat me.

Logically I know I shouldn’t allow these comments to bother me; I should and do give more weight to the many positive words that I have received. I know these negative assumptions are primarily rooted in a lack of understanding of Islam and a fear of the unknown. But, I think it is more than fair that we expect more. I’m not asking every non-Muslim American to read the Qur’an or to become an expert on Islam. For those who do take the time to study the faith, I certainly wouldn’t wish that they became apologists who feel they can’t critically engage with the religion. However, it is difficult to excuse when someone’s first reaction upon finding out that a woman is Muslim, is to question her about matters of freedom and choice. We ought to be beyond that.

Surah 103
Surah Al-Asr by Everitte Barbee.

What I have seen thus far is hardly a taste of what some fellow sisters have to answer to on a daily basis. I know well that Muslims have had to respond to these kinds of questions and comments for years. It is saddening to know that if I did choose to wear hijab one day, that choice would likely be attributed to the influence of  my hypothetical-husband! Or if I voice opinions that aren’t in-line with those expected of a liberated, Western woman, those opinions will likely not be considered to be my own. There is a fine line between recognizing these realities and victimizing ourselves, though. We all have the power to choose how we wish to perceive and respond to these stereotypes. At the risk of sounding sappy, each of these otherwise burning presumptions can be embraced, with a bit of patience, as an opportunity for discussion and the righting of misunderstandings.

For the time being, I’ll be grateful for those friends who have taken the time to ask questions, as opposed to making assumptions, about the changes that Islam has brought to my life. I’ll focus on the outpouring of beautiful words I have received from all corners of the globe, from close friends and near-strangers. One common trend in the nature of many messages I’ve received has stood out to me: most have congratulated me not on having found Islam specifically, but on embracing wholeheartedly a way of life in which I have found comfort and peace. Perhaps as we get caught up in the day-to-day, we easily overlook the significance of something that simple.

Tune in next week for Shelley’s final Ramadan journal. Be sure to check out her previous reflections on her homecoming and her new kid at the mosque jitters.

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  • About the autor

    Shelley Burke is from California and has spent time living and studying in Jordan, Egypt, and Mexico. She holds a BA in Arabic and Islamic Studies and an MA in Migration and Refugee Studies.

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