Here is a story of me wearing the hijab for the first time for a whole day.
It involves my experience attending Hussieniya (a lament for the death of Imam Hussien performed by Shea muslim sect every year). The year was 1995 and I was living in Galsgow, Scotland. My husband and I became good friends with a religious Iranian couple, K. and S. Both become incredibly excited when they heard that I come from a shea family and decide to invite me for a Hussieniya held at a mosque in Glasgow by the shea community living there. I have never attended a Hussieniya before. I have read about it in books though. While living in Kuwait, the shea performed such ceremonies in secret to avoid prosecution from the government. I would sometimes hear other girls whisper about it to each other in school. Since my father is very secular we were not involved and hence my knowledge of various shea ceremonies was restricted to things I have read or heard from other people. Nothing like exploring your religious roots in a foreign city that has absolutely nothing to do with it.
On the day of the Hussieniya, I decided that I would wear hijab the whole day and not just during the period while at the mosque. I thought it would be an interesting experience, to see how people would react to me when I was wearing a head scarf, a long skirt and long sleeves. That was the first time I wore hijab in my life. On that day, I placed my daughter in her stroller and did grocery shopping, went for a little stroll in the park and walked around the city center. Everywhere I went, there would be another woman wearing hijab who would walk towards me, smile and whisper “Salam Alaikum sister”. I would smile back and say “Salam Alaikum sister”. Glasgow, has a large immigrant community from Pakistan and many of them are religious. I never noticed how many hijab wearing woman were around until that day. I felt like there was this whole sisterhood action going on, I must confess that I enjoyed that aspect of it. I didn’t enjoy the way people looked at me in the neighborhood grocery store though. I went to the CD store and asked the person attending the shop if he had a CD for “Ani Defranco”, he was so shocked it took him several seconds to finally respond. He probably didn’t think that a woman wearing hijab would know who Ani Defranco is. I must confess that I got some guilty pleasure out of surprising him like that. I am such a trouble maker.
As the time to the Hussieniya approached, I started to feel nervous. What if I do or say something stupid and offend everybody at the mosque. What if people can tell I am not religious and kick me out of the mosque, all sorts of dark thoughts like that started to cross my mind. Then I remembered a book I have read a year earlier “Guests of the Sheik : An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea”. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea spent the first two years of her marriage in the 1950s living in El Nahra, a small village in Southern Iraq, and her book is a collection of stories about life of a western women attempting to adapt to living in super conservative society. Her husband is an anthropologist and instructs her that she must learn about the lives of the women since as a man he has no access to that world. Many of the village woman befriend her and help her adapt to the local customs. In her book she describes in vivid detail many Hussieniyas and other Shea processions she had attended. I thought to myself, if an American Christian like Elizabeth can go through it, so can I. At the mosque, I meet S. outside, she complements my proper hijab. She seems happy to see me dressed like that. Later on she told me that she was worried I would show up wearing jeans and t-shirt. We go into the mosque together. The women are sitting on one side and all the men are setting on the other, everybody is sitting on the floor, and kids are running all over the place. I sit down in the middle of the crowd and seat my daughter next to me. On the other side I can see K. with the men, as soon as he sees me he jumps up and runs towards the women’s side, something he is not supposed to do. He looks at me with amazements, he tells me that my hijab is very proper and tells me that I look great. This is so out of character for him, K. is a super demure, shy and modest person. Usually he would never look me straight in the eye. When he talked to me he would look away according to muslim modesty customs. But now he was staring straight at me with a big smile on his face, he looks like he can’t believe that the jeans and t-shirt girl can be transformed to proper hijab girl. His wife instructs him to go back and sit with the men. Which he does promptly.
The Imam starts telling the story of Imam Hussien, his voice is melodic and sad. Once in a while he breaks down into crying. People around me start crying. Something very surprising happens next, I start crying too. I think I am overcome with group hysteria. My daughter looks surprised.
daughter: Mommy, why are you crying?
ihath: I don’t know.
daughter: Why are these other people crying?
ihath: They are sad because somebody very important died long time ago, his name was Imam Hussien he was the grand child of prophet Muhamad.
daughter: Who is prophet Muhamad?
ihath: Shh! (I don’t want people to know that my daughter doesn’t know who prophet Muhamad is). I will tell you about him later. Here are some crayons and paper to play with.
daughter: Ok! (she looks happy with the crayons).
I make a mental note, I must tell my daughter the story of prophet Muhamad and afterwards about Imam Hussien. She should at least know about it. After a while some of the people start swaying from side to side and hitting themselves on the chest. The hitting is symbolic, I myself stick to crying. I have read in books about precessions where people would beat themselves until they bled, I have read about chains, rocks over the head, but non of that happens in this place. Just gentle hitting over the chest, nothing too dramatic. This lasts for a couple of hours, then everybody moves to another room where food is served, everybody eats and then sits around chatting. All the Iranian shea are on one side, and Iraqi shea are on the other. Maybe it is the language barrier thing. I end up chatting to two older Iraqi women who tell me about how much they miss living in Iraq and why they had to move abroad. A fairly sad story.
The next day, I got up to go to work, I wore a dark suit, short skirt, white silk blouse and a colorful silk scarf. Panty hose and black shoes. Makeup. I looked at myself in the mirror, I looked professional, as in “get out of the way aggressive woman on the move” professional. I went to the office and said good morning to my co-workers.
how do you do?
Nobody called me his sister on that day.