I was 7 years old when I was walking on the orange leaf covered sidewalk outside my elementary school, with Ma right by my side. My attention was laser focused on a friend group of three Bengali girls. I was staring at their matching glitter turquoise slip-on head coverings.
I tugged on Ma’s sweater sleeve. “Ma, look at them! They have pretty things on their heads!” I said in Bangla.
I had seen many girls with such colorful coverings in my school in Kensington, Brooklyn. Even their mothers often had these coverings on their heads, though theirs weren’t slip-ons and instead had several layers.
Ma turned her head and glanced in the direction that I was pointing. Reading my mind, she said, “That’s called a hijab. Muslim girls wear it in public for Allah. ”
My brown eyes widened in fascination. “But, Ma! You’re Muslim and I’m Muslim! We’re in public right now, and we’re not wearing the hijab!” I said.
Ma’s jaw fell open only to have no words come out. She glanced around awkwardly, wondering if anyone else heard my exclamations. “Well, if you really want to wear it, I do know a lady…” she said.
I immediately said yes and Ma took me to the hijab store later that weekend. We bought scarves from every color of the rainbow. They were so pretty and I began to wear them every once in a while for fun.
Ma Becomes Religious
About a year later, my mom’s sister passed away.
Ma responded by becoming hyper-religious. She put on the hijab, she prayed five times a day, she read the Quran at almost every waking moment. I could hear her listening to Islamic lecture videos right before she went to sleep at night and as she ate breakfast in the morning.
She didn’t keep her religiosity to herself. She made sure that our entire family became as faithful as her.
She enrolled me in as many Arabic and Islamic classes as she could find despite my reluctance. She lectured me when I didn’t pray, even though I was still just a kid and wasn’t religiously obligated to. She did everything she could to make sure I became as Muslim as possible.
In an ironic twist, her methods had the opposite effect.
The hijab I used to wear for fun became a burden. My genuine curiosity in Islam became an obligation.
So, I ran away from it.
I stopped praying, I stopped wearing the hijab, I stopped learning Arabic. I just stopped it all.
I was 12 years old when I picked up the call. Ma had been at the hospital for a week. She was recovering from a stomach bug and was staying there for an observation. She had called a few times before, but I had let it go to voicemail because everytime we talked these days, it ended in an argument.
With a sigh, I brought the phone to my ear, continued working on my homework, and greeted Ma, “Hello?”
“Hello? That’s how you greet your mother now? Hello? I’ve been gone a week, and you’ve already forgotten that you’re Muslim. You say “as-salaam alaikum,” her bitter voice sounded from the phone.
I rolled my eyes, irked at how sharp and patronizing her voice sounded. I was internally grateful she wasn’t there in person to see my eye roll. Otherwise I’d have gotten another lecture about the importance of respect toward elders in Islam.
I should’ve seen this coming. Of course, she wasn’t going to be mad at me about not talking to her. I felt like our relationship never mattered to her; it barely did since I was a child, and it barely does now. Nothing mattered to Ma, nothing but Islam and her reputation. Those two things came first in her life now.
“As-salaam alaikum,” I muttered, wanting to appease her. I had had a peaceful day and had no intention of ruining that by getting into another one of my countless arguments with Ma.
“Even your tone is disrespectful. You say you’re Muslim, yet you act nothing like it. You’re just as rude in public, in front of all my friends. Nobody thinks highly of you. I’m in the hospital, and you don’t even wear the hijab anymore. What happens if I die? I’ll go to hell, because of you,” she said, speaking furiously and quickly in Bangla. She always switched to Bangla when she was angry.
My jaw was unhinged, and my pencil dropped to the wooden floor, the homework long forgotten. I was shocked at how quickly the phone call escalated, and how quickly Ma managed to go straight for the jugular. Her voice didn’t waver even once when she spoke. She was furious.
I opened and closed my mouth several times, trying to find a response to her harsh berating. My left leg began bouncing rapidly out of anxiety. After a long pause, I blurted out an “Okay” before hanging up and tossing the landline on top of my floral pillow. I curled my body on the corner-edge of my bed, far away from the phone as though it were on fire.
Was it true what Ma was saying? Would I really be the reason she would go to hell?
The shaking in my left leg became rapid as I turned my head to face the white dresser against the wall. I looked into the oval mirror right above it. I winced when I saw tears streaming down my cheeks, quickly using my sleeve to wipe them away.
Guilt stormed inside me; I didn’t want Ma to die being resentful or bitter toward me and for thinking that I was the reason she could go to hell. I didn’t want her to hate me.
Maybe I could start wearing the hijab again. It didn’t mean a lot to me, but it sure meant a lot to her.
A Call From Aadya
It was the morning of Eid-Al-Fitr. While my family was together at the mosque for the morning prayer, I was lying in bed by myself, dressed in my Eid dress. I frowned at the white paint on the ceiling as I recalled what happened earlier that morning.
Ma and I had gotten into another fight about the hijab.
When I woke up that morning, I saw pictures on Instagram of all my friends posting their Eid outfits. They looked gorgeous, with their long black and brown hair out in the open.
I wish I could do that too.
That brewed even more resentment inside me.
I got angry at Ma all over again, I felt like she was trying to mold me into the “perfect Muslim daughter” even though that was the farthest thing from what I wanted to be. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I just knew it wasn’t the image Ma had dreamt of.
My phone rang, interrupting my thoughts.
Aadya was Ma’s best friend’s daughter. Even though Aadya was six years older than me, we were close because our mothers were so close.
Aadya also wore the hijab.
I picked up the phone and greeted her in a cheerful tone. The conversation started normally: her telling me about her morning, her asking me about my outfit, the usual. But, something still felt off about her tone. She sounded like she was waiting for something to come up.
“Why are you calling me right now? I’m coming over to yours soon, anyways,” I said.
My question earned a short, awkward beat of silence from her before she ended up confessing, “Your mom called me. She told me about what’s been happening with you two and what happened this morning.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but she quickly cut me off in a very fast ramble, “Now wait, wait. Before you get mad, just hear me out. Okay?”
I pursed my lips, as thousands of sarcastic retorts went through my head. But, I had already had one argument that morning, I didn’t need a second. So, with a resigned sigh, I merely said, “Yeah?”
She continued, “I get it. The confusion and battle you’re having with the hijab. I went through the same exact thing when I was 13 too. I even took it off for a bit.”
My brows shot up, and my eyes widened like saucers. I never knew that. She lived in Long Island, and while we texted often, I didn’t see her in person that much. I suppose Ma never mentioned it because she thought I’d follow in Aadya’s footsteps.
“But, that’s because my mom didn’t teach me what a hijab meant. I had to figure it out myself. You need to do that too. You need to find out the meaning of the hijab. Research, read the Quran, listen to lectures, do whatever works. Then make up your mind. Oh shoot, I gotta go help my mom make the food. I’ll see you in a bit, bye!”
I muttered a quick bye before hanging up the phone call, feeling more tired than ever.
Having this conversation with someone my own age, who has gone through a similar situation, felt different than having the same old argument with Ma.
My gaze fell on the green, hard-cover Quran that was sitting on the very top shelf of my white bookcase. The cover, though dusty, didn’t have a single crease or smudge. Ma had bought it for me a while back, but I never once opened it. I stared at it blankly and, before I realized what I was doing, I walked up to the Arabic Quran, held it in my hands. I flipped through its pages.
I guess it wouldn’t hurt to read a few pages…
After my phone call with Aadya, I swallowed my pride and looked into the hijab as extensively as I could. I read as many verses of the Quran as I could find about it and I watched countless documentaries.
After all the research I did, I saw that there were a multitude of reasons why women wear the hijab. Some wear it out of obligation, others to preserve their modesty, and others to keep themselves safer in public (in Muslim countries).
At the end, I finally understood the purpose of the hijab for me. Not only is it worn to allow women to avoid unwanted harassment, but it is a symbol of Islam. It’s what allows other Muslims to recognize you on the street, and it gives you a whole new community. I started to learn that the acts of kindness I received from strangers came because they recognized me as a fellow Muslim.
It’s not something I looked at as a burden anymore but more as a sign of empowerment and courage, especially in the West, where one can get so much hate for wearing it.
It’s been two months since Eid-Al-Fitr, and now, it is Eid-Al-Adha. The rays from the sun shine through the window as I gaze into the mirror, where I’m currently tying my hair into a bun. I’m on a FaceTime call with Aadya, she’s singing along to the lyrics to a Taylor Swift song as she does her makeup.
Once my hair is in a bun, I glance down at my pink and gold lehenga. I open my drawer, rustling through the endless, color-coded rows of scarfs. I pull out a pink scarf in my right, and a gold one in my left, before holding the scarves in front of Aadya.
“Which one?” I ask her.
“Gold. The pink blends in too much with the dress. You’d look like Patrick Star,” Aadya replied, before resuming her singing.
I chuckle before tossing it aside. I glance back into the mirror, watching my reflection neatly wrap the scarf around my head, a bright smile on my face.
Aadya pauses her singing, her gaze lingering on my face.
“What?” I mutter, suddenly self-conscious.
Aadya shrugs, “I just haven’t seen you smile like that when you put on the scarf since you were like 5.”
“I was actually 7,” I retort, lightheartedly rolling my eyes to deflect her words because I am not in the most sentimental mood. But, I couldn’t deny that what she said was true.
The past month, I have been wearing the hijab for myself. Not for Ma, or anyone else.
Now, every time I look in the mirror as I wrap the hijab around my hair, I can smile.
S. I. is a junior at Midwood High School in New York City. She likes to write stories, read books, go on runs, and bake in her free time. She journals every night.