Courage in a Piece of Cloth

by Mayamen B. Hashmin (Nonfiction)

Bakit kayo nagsusuot ng ganyan?” “Hala! Ang ganda mo pala pag wala ‘yon!” “Tanggalin mo na kasi ‘yan!”

Those were the statements I used to hear from my classmates back in 6th grade. I was the only Muslim girl in our batch, and I was accustomed to wearing a hijab as early as eight years old. Ever since, other kids had always looked, if not stared, at me with piercing eyes, as if wondering what I was. At the time, it was quite rare to see a girl my age to wear a hijab. I always found it uncomfortable when people looked at me like that, something I had to endure for most of my childhood.

During activities in school that required dancing, I would remove my hijab, fearing that people would see me as ridiculous. Every time my friends saw me without it, they would tell me I looked so much more beautiful, that my natural hair color was so unique that it was such a shame for people not to see it. They would encourage me to stop wearing my hijab, and as a mere 13-year-old at the time who desperately wanted to cease getting weird looks and to finally fit in, I yielded to them.

As I entered high school, my friends and classmates were delighted when they saw me walking the halls without my hijab. Everyone, looking so amused, crowded around me. My friends said they were happy for me and were so glad that I had finally decided to remove it. That moment, I felt like I was reborn, like it was my second chance to build a better image of myself. I took it as an opportunity to be recognized as more than just “the Muslim girl.” I was thrilled to begin the school year with this goal to fulfill, driven by the thought that everything was going to change from now on, that people wouldn’t stare at me awkwardly anymore.

But I never imagined I would be so wrong. Nothing changed at all. People still looked at me the way they used to, because even without my hijab, they knew I was a Muslim. That was when I discovered it was not my hijab they found different, but my identity.

Back in my high school days, for long hours, I used to ponder over who I really was, who I wanted to be, and who I should be. It took me a little more than a couple of years to realize my true identity. Unknowingly, I was swallowed whole by the need to conform. I had neglected my religion. I had failed my beloved father who had passed away just too early to teach and remind me of who I was and who I should always be.

But a handful of Muslim friends, or sisters from different wombs rather, did the trick. I finally learned the importance of the hijab. It’s not just a cloth that we wear on our heads because we are Muslims; it is a symbol of what makes us Muslims. It represents our identity, the firm belief we possess for our religion, and the great love we have for our Creator. It is a symbol of modesty, freedom, courage, confidence, integrity, and empowerment.

I often used to worry about how I looked. Wearing the hijab has taught me that looks don’t matter—behavior and how we treat others do. I used to feel suffocated by the pressure to conform to teens my age, to be on the loop with whatever was the trend. Wearing the hijab has given me the freedom to choose for myself, without feeling the need to satisfy other people’s expectations. I used to suffer from a lot of insecurities and self-doubt, but wearing the hijab has taught me that confidence and beauty comes from within oneself, not dictated by society. Realizing the true meaning of wearing the hijab has greatly empowered me as a woman, more than anything I have ever encountered. It has moulded me to become who I am today.

Though I regretted my decision of not wearing hijab through high school, I am grateful for that experience because it has driven me to write this essay and share my story to all the girls out there, struggling like I did. I want to remind them, if not teach them, that there is no shame in wearing a hijab. In fact, there is only pride for what it represents. People may say, “You look better without it,” or “It’s such a shame you are required to wear it.” But do not listen to them. You know yourself better than they do, and you know that if you are proud of being a Muslim, you will be proud of wearing a hijab because our hijab is our crown. We are not who we are without it. Stand firm on your ground and never forget who you truly are. Do not let society’s standards of beauty sway you. Your hijab is a proof that you have a deep understanding of your faith and that you are proud to represent your people. Keep in mind that it is not just an accessory for fashion, but it is also a sign of responsibility to uphold the values of modesty at all times.

To you who are reading this, I hope you are now aware of what the hijab essentially means to Muslim women and the Muslim ummah as a whole. I hope you have understood that statements like “Mas maganda ka kung wala ‘yan. Bakit ka nagsu-suot niyan?” however insignificant it may seem to you, may make a huge impact on how someone sees herself. As citizens of Mindanao, the melting pot of culture in the Philippines, it is our duty to practice and raise awareness for cultural sensitivity because as much as we’d like to deny, discrimination still exists in today’s society.

Some women may take the idea that wearing a hijab means a woman must act in certain limited ways, which may seem as a form of oppression. When I first wore my hijab at eight years old, even though I would decide to stop wearing it during high school, I was not forced to do so. It was all within my own free will. We are not forced to wear the hijab, nor are we forced to act according to some rigid rules.

When one reaches a certain level of deep understanding of the relevance and purpose of being a Muslim woman—beyond her worldly depiction and into her true standing in Islam—and discovers the privilege that comes with it, it is impossible for one to feel oppressed by their religion. The problem lies in the interpretation and realization of these rights, because more often than not, they are made to seem like punishments to give religion a bad name. I believe the choice rests on one’s shoulders: whether to educate oneself, or to simply be contented with information readily purveyed by the society and media. When we choose the latter, we suffer the consequences of judging people based on how they are stereotyped as a group rather than on who they really are.