My Life With and Without Hijab

Yosra Akasha

I was a child in 1989. I can hardly remember the incidents of the Islamic Front’s military coup. All I remember is what a big fan of my elder sister I was. She was a very elegant university student who had loads of coloured peep-toed shoes and sandals. I remember spending hours inside her big closet playing with her makeup, wearing her clothes and walking in her shoes.

Painting by Nusreldin Eldouma

Painting by Nusreldin Eldouma

I also remember our neighbour, an editor at Al Sibian Magazine, passing by our house in the early mornings and saying that she could not come in and have a cup of tea because I would start crying and ask her to style my hair like hers. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, her hair always immaculately styled.

When I was in the second grade at primary school and about seven years old, our class teacher used to beat me every morning with a piece of hose asking me, “Where is your khimar?” I never knew why she was so angry, or what a “khimar” was. When my mother found out she transferred me to another school, but this time she bought me a white scarf which I had to put on every day. Years passed and I was in grade seven when my mother, for the first time, talked to me about “decent attire”, which meant long skirts and covering my hair with a scarf. She told me if I didn’t dress decently she and my father would go to hell for not having raised me well. I resented these orders, because my mother herself didn’t wear long skirts, nor did she her hair. I refused to cover my hair, although I had to wear the long skirts – there was no option in the market other than long skirts.

In the midst of this confusing time for me, my older sister had to leave the country to find a decent job. Our beautiful neighbour had to start wearing a scarf beneath her Sudanese thobe to keep her new job in the Ministry of Education, after Al Sibian Magazine, like Sabah and other periodicals, was closed down. There were concerns about attending wedding parties, with men and women dancing together. Lots of stories were spreading about police raiding private parties and arresting people. All our neighbours started to wear hijab, saying it was for their husbands’ job promotions, and they kept asking my mother to wear it as well. My mother, who considered herself a true believer of Islam, rejected this hypocrisy, saying that since she didn’t wear the hijab after pilgrimage, she would not wear it for my father’s job promotion. I asked her once why she wanted me to wear hijab while rejecting it herself. She answered: “You are young, so you’ll probably be harassed if you are not wearing the hijab.”

There were two periods in my life during which I wore hijab; the first time lasted for a whole year while the second lasted five months. The first time was when my application to Khartoum University had been accepted. I decided to try the hijab for two different reasons. One was that according to University rules, I had to sign a pledge to wear it on campus. Secondly, I was depending on public transport and my brothers told me that girls without hijab were harassed a lot. I thought that, with a scarf covering my hair, I’d have more freedom to move. Many girls I know wear hijab and some are veiled for this reason. In addition, styling my frizzy hair every day would take a lot of time and money.

Surprisingly, my life with hijab was not as smooth as I’d expected. One day I got an opportunity to express my thoughts in a public discussion of the Congress of Independent Students. Their speaker claimed that Islam was the reason behind all the troubles of Sudan. I replied that it was not a matter of Islam, rather of the Islamists who are ruining our life and spreading false concepts of Islam.

This three-minute intervention of mine resulted in me receiving a long letter on how inappropriate it was for a woman to raise her voice in public and talk about Islam, particularly while she herself was a bad example of a Muslim woman, wearing indecent clothes and speaking loudly in front of men. I kept receiving such assaults for years. I was even more shocked when, every other day, the guards at the university prevented me from entering the university campus – for not using pins in my scarf; for having a split in my skirt; for wearing a T-Shirt or a tight shirt; for wearing leggings under a maxi dress.

Cartoon by Talal Nayer

Cartoon by Talal Nayer

At that time, I realised that the hijab has no standards. While I considered myself to be “veiled”, many other people thought I was dressing indecently. I concluded that my dress style should be about me and what I like – not about others and what they think. Interestingly, the harassment never stopped. Instead, it even increased with even more Islamists staring at me – those same people who’d urged me to  wear  hijab.  They  had clearly  never  heard  about  lowering  their gaze or the sins of staring. I often used to tell them that Allah said, “You cannot guide whoever you wish”.

During my college years it was a widely held belief that girls without hijab would not find a man to marry. Most of my classmates started to wear hijab and, from one day to the next, they used to be stricter in their dress code – even in shaking hands with boys for greetings. Many friends displayed more signs of religiousness, like reading the Qur’an in public, holding a sibha – the prayer beads, and not missing an occasion to recite a duaa loudly. Unfortunately, they forgot the soul of Islam, which is being kind to people, not to be talking about people behind their backs, focusing on your own behaviour and avoiding judging others.

My second time wearing hijab was in 2009. I’d tried everything I could think of to stop the harassment committed by my work colleagues and my boss in a public service office – that was full of Islamists and NCP affiliates – but nothing worked. I had submitted written complaints against some colleagues after personally rebuking them severely, in front of other employees. My complaints were never taken seriously and the people in charge always used to find excuses for the perpetrators, even when one incident ended with an injury as a harasser squeezed my fingers against a ring I was wearing while shaking hands in greeting. I was told several times that a trainee like me could never get a permanent job while wearing such clothes. At a certain point, I realized that neither raising a complaint nor shouting loudly at harassers was going to change anything - not when my boss, the only person I could complain to, was also staring at my legs under the table when I wore a mid-length skirt in a meeting. On another occasion, he asked me to cover my neck because he couldn’t handle staring anymore.

On that day I cried my eyes out. I stayed at home for two days. I made up my mind that if this humiliation continued I’d have to quit my job and my career as well. If I could not build my future because of my dress style and I could not control my own body either, I would lose self-esteem, sacrificing it for my career development. That was when I decided to quit my career and the hijab.

I went back to my lovely mother who, during all these difficulties, had always been there. She supported all my decisions to wear hijab or to take it off. She encouraged me to defend myself against the harassers. At home, when I used to cry from anger and subjugation she used to get sad and tell me, “I didn’t raise you to cry like a little girl. You should go there and fight for your rights and teach those abusive Islamists a lesson”. She panicked after Lubna Hussein was arrested for wearing trousers and always thought something like this would be the revenge of my work colleagues. She also used to tell me what the dress code was till the 1980s. People used to wear all kinds of clothes which are now considered revealing and indecent. At that time, no man would dare to harass a woman, regardless how much of her body was visible and, for sure, they were Muslims – just very different from those men who harass women regardless of how much of their bodies are covered.

We used to attend the speeches preceding the Friday prayers together regularly and made critical comments when women were portrayed as the evil of the nation. All our confusion ended up with both of us being convinced that it was not wearing a hijab that would protect women but the power of using their minds, having self-esteem, and not allowing any person to define what’s wrong and right on their behalf.

From Women in Islam Issue 1 (2014)