It’s an expression we’re all quite familiar with. It’s always a comparison like cheap jewelry to jewelry in a case, a pearl to a rock, a fresh lollipop with a trashed one.
“A non-Muslim asks an imam, “Why is the female head covering compulsory in Islam?” He smiles gently and produces two lollipops. One covered with the shiny plastic wrapper, but the other, he rips the plastic cover off and drops on the ground.
‘Now, which lollipop would you like to eat?’ He asks the non-Muslim.
‘Why, that’s easy. The one that’s still clean.’ The non-Muslim says confidently, pointing to the one the Imam still held.
‘Well, that’s the same with our women in Islam,’ the Imam says, ‘We keep them protected with the hijab; pure and chaste until marriage. They’re protected from the gaze of men, that is its beauty.’”
I first heard that when I was thirteen years old. I was the typical Muslim American teenage girl: struggling to fit in with those around me, dealing with body image issues alone. It was a struggle I kept to myself, laughing when my family made fun of the way I looked, later binging on the dark chocolate chips I hid next to my bed in despair. I was a tomboy, the girl that every guy liked hanging out with, but never the one that they developed crushes on.
Sophomore year in college was the year all of that changed. Every week, I dressed up carefully for the mosque. I was new to the community, but I wished desperately to fit in and threw myself into the community organizing efforts.
It was how I would meet the boy that broke me.
It started off harmlessly, but I kept careful distance. He pursued me with sweet compliments, building up the friendship between us in planned out moves. He’d dart back and forth, playing hot one day and cold the next. Still keeping my distance, I asked the few community members I knew about his reputation.
They were all glowing, but then again, they were all his friends.
It felt good to be wanted by the opposite gender. I felt dizzy and confused by his loving attention, yet, weak by the comments he made about my intelligence and drive. I thought that was the way things worked. That he had a right to say those things.
The day I found out that he was talking to other girls too, I was engulfed with hot anger. But I was so broken by his words at this point that my anger was targeted at the girls. I began worrying about how to keep him close, too afraid to confront him directly. So when he asked to Skype with me late into the night, I said yes.
I didn’t have a camera on my laptop, but I persuaded my friend to lend me hers. I began skyping with him late into the night, the conversations mostly one-sided because he said he liked to listen to my voice. My exhaustion pushed me into delirious exhilaration, that I was doing something right for once.
I wanted to make him all mine, wanted to make it okay.
He began pushing me to take off the hijab for him. He’d try to get me to start my video before I had put it on properly, and was cold when I refused to. For days, he stopped speaking to me. I was desperate.
Finally, I gave in. I didn’t want to lose him. I told him it was a late birthday present. It was over Skype. I told him to wait, while I ran to the bathroom to make sure my hair looked perfect. I was proud of my hair, had spent years figuring out how to take care of the rich dark curls that I couldn’t wait to show my husband.
Just like a pearl.
I looked into the mirror, adjusted my hair, and felt my heart hurt. The lights overhead were softly buzzing in the dorm bathroom as I looked into the mirror and just then, I thought to myself, “This must be what losing your virginity feels like.” I felt myself crumble as I remembered the lollipop metaphor, because how could I really be a good hijabi if I was doing this? I felt vulnerable, unsafe, and unprotected. My consciousness floated separately from my body as I walked back to the computer.
The rest of it was a blur.
I felt like a hypocrite wearing the hijab. And it was in the coming weeks that the pieces came out: that he was seeing multiple women, that he just wanted us to be friends. It took the anger of my friend to push me out of the pseudo-relationship, as she helped me break it off.
The shame I carried from having shown him my hair weighed heavily on me every time I put on my hijab. I felt like a slut, internalized my self-hatred into the way I ate my food.
How could I call myself a good Muslim if I had given myself up so easily?
I still remember the look my best friend gave me when I confessed that I had shown him my hair. She blamed me for what happened. I didn’t know how to tell her that it wasn’t because even I had difficulty believing that.
I didn’t realize until it was too late that I couldn’t even trust those I had asked for help. I could tell you that I quickly regained my confidence, that I didn’t feel broken for months afterward because of how cheap I felt, but that’s all a lie. It took years before I was able to regain ownership to my own beauty.
During those years, I saw one friend after another fall to the whims of this predator, his carefully sweet words preying on the girls who saw themselves just a little less than everyone else – hijabi and non-hijabi alike.
It took years for me to stop blaming myself. In that time, I’ve met women of every type of hijab that have been sexually assaulted, shamed and smeared, abandoned by their communities. I’m only speaking up because I’m tired of being silenced, but I’m still too ashamed to attach my real name to this piece. I still wear the hijab, but it’s different now.
Hijab doesn’t protect you; it never has and never will.
What will protect us, are the communities that we are a part of. Until then, I refuse to let someone dictate my supposed rights as a hijabi – because those rights were missing the night the predator believed he owned me.
Stop protecting the cloth, and start protecting all women by letting them speak, instead.