It had been a long flight and my brain had started to go fuzzy around the edges, so I wasn’t sure if I had heard correctly.
The stewardess had leaned towards him with a tray of food. “Sir, here’s your Muslim meal.” The man took the tray and the stewardess continued, “Would you like white wine or red?”
I rolled my mental eyes and wondered what kind of noob air hostess doesn’t know that Muslims don’t drink alcohol. But then, my mental eyes rolled out of my head, because she held out a tiny bottle of red wine towards him, and he took it and said thank you.
What are you thinking right now? Is it something angry? Irritated? Disappointed? I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought wow, does he really think that improperly sacrificed meat is a bigger spiritual danger than alcohol? Or that airline food is so bad that nothing less than being drunk makes it edible?
But hey, let’s digress.
Fifteen years ago I was a junior in a public high school in Chicago. One day, I was a goth-grunge, army surplus loving teenager in spikes and wallet chains. The next day, I was suddenly a hijabi, but still in spikes and the wallet chains.
Yeah, I know. But it was the 90s.
My younger sister and I decided to start wearing hijab on the same day. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing or how we were going to do it, but we wanted to wear hijab. So we did exactly that – with our existing wardrobes, and our existing social circles, with our existing vocabularies. We walked up the street. We bought some hijabs. We put them on without the faintest idea of how to really do so.
(In case you were wondering, YouTube hadn’t been invented yet.)
So there I was on my first nervous day, wearing a badly-pinned hijab that didn’t cover my neck or chest, in a short-sleeved Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt, wearing skater jeans, spikes, and two wallet chains. I had already endured a fairly awkward morning – my ‘Outdoor Ed’ teacher had looked me up and down with barely hidden amusement. My literature teacher made an over the top, pointed remark about a woman’s hair being her “crowning beauty” while smiling directly at me. My stoner/skater/grunge friends were reserved and somewhat uncomfortable, and I don’t blame them. I looked…weird.
Being a Mormon, my mother wasn’t able to instruct us in proper hijab-wrapping techniques, so my sister and I had to make it up as we went along. My sister’s signature style became The Turtle, so named for the wearer’s inability to turn their head lest pins start popping off. Mine was The Lightbulb, referring to the bulbous head above a tightly wrapped neck, beneath which the tails of the scarf went into my t-shirt. I wasn’t sure what to do with my hair, so I braided it and tucked it into my shirt.
(A classmate once poked the bumps of hidden hair running down my back and asked, “What the heck is this, your spine?” That’s when I started twisting it up instead, making the bulbous part of my lightbulb even bulbier.)
There was one other sister in school who wore a hijab – she wasn’t a Turtle and she wasn’t a Lightbulb. She was a real hijabi, she wore long sleeves and a neatly layered scarf, and she could turn her head and everything! She saw me in the hall one day – she made eye contact with me in all my goth-punk hijabi awkwardness, and to my immense surprise – she smiled.
She beamed, actually. Her name was Hajar, and we never became close friends, and our social circles never overlapped, but I have always remembered that smile. On what was my first painful, awkward, and embarrassing day wearing a hijab, that one smile did more for me than she may ever know. And here I am, fifteen years later, wearing a properly wrapped hijab and an abaya, and I can turn my head and everything! Alhamdulillah.
Imagine though, if she had reacted a little differently. When our eyes met across the hall for the first time, instead of thinking, “MashaAllah, look who’s wearing a hijab!” she could easily have thought, “Look at her, wearing a hijab and she’s not even covering her neck or her chest. Dressing like a punk and hanging out with stoners and guys – why is she even wearing it? She’s just giving hijab a bad name!”
Instead of beaming, she could have glared at me. Instead of encouraging me, she could have given me the cold shoulder, and the disgusted sneer on her face alone could have provided me enough humiliating feedback at a vulnerable time to reconsider the whole Muslim sisterhood thing completely. That would have been terrible wouldn’t it?
You know what else would have been terrible? If after glaring at me, she went and talked about what a joke I was to her other friends. Or, what if we both happened to meet at the masjid, and she pretended not to see me so she wouldn’t have to say salam?
What if she saw another girl like me – a sister who had been wearing hijab for a bit longer but was still fighting a vicious internal battle where she wanted badly to please Allah by wearing hijab, but her insecurities and desire to please the rest of the world created a sort of… disconnect between her wardrobe?
What if I was the other girl? What if I had been preppy instead of grunge, and my friends were girls in lipstick rather than boys on drugs, and I still kept the same friends and did the same things – but I tried to start wearing hijab because it was my first step towards modesty, even though other aspects of my behavior had yet to catch up – what if she had seen me and shunned me? What if she had called me a hojabi?
For my non-American friends, a ho is a sexually promiscuous woman, and a hojabi is a girl in hijab who’s trying to fight the urge to be fashionable and appealing in a dunya that judges her intelligence, employability and personality by how attractive she looks. She may wear makeup or tight clothes. And people may roll their eyes, ignore her at the masjid, or talk badly behind her back – none of which is terribly encouraging to a Muslimah obviously in need of mature, supportive, Muslimah friends.
Like all Muslims, she is a work in progress. Like all Muslims, her Islamic practice is as unique as her fingerprint. Her hidden strengths may complement her obvious weaknesses. Her pants may be tight, but she may have a more charitable view of your character than you do of hers. AllahuAalim. Allah knows, and just as importantly – you don’t.
People who call sisters hojabis might believe they’re coming to the defense of “real hijab,” but insulting a Muslim woman and using a word that indirectly accuses her of fornication is not – by any stretch of the imagination – defense of Islam. It’s actually an attack on a Muslim. In fact, it is slander and a major sin in Islam.
Allah says in the Quran:
“Lo! As for those who slander virtuous, believing women who are careless, cursed are they in the world and in the hereafter. Their’s will be an awful doom.” (An-Nur: 23)
We Muslims, we have a problem. We see someone attempting to do good, and Shaitaan causes us to focus on the bad. We see a sister in hijab wearing tight jeans and lipstick, and we say, “She’s giving hijabis a bad name!” The irony of the situation is that we’re the ones givings hijabis a bad name. And that name is hojabi.
Please let that sink in.
When the Messenger of Allah saw some of his followers making wudu incorrectly, he didn’t come up with a catchy insult to use behind their backs (wudu weasels?) or even call them out specifically. He simply called out – to everyone at once and no one in particular – Woe to the ankles of the hellfire. That was it. He reminded everyone present of what a few people needed to know, and he did so without pointing fingers or calling them catchy insults.
So here I go:
Understanding other Muslims can be hard. They can be weird and confusing – like a mullet! They’re all business on top but party on the bottom, and you can’t figure out what they’re getting at – hijab with leggings and lipstick? A beard with tattoos and a band? Remember, not everyone was born with a miswaak in their mouth, so there’s a good chance they might still be searching for their footing as practicing Muslims.
Imagine that they’re learning to walk as Muslims, and their wobbly, awkward, and painful first steps are just the beginning of their journey on Siraatul Mustaqeem. They might be walking funny – or just wrong – but they’re trying. So if you see a Muslim who’s walking the Islamic walk in an obviously flawed way, do the right thing and offer them your hand. Say salam. Smile. Ask them over. Become their friend, their brother or sister in Islam, and an inspiration in their lives to do better.
Help make their steps stronger and their path straighter, and in the mean time, protect them from bullies, backbiters, and anyone uncharitable enough to make fun of someone’s spiritual limp. That’s like seeing a recovering paraplegic take their first steps, and then shoving them to the ground and saying, “You’re doing it all wrong! Just stop, that’s an insult to walking!”
Hijab Can Be Hard
Sometimes your faith pulls you one way and your heart pulls you in another, and the opposing factions fight for control of your wardrobe. Faith got you to put hijab on, but your heart convinced you that your pants weren’t that tight. The dunya likes to have its say too – it says your lips are too pale, your pores are too big, your eyebrows are too thick. Sometimes your heart sides with the dunya and the progress of your hijab co-exists with previous habits of its absence, but don’t let people get you down – they, too, sometimes pair religious progress with old habits. Sometimes we mix modesty with backbiting and slander, but please don’t let that discourage you from wearing hijab or trying to practice more.
When you meet judgmental people, please don’t be too hard on us. Shaitan is pushing buttons inside of us that make us discredit the struggles of other Muslims and think we’re better than they are just because our faults don’t come with a waist size. We’re the ones in really big trouble, because we’re fighting with arrogance, and unless we remove every last grain of it from our hearts, we’ll be barred from Jannah.
The Messenger of Allah said:
“Whoever has an atom’s worth of kibr (pride and arrogance) in his heart will not enter Paradise.”
So a man asked, What about a person who loves (i.e. takes pride in) wearing beautiful clothes and beautiful shoes?
The Messenger replied: “Indeed Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Kibr is to reject the truth, and to despise the people.” (Sahih Muslim)
I’m not sure how he does it, but Shaitan tricks us into being arrogant and looking down on other people so badly that we decide they are unworthy of even being allowed to practice Islam. That’s pretty amazing. For our sake, take it easy on us and make the effort to get to know us. Don’t write us off as unwelcoming, hypocritical, uptight religious people – and please, don’t hate us. We’re sorry.
“It is enough evil for a person to despise his brother Muslim.” – Prophet Muhammad (Sahih Muslim)
So back to my brother on the plane drinking red wine with his halal chicken curry slurry. I’m grateful that I was one row back and he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes around like cherries in a veiled slot machine. May Allah forgive me. Yes, alcohol is very definitely, inexcusably haram, but was the man still a Muslim? Alhamdulillah, yes. Was he Muslim enough to care if his meat was halal? Alhamdulilah, yes. Was he Muslim enough to avoid alcohol? InshaAllah, I pray that one day he will be.
I seek Allah’s forgiveness for thinking badly of him instead of making dua for him, and I am writing this as a reminder to myself first before others. May Allah make it easy for my brother on the plane to leave the haram in his life, and give him the longing and the sweetness of increasing the halal in his life. May Allah guide us all and protect us from the subtle and insidious ways that Shaitan tricks us into arrogance, and may He accept our good deeds – however imperfect and incomplete – and grant us the chance to do better and more. Ameen.