In the eyes of a non Muslim, a Muslim covering her head with hijab, or a burqa is what identifies the wearer as a Muslim, or rather, a ‘real’ Muslim. Before I started embarking on my journey of wearing one, whenever I was in a land that wasn’t my own, the question, “if you’re a Muslim, why aren’t you wearing the head thing?” was often asked by strangers, who were always kind enough to accompany the question with their hand circling motion around their heads, to signify the headscarf. If you’re wondering why they asked, it’s because I usually travel with a flock of hijabis, and I’m the only one without a headscarf on.

In my homeland, this question is never raised, because presumably half of the female population are non-hijabis, and to be perfectly honest, there is nothing wrong nor abominable about a Muslim woman without a headscarf. Well, not to me, at least.

I started wearing a hijab full-time about six years ago but I am not a perfect Muslim- I was not then, nor am I now. To be honest, I don’t think there is such a thing, because being perfect means that we stop asking for forgiveness from God, or even seeking for God in our lives. But this is just me. I hadn’t the slightest recollection why I decided to cover my head six years back, it just happened. Back then I would only wear them willingly on bad hair days, during weddings or Eid. I think I just grew up thinking that girls without hijabs look way prettier than the ones who do, but that perception changed the day I decided to wear a hijab for…always (I hope!)

Like I said, I don’t remember why, but I remember how I felt after making that decision. Something in me moved when I saw my reflection on one of the mirrored doors near the cinema. I felt the little waves leaping in me gently, and I was washed by some kind of serenity that I had never felt before. This was a strange sensation, a new feeling that I hadn’t felt before even though I had to wear a headscarf every single day to school.

This was different.

I couldn’t get over it, especially the fact that I found myself looking more presentable with my head covered. There was beauty there, one I had not known before, one that I had just discovered, but it wasn’t my own. I don’t know how to explain it, but at that moment, I felt like a different person. It was as if I was staring at someone else. But this was me, and I was staring at myself, and I actually felt beautiful. No, not the superficial, physical beauty, but the kind that radiates from within.

Without fail, I wore my headscarf for a couple of years, and I treasured what was underneath the headscarf as it is part of our Aurat. However, recently, I started living in a different land for a few  months. Aside from one other Muslim girl, I was the only other Muslim girl in the school, and I was the only one with a headscarf. Immediately I was turning heads without having to create a commotion around me, or even looking at people in their eyes. I was always approached and inquired about my religion, and it made me slightly uneasy. What was this queasy feeling in me? How did these knots end up in my stomach? Why is my throat burning and closing in on me? Why is the room getting smaller? Why are they looking at me differently?

“I am not a terrorist!” my mind screamed. My mind was throwing a tantrum- kicking and screaming, and then pleading the eyes to turn away from me.

But as per usual, my worries evaporate quickly, because I am always received with hospitality in spite of the obvious differences in our faiths.

As soon as summer was approaching, my allergies were acting up because the torturous heat of summer arrived before the season even started. My skin was irritated by the heat and I could not stop scratching my neck. To make matters worst, my hijab was trapping the heat and causing me to scratch. It got to a point where a part of my neck was red and purple from all the scratching and the flaky skin. So I decided not to wear my hijab to let my skin heal and breathe. At first I didn’t want to leave the apartment without a hijab on, but I had to, and it felt weird and strangely liberating, because no longer was I under the suspecting eyes of these people. I was not treated like a foreigner, nor hissed at.

I did experience pangs of guilt every now and then. After a month or so, my skin finally healed completely. It took me a while to get back to my hijab because I was so used to not wearing it. But around that time, the ISIS thing broke out. It blew out of proportions and my classmates were talking about Muslims. Mind you, my classmates consisted of international students from all over the globe, even from this one country I never heard of before I met him- Nicaragua. (I thought he was pulling my leg. Sorry Juan.) 

So they were scared, and I heard hushes everywhere.

They swept the discussion under the carpet when we, the only three muslims (my guy friend, the other girl and I) walk by. But the great thing about this is that, in spite of all these negativity surrounding muslims, their perception of us didn’t change. They didn’t treat us differently, and they even asked about how we feel towards the bombing and the killings. We explained to them about our lifestyle and how this isn’t what Islam is. The best part about this is that, they listened. They listened and understood.

The other muslim girl did warn me not to wear my hijab for now, for safety precaution, as she told me to give it time for this issue to die down. Then we spent the afternoon sharing more of our life stories, and she told me about her islamophobic encounters here. When she first arrived, she wore her hijab but given that she has to commute daily as she lives far from the university, she made the decision to take her hijab off because of the “danger” that surrounds wearing the hijab on a train and her walk home every night.

Way before this cautionary tale happened, we went for a school trip once and I shared a room with her. After my morning shower the following day, I was walking about the room trying to find my Yukata because I had to put it in the laundry basket. As I was rummaging through the heaps of clothes and futon, I saw her sitting near the verandah, cocooned in her own world, with her iPad in both hands and her eyes locked on the device. I saw that her mouth was moving, so I assumed that she was reading an article or something like that. But when I moved closer, I found out that while waiting for me to finish my shower, she was sitting there reciting Surah Yaasin. She was wearing shorts, but she was reciting it from beginning to the end. There I was, with a dropped jaw, trying to grasp this scene before me. I was shocked beyond comprehension, because this was the girl who wore whatever she wanted, and hadn’t any headscarf on since the day I met her. Here i was, a hijab wearer, yet why hadn’t I recited the Yaasin for so long?

This brings me back to the title of this piece- am I less of a Muslim then if I don’t wear my hijab? Am I less of a Muslim if my clothes are too revealing for my muslim brothers and sister? This experience puts things into perspective, and I have received clarity.

It is not our job to judge people based on their choices, or even condemn them for their lifestyles.

Why can’t we, instead, learn from each other and live in harmony in spite of the differences in our perspectives? Why do we have to assume that someone is less religious when they don’t have their hijabs on or the proper muslimah attire? Not having a hijab on is not a reason for us to judge them, and it doesn’t give us the right to condemn someone for this. It takes time to open our hearts, and wearing a hijab shouldn’t be something one forces on others. It takes time. It will happen when Allah wills it to- when the time is right. So be patient, and be kind to one another.