Mishal was on her way to the kind of easy, protected-by-the-flock, public high school experience that most kids, Indian or otherwise, have little chance of achieving.
For the last month I have been talking to my sister's friend Mishal about her decision to wear a traditional Muslim hijab. Though I first met Mishal a number of years ago, her story has remained with me.
Like my parents, Mishal's parents immigrated to the United States from India. Mishal and I went to the same suburban Chicago high school— she started in 1990, after I graduated. Unlike me, Mishal was born and brought up in the States, and completed most of her elementary, and high school education with the same group of American kids, I, on the other hand, was born in India and moved back and forth between the two countries throughout my schooling.
The constant migration between the two countries caused the most confusion in my life when I completed tenth standard in a Catholic all-girls' boarding school in Kerala, and moved back to Chicago. As much as I treasured my memories of India and missed my old cronies and our sheltered daydreaming, I resented the visible markings of my time in India—my speech, my manners, my confidence. I sincerely wished I could be one of those Indian girls who seemed to fit in, or rather float in, on her wing-like hairsprayed locks, as an adamantly a-cultural American among other Americans.
That's why I was intrigued by my sister's accounts of Mishal. Here was someone who could have floated through, someone whose parents did not put overwhelming strictures on her behaviour. Mishal was on her way to the kind of easy, protected-by-the-flock, public high school experience that most kids, Indian or otherwise, have little chance of achieving. Yet she chose to 'risk it all'.
When Mishal was 13 years old, under no compulsion from her family, and living in a predominantly white, middle-income school district, she decided to adopt the dress of the hijab. What could have tempted her?
The first time we talked was on a Sunday afternoon. Over the telephone, Mishal's voice rang with energy and clarity as she spoke about the choices she had made. Through our conversation, Mishal revealed not one, but two vying temptations that influenced her decision.
First, and most readily, she insists that what she feels is a desire to perceive the world through the binoculars of her faith. "It helps me focus in on what I'm supposed to be focusing in on," she says firmly. Some people have enough inner strength to keep themselves focused, some people don't need a reminder, I do, Without it, I'd be floating." When I asked her exactly what this focus should be on, she responds in more general terms, "Believing in a purpose in life and making a contribution that sincerely improves at least one other person's life with the skills that God has given me." The hijab serves as an external reminder of her decision to perceive. Mishal wants to see.
But, did she know this when she was 13? "No — Initially it was a very spontaneous decision." Mishal remembers those days in junior high, "I was clueless when I started junior high. I looked like a boy and I rode a dirt bike." But the other girls seemed to have discovered femininity overnight, they had important new hairstyles, and were slinging the long, leather straps of purses over their shoulders. " 'Purses, what did they need purses for' — I wondered. All I carried around was my pencil." By the end of that school year Mishal too, was waking up half an hour earlier to curl her bangs and, yes, she too had a purse — she needed it for the hairspray.
By the following autumn, Mishal arrived at school with her hair covered. Mishal had given in to her temptation to see. In so doing, she revealed her second temptation—the desire not to be seen.
It was Mishal's father who insisted she go to a week-long Islamic camp in Wisconsin the summer before she made her decision. Mishal had not wanted to go. Organised by young adults, it was a place for kids who shared the same religious background to come together and participate in structured activities, some based around religious education, others not. In Mishal's words, "It was the first time I was exposed to Muslim people my age and was able to develop friendships." She realised that balancing one culture within the confines of her house, with another one outside, was taking its toll, She states allusively, "There was a void in the back of my head."
About a month after she returned home, she read an article in the Chicago Tribune about a group of Muslim girls in Paris who were prohibited to wear the hijab in their private school. Though they obeyed the school's uniform rules in every way, they were disallowed to follow their own religious beliefs. "They were the same age as me, it was kind of a kicker." Mishal's mid-western accent, which flattens her words is strong, "I thought, 'I'm in a country where I am allowed to express myself."
Though they obeyed the school's uniform rules in every way, they were disallowed to follow their own religious beliefs. They were the same age as me, it was kind of a kicker.
Mishal chose to wear a hijab. Her choice marked her desire to be perceived by the world for who she is rather than how she appears, "A dress code exists for men and women in Islam so that you will be respected for your beliefs and ideas, not for the shape of your body." She speaks of modesty and the need to "cover your body in loose, non-transparent clothing." Her words remind me of the Quranic passage, "Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the true believers to draw their veils close around them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized [my italics] and not molested."
"It was hard when I first started, really hard," she states. "Eighth grade boys were constantly teasing me about this thing on my head. One guy would walk past me in the hallway, and threaten to pull it off. They called me 'towel head'. The girls didn't say anything to my face, but behind my back.... A lot of people stopped associating with me, Particular friendships ended. I didn't feel invited anymore— that hurt, but, a test like this makes you realise who'll stick by you. I didn't think I had changed overnight."
In an Islamic cultural context, the hijab covers the body. It is not seen— it blends into the surroundings. In most Islamic countries, drawing the hijab over the body is almost a compulsory act for women if they are to partake in the public sphere without drawing confrontation. These women are unseen, whereas Mishal, living outside an Islamic state and completely integrated into American life, is not. Mishal is seen.
If Mishal's hijab is a response to America, is it an American response? It does not fit into its usual Islamic dialogue (the hijab has its own unique history—one that is strongly tied to the struggles of Muslim women trying to overcome domination and oppression.). When I question Mishal about this image and the inequality of women in places like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, she calls these practices of Islam 'manipulative'. This is not her world, and this is not the meaning she sees in her hijab. She does not perceive women's rights and Islam to be contrary to one another, "I like to think I'm getting the best of both worlds," she states in reference to how she views her faith and personal rights.
There is something very American about the notion that you can get to the root of an idea in another place — that you can resurrect a philosophy after you wash away its residue of misuse. "I don't want to become a victim to conformity and convenience," Mishal says in a definitive tone. From the Puritans to slave-trading, Confederates to cultists in Waco, Texas, this belief in the individual's right to personal choice has time and again been expressed in American history. The rights of the individual form the bedrock of American society, and they have been defended to the point where individual liberty, at times, even spills into self-indulgence. In Mishal's case, she is not re-expressing a societal identity, she is creating her own process of faith.
It is Mishal's hijab that is the basis of her individuality. And as such, her tone is resolute when I ask her if she ever regrets her decision, "I never let myself think about taking it off. If I did, I would feel like a failure. Wearing the hijab has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. I have invested a lot of time and pain into it. I respect myself more with it on. I like the image."
From image to image ... but has Mishal trapped herself? Mishal wants to see, but she does not want to be seen. Mishal's hijab provides her with an external reminder of her decision to see, and by Islamic tradition it hides her image, But, by wanting to see beyond her immediate American reality of self-expression, has Mishal also revealed herself as seeing through that very lens, ("I am in a country where I can express myself"). She wants to detract attention from her image, but she has actually created a very powerful image.
Of course, when her classmates grew used to her image, and realised that Mishal's paranormal capacity for challenge had only momentarily removed her from their sphere of comprehension, the furore settled down. She found different avenues for social interaction. Making time to get together with the girls she met in her mosque, with whom she felt she had more in common, enriched her high school years. Instead of going to parties, and paying homage to the prevailing high school status quo dominated by cheerleaders and jocks, she chose to associate with people who had also been challenged to perceive.
When I started talking to Mishal, I sought to understand her gesture in the context of the larger worlds of Islam and America, I sought to find the balance between a spiritual temperance and a social proclivity toward indulgance— tensions I feel every day as an Indian immigrant brought up in the Syrian Catholic faith. What I found instead was a self-defining moment: a little youthful rebellion, a little social consciousness, a little confusion, a little prophecy—all raised during a summer when you're 13, and inspired, and don't know what you're capable of, until you vow to find out.
A self-defining moment, the core of any good story, can come at any time in a person's life. Unfortunately, most people tend to spit out that hard seed of originality, rather than accepting it and letting it take root within us.
Perhaps the most tempting temptation is the discovery of your individuality, whether in the way you see, or in the way you are seen. I might be able to grade Mishal's gesture harshly for its success at attaining freedom from her surroundings, but I cannot deny its timing. It's a good story.
Editors note: Although the story is based on fact, the names have been changed.