Two days ago I celebrated what I have dubbed my “hijab-versary”, the anniversary of the day I put on my first hijab. 367 days of covering my hair in front of unrelated men may not seem like a big deal, but for someone like me (a Chinese Canadian Christian from a Buddhist family), it’s been an unbelievable journey. So if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, I’d like to share my story with you.
Growing up in largely Communist and Buddhist China in the 1990s, I never thought much about religion. I heard stories about the Jade Emperor, Mandate from Heaven, the Buddha, and I worshipped our ancestors, all of the Buddhas, and believed in dragons. In Islam, we believe everyone’s fate is written from the time Allah breathes their souls into their tiny bodies at 16 weeks of gestation. I didn’t know it then, but in 1999 when my parents decided to move to Canada when I was 12, it was really my first step towards a life as a Muslim, and everyday, I say ‘alhamdulillah’ for it.
When we first moved to Canada, I didn’t speak very much English, and most of what I learned, I did so from TV. And my first exposure to the concept of Jesus (PBUH) and Christianity, was from TV shows from Christmas time. I remember watching The Nativity and being mesmerized by the miracle and sacrifice of Jesus and at the age of 14, I became, in my heart, a Christian. I dated a Christian boyfriend, I went to his church, I enjoyed Christian rock music, and I read the Bible, trying to study it and apply the teachings to my life. I was content as a modern Chinese Christian, my faith was “cool” and “hip” and I preached the beauty and peace and love of Christ to anyone that would listen.
The reason I share my journey from a somewhat Buddhist to a Christian for two reasons: 1) my belief in a monotheistic God is what eventually put me on the way to Islam, and 2) having the experience of already having converted once away from the traditional beliefs of my family, was very important in giving me the courage to convert again.
In 2006, I met my now fiance (we will be married next May, insha’Allah), and he is truly the man who has changed my life forever, Alhamdulillah. We were both in our early 20s, both religious, both educated, both in the sciences, and we had a lot in common. We spoke often about religion, and he was convinced from the beginning that he could change my mind and make me see my way to Allah. I, on the other hand, was more than arrogant that he would not, and boy was I wrong, and thank God that I was. In our discussions, we often talked philosophically about the tenants of Christianity and Islam, and never did I feel that I was wavering. Then suddenly one day, I found myself fearing Allah, fearing His consequences if I did not become a Muslim, and I realized, in a wash of clarity, that I had become a believer. And so, just like that, I became a Muslim instead of a Christian in July of 2006, and in a few weeks, I will celebrate my 7 year anniversary as a Muslimah. I often wonder how it is I have arrived at this blessed place in my life, and all I can say is, this was Allah’s plan for me, and everyday I am grateful.
When I first converted to Islam, I found the prospect of having to cover my hair alien and tough to understand. To say I thought it old-fashioned (and frankly, mysogynistic) was the understatement of the century. Yet as I understood the meaning and message of the hijab, and began befriending modern, intelligent, independent, fierce, and modest young hijabis, I found an exotic beauty in this foreign garment. It is elegant, beautiful, incredibly feminine, and added something a little ‘je ne sais quois’ to the woman wearing it. And I thought (and fantasized) about wearing a hijab for a long time, but never found the courage to finally put it on. Then in June of last year, I experienced a fairly significant personal hardship that finally solidified my desire to wear the hijab. People often say that one moves closer to God in times of crisis, and this was definitely true for me. In my time of hardship, my newly donned hijab, along with my daily prayers, gave me a sense of comfort I desperately needed.
However, change isn’t always easy; and this is especially true for a convert and new hijabi living with a non-Muslim family. But before I share this part of my experience, I must start by saying that I am very lucky (alhamdulillah) to have parents who are fairly liberal in their views. And because of this liberal attitude, when I became a Muslim, there was very little resistance from my mom and dad, even though they are both Buddhists. My mother stopped cooking anything containing pork for me, and my father was merely curious about some of the practices (how and where to perform salat, for example). My little sister was even easier to convince: being 14 years younger, she idolizes me (or at least I’d like to think so, lol) and has tons of Muslim friends who she adores.
So when I decided to put on the hijab, it was my little ray of sunshine (Alicia, 11 years old) who was captain of my cheerleading squad. My parents were a slightly different story. I think my mother experienced something akin to the stages of grief: 1. disbelief - she laughed it off and never thought I’d keep it up for more than a few days; 2. anger - she told me how silly it looked and told me how it was an embarrassment to her in front of her friends; 3. bargaining - she told me to wear it but only when I was not within her visual field; and then finally 4. acceptance - she now no longer comments on my hijabs and we go out to dinner or shopping sometimes while I’m wearing it - she even offered to make something to help me organize all of my hijab pins (of which I have many). My father spoke to me for about 10 minutes one day to say that it was not our custom and never brought it up again; but I think that’s just part of the male personality. In any case, I’m happy to report that whatever their initial reactions, my parents have now accepted my choice, as they have accepted all of my choices over the course of my adult life. I think it’s because they recognize that it is my life to live and I alone have to live with the consequences of my choices, a philosophy I plan to adopt when I have children of my own.
The perception of my decision to wear the hijab from others in my life have been mostly positive. All of my Muslim friends congratulated me on the choice and they showered me with tips on how to match scarves to clothes, gifts (scarves, hijab pins, etc.) and all kinds of encouragement. My colleagues at work were also extremely understanding, and their acceptance is something I will always remember and be grateful for. The perception of everyday strangers is somewhat mixed: some think the hijab is beautiful, some find it confusing, and some are downright hostile. I’ve received prolonged stares, obvious glares, and sometimes curiosity-driven queries. Many Muslims and Asians ask me why I wear a hijab (I suppose this is understandable since a Chinese Canadian Muslim wearing a hijab is somewhat of a rare thing) but most are very pleasant. But I’ve also experienced not-so-nice (and not so quiet) whispers, pointing followed by laughing, and sometimes just the death stare.
So what are my thoughts? In the beginning, it was very difficult, very different, and very exciting. (In hindsight, choosing to cover up your hair during one of the hottest summers in Toronto ever recorded was probably not the wisest. In the few days following my decision to wear the hijab, temperatures in the GTA soared to well above 40 in some cases, and I was hot!) I was receiving pressure from home and some negativity from those around me, and it became very difficult to keep on my path. On top of that, I didn’t know how to match scarves to clothes at first, so all of my outfits looked absolutely ridiculous. But somehow, by the grace of Allah, I woke up every morning and put on my scarf. Slowly, I became more and more comfortable being a hijabi, and these days, I’d feel naked if I ever left the house without a headscarf. But the most important thing about wearing the hijab is how it makes me feel. In times of anger, it calms me; in times of sadness, it comforts me; it times of trial and tribulation, it encourages me. It makes me feel closer to Allah, and that’s why I put it on in the first place.