My parents told me this story about a talk they once heard. The person giving the talk was asked when they embraced Islam and they told the story of how they became Muslim. The person then asked the interviewer: “When did you embrace Islam?” They said: “I was born Muslim.” The speaker then said: “That doesn’t mean you have embraced Islam.”
That story stuck with me. When I was 16, I had the honour of going for Hajj with my family. It wasn’t something I was excited to do. I wasn’t prepared for the spiritual transformation that accompanied that journey. When I came home, I decided to start wearing hijab. That moment was a manifestation of me feeling like I embraced Islam.
Wearing hijab is a reminder about the way I should behave to represent Islam. It’s an incredible tool of dawah [advocating Islam]. It’s like a call to consciousness, to remember God. You have to think: Am I doing something in public that is going represent Islam in a negative way?
I remember the first Muslim wedding I went to in hijab. There were others in hijab but I felt like I was a thorn. I was just so conscious of myself. Women are fed all these messages that we need to look a certain way to feel beautiful. If someone had come up to me and said, “You’re looking so beautiful”, it would have made a difference. Whether they mean it or not is irrelevant; it’s about building each other in good ways.
People could say that there’s this extra responsibility on women in hijab to represent Islam. But I think that’s irrelevant. If part of my purpose is to portray Islam in the best possible way, then I’m okay with that. — Sumaya Hendricks, a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, as told to Ra’eesa Pather