In Defense of Visible Hair

My conversion and early years as a Muslim occurred in Saudi Arabia, where hijab was mandatory for everyone, whether we believed in it or not. Even non-Muslim women were well-advised to wear hijab while visiting certain neighborhoods of Riyadh. Scarves and abayas were always black, with maybe some nice black embroidery along the edges. Non-Saudi women could get away with wearing colored scarves,  pale shades and pastels only, with matching embroidery.  I wore hijab willingly, because I wanted to comply with local customs, and to be recognized as a Muslim woman; I wanted to move around the city inconspicuously, drawing no attention from anyone.

I’d studied the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the English translation, and I was not convinced that head covering was required. On the contrary, I was convinced that women were free to interpret those verses according to their personal conclusion. Living in the Kingdom, however, called for conformity above personal expression, so I covered everything, sometimes face and eyes. I even wore black gloves and black socks on occasion, when I knew I’d be encountering women who’d scold me, were they to see my white hands and ankles. Yes, women did scold me, usually at the mosque or at the madrassa. They believed that every inch of a woman’s skin must be covered in black while outside the home.

My Arabic was never fluent enough to challenge those reproaches, but who was I to challenge them, anyway? According to my own understanding, those women were entitled to their interpretations as I was entitled to mine.

Hijab never gave me any cause for psychological stress while in the Kingdom. I even got used to the physical discomfort from wrapping my head in black when the temperature rose so high you could fry an egg on the hood of a car.

Hijab never gave me distress while in the United States, either. I simply didn’t wear it (except for prayer) and still don’t. Though I never doubted the permissibility of going about bare-headed, I still give thought to the reasoning behind the practice. In fact, the reasoning behind the practice holds more importance for me than whether or not it is required in Islam. Living outside the Kingdom, personal choice becomes an important variable in whether a woman covers or not. Personal choice in any matter necessitates careful examination of the options.

Head-covering served to brand women as Muslim, and therefore unavailable for flirtatious activity or harassment of any sort. The idea is to downplay the “adornments” of women. Hair, boobs, curves, eyes, lips, hands, legs, skin… all of those can be categorized as “adornments,” and therefore, the glove-and-sock wearers are as justified in their practice as the head-coverers are in theirs.

Should cultural attitudes regarding modesty factor into a woman’s decision as to which parts of her body are the “adornments” to be covered and withheld from the gaze of men? Obviously yes, if you subscribe to the flexible interpretation of the texts, as I do. In the Kingdom, cultural attitudes prevailed; the woman who covered even her eyes, hands and ankles caused no stir on the streets of Riyadh. If she’d walk around like that in my American community, someone would call the police.

Here in the United States, boobs and crotch are the ultimate private parts, with curves coming in next, but hair? I don’t think so. Do you think so? OK, so cover it, but don’t ask me when I’m going to start covering mine.

As for curves, I don’t have them anymore, but my body is still draped in clothing so loose you cannot see where one part stops and the next part starts. My gray hair poses no distraction for anyone. I’m modest, I’m safe, and my appearance does not invite attention from anyone. What’s not Islamic about that?

I know I am in the minority. Most Muslim women in the United States cover their hair voluntarily, even proudly. In fact, the hair-covering seems more important than any other kind of covering. I’ve seen many women who would’t let even a strand of hair fall out, yet their faces are enhanced with cosmetics, their jeans are form-fitting and they might even wear belts. Scarves in this country are brightly colored, patterned and layered. I daresay my bare-headed appearance qualifies as more modest than most of the Muslim women whose hijab screams, “Look at me!” I conclude that hair-covering carries multiple meanings, and modesty is not one of them.

Herein lies the difficulty with understanding head-covering as it is practiced in different cultures. It is rarely about modesty, and only superficially about religious requirement. Mostly, it is about announcing to the world that, “I am a Muslim woman.” It’s a public display of faith, and as such, it makes perfect sense. I understand myself and others much better from this perspective. I am not comfortable with public announcement of my attributes, be they physical or spiritual. I do not like to advertise for anyone or any position.  That means I don’t put bumper stickers on my cars, I don’t wear clothes with logos stitched to  pockets, and I don’t cover my hair. 



About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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6 Responses to In Defense of Visible Hair

  1. jhanajian says:

    I enjoy your blog. It’s good to hear a personal cross-cultural perspective on being a Muslim.

  2. susanne430 says:

    Covering your hair here definitely draws attention that I believe simply dressing modestly (nothing tight, nothing too short or too low) would not bring. If hair is a private part, then men need to cover theirs, too. Do we want to see men’s privates? I didn’t think so.

  3. Marahm says:

    I like your comment, Susanne!

  4. Muslim says:

    This post is out of context…Modesty is not only covering hair,…Hair covering is part of covering your other curved parts of body as well.

    Men too need to cover their hair with a cap…But these things are parts of belief and modesty…Muslims and Muslimah scholars are more worried about women only because when these things neglected women are to suffer most of the time, as rape cases ( not by hair exposure-including body exposure I mean) are happening (always with women) every second of the day all over the world…. and kind men can only defend her by finance or law but not her emotional sufferings and feelings+ going to doctor of pregnancy+ abortion if needed or having a child out of marriage, their expenses etc..etc..etc.. etc…..

    Islamic law protects her with harsh punishments if any one commits rape or something bad to a modestly dressed woman….as Marham said,It is difficult to follow certain aspects of traditions and teachings of ethics in a non religious society / western countries,

    I agree, as Marahm said somewhere else, senior citizens or elderly believers can take this part of modesty– “hair covering” — in a different way.

  5. Marahm says:

    Covering hair is not about modesty, at least in the United States, and especially with respect to convert Muslims who grew up not covering their hair.

    In majority Muslim countries, women are brought up with the idea that the hair is a private part needing covering. Those women are more likely to feel a real pull of modesty with respect to their hair.

    I still assert the Western Muslimas who wear tight clothes, jewelry and cosmetics around their bright, beautiful scarves, are not covering out of modesty.

    They are covering for one of two reasons:
    1) someone told them it’s required in Islam, and/or
    2) they want to show the world they are Muslim.

    As for crimes committed against women who present a provocative appearance, let’s not forget that the man is the one who does the crime. The woman is the victim. Even if her appearance suggests that she would accept sexual advances, the man is the aggressor in cases of rape. To be fair, I believe certain cases of inappropriate sexual activity can be blamed on both man and woman.

    One does not wave a red flag in front of a bull and expect it not to charge.

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