How I went from an abaya to a mini skirt overnight
I was raised in a strict Muslim household where I was taught the fundamentals of Islam from a young age. At the age of five, I was made to attend the mosque. By the time I was eleven, I had already finished reading the Qur’an three times. We lived with my grandfather and I would hear him gently closing the front door as he left to pray Fajr every morning. I didn’t understand his devotion. Surely sleep was more important? He would often sit me down and share stories of the Prophets to reiterate the premises of our faith.
When we moved out, I slowly lost the values that he had instilled. I was surrounded by White friends and the juxtaposition of their culture against my own made it apparent that Islam was imposing too many restrictions upon me. My shoulders were to be covered. I was not to talk to boys, drink or go to clubs. I was not to get tattoos or read horoscopes. I was not even allowed to hang up photographs on my walls. There were so many rules.
I inevitably rebelled, as teenagers do.
I didn’t stop to give religion any significance in my life. I wanted to be a regular teenager and go out with my friends. I couldn’t comprehend why this was a problem. It was my right to make my own choices.
When I turned 19, my grandfather became severely ill. We were told that he only had 48 hours to live. I visited him in hospital. I listened to his shaky voice recite a Persian poem over and over. It was only after his death that I was able to translate his words.
Life is only for devotion;
a life without worship is a disgrace.
Everything suddenly came into focus. I stirred back into my life. It was in this moment that I was able to fully comprehend the extent of my grandfather’s submission to God. He had spent his entire life attempting to please Allah and when he died, his skin was glowing (alhamdulillah). He was smiling.
During the summer that followed his death, I suffered from panic attacks, which became so brutal that I could not be left alone. I trailed my mother around the house, crying until sunrise. I became a child, shaking with indescribable fear. I didn’t know what I was terrified of.
My family grew concerned and took me to visit an imam who recommended that I wear the hijab to feel more at ease. I was so petrified that I contemplated it. Maybe this was all happening because I had abandoned God. Maybe praying and reading the Qur’an would make me feel better.
When I went back to university, a few girls on my course that were a part of the Islamic Society invited me to join them. I began to spend my free time in the prayer room but the girls wore hijabs and I felt out of place. I started volunteering at events so that I would have a reason to be present. The more time that I spent there, the more the girls insinuated that I should cover my hair.
Maybe the hijab would help my anxiety; maybe it would make me feel closer to God.
I eventually talked myself into covering my hair but I walked into university and felt like a stranger. The girls congratulated me and I momentarily felt like I had done the right thing. However, they soon began to advise me on the things that I needed to give up because I was now outwardly ‘representing Islam.’
They would impose more rules (or things that God wanted) and I followed them because I was afraid.
These restrictions magnified my anxiety. There was no way that I could do everything, I was going to hell. I wore the abaya, prayed five times a day, woke up for Tahajjud, read the Qur’an until I lost my voice; all I did was think about and breathe Islam. I was so utterly immersed to the point that I was contemplating wearing the niqab.
People told me that Allah loved me but I didn’t feel close to God. I didn’t feel anything.
I didn’t buy clothes that were not abayas. I didn’t buy makeup or dye my hair. I didn’t read or write anything that was not related to Islam. I didn’t listen to music or watch my favourite shows.
I lost my identity.
I soon began studying my Masters at a different university and had to introduce myself in the hijab and abaya. These people didn’t know who I had been before, or who I really was. It was only then that it hit me: I didn’t want to be this person. I was being smothered.
I wore the hijab and abaya for two years of my life.
One day I woke up and found that I could no longer look at my reflection. I was so depressed. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to end up resenting Islam or God.
I left the house without the hijab and abaya that day, and as soon as I felt the pulse of the wind on my bare skin, I smiled. It was the right thing, and there was nothing more liberating than that moment. I felt so inexplicably free and everyone commented on how different I seemed.
I was myself.
I was A’mal.
I was alive again.
I subsequently lost my friendships and was told that I had ‘gone off the rails.’ However I didn’t feel connected to God, and therefore these pieces of cloth were never going to hold significance. I hadn’t covered myself in an attempt to appear more modest, but rather because people reiterated that it was the right thing to do.
I wish we focused more on faith and spirituality because a cloth ultimately doesn’t do anything or protect you from anything. It doesn’t shield you from Satan, yourself, or your own landscape.
Now I’m starting over.