Tonight Reem invited me to join her for Vegetable Noodles and Vegetarian spring rolls. I ventured out on a limb to eat Chinese in Colchester, but it was well worth it. Reem is a beautiful young woman, a friend who I originally met when she was seeking a tutor for the IELTS exam last summer. We now consider each other sisters.
She is the kind of young woman who I want to be like. I deeply respect her conduct with her children and the commitment she enacts for her family. Even with two young children, she is determined to perfect her English skills and complete a Bachelor's degree. Although Reem is a very modest woman, always adorned in an abaya and niqab in public, she has never judged me or made me feel inferior. During graduation at Essex last summer, I happened to be wearing the most risqué item in my wardrobe - a sleeveless summer dress that at least fell several inches below my knees. Reem spotted me as I dashed into the Wivenhoe Co-op; I think I was trying to hide. Instead of letting me go, she called out for me from the bus stop across the street. She didn't stop calling my name until I turned around. There she was, standing at the bus stop with her entire family, who had just come from Saudi Arabia to visit. Her mother, her Aunt, her younger sister, and her mother's friend were all wearing abayas and niqabs. I was so embarrassed, and begged Reem not to introduce me to her family until I was dressed more respectfully, but they were all eager to meet me. The following week when I visited Reem and her family in their home, I wore a long-sleeved shirt. It was not cool outside at that time, and they encouraged me to dress more comfortably the next time, as they sat there relaxing in spaghetti strapped shirts and leggings: "Don't you know what we wear in our homes?" they asked, inviting me to be more natural with them. They welcomed me so warmly, and I never felt a hint of judgment.
Muslim women like Reem help me to value more deeply the modesty that they demonstrate. They lead me to feel something that Lauren Booth refers to as "hijab envy." Islamic Awareness Week speaker Tarek El Diwany shared a striking image, as he described the criticism often faced by Muslim women for dressing modestly.
This photo from the Dubai World Cup illustrates the contrast between western and Islamic standards of dress. When I see this photo, I am struck by the beautiful modesty represented by the Muslim women. Sure they might have £500 handbags, but at least they have their self-respect. Although critics might label these Muslim women "oppressed," I find the blonde woman to be in a far more vulnerable and subservient position. Such a photo leads women to ask who we are dressing for, and why. The two Muslim women in this photo seem to be asking why the blonde woman feels it necessary to expose herself. I believe that women have been mistaken to equate showing our skin with freedom.
When I wear hijab, sometimes I am afraid that people in the street will treat me differently, or be less inclined to help me if I ask. This morning I stopped a British man in the street, and asked him to give me change for a £10. He had it, but I had to convince him to exchange the money with me. Even walking away, he asked me if the £10 note was "good." I was not wearing hijab, but I wondered to myself if he would have given me the time of day, had I covered my hair on my journey to work, as I normally do. At the same time, my sense is increasing that not every strange man needs to see my hair, and that a woman's hair is both beautiful and private. Women have the right to modesty.
In addition to envying the modesty portrayed by Islamic dress, I told Reem tonight that for a long while I was jealous of Muslims who pray 5 times daily. "That's why I learned to pray," I said, after describing the months I spent memorizing Quranic passages and prayers with my Libyan friend Aisha. I remember the day she started to teach me how to physically go through the motions of prayer, and the responsibility I felt when I got back home. I didn't have an excuse after that not to pray - unless I have a reason to stop, I should pray. And how beautiful a discipline I find it to be. Praying five times daily completely transforms the way one thinks and lives.
...exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and during periods of the night [exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied. al Ta Ha 20:130
Constantly I consider my state in relation to Allah: The sun is coming up, so I should pray. What have I done in the last few hours? Am I in a state of prayer? How can I arrange my schedule in a way most compatible with the prayer times? Ahmed has done the best to teach me what it means to prioritise prayer. I've learned from his example how to keep prayer in the forefront of my mind. He finishes class, and the first thing he will do when he returns to his room is pray. He's been in London for the day and the first item on his agenda is prayer. There is a sense of responsibility in the heart of Muslims to honor and remember Allah through prayer.
As in every aspect of Islam, the gracious intentions of Allah are reflected in the Islamic Pillar of Prayer. Although prayer challenges Muslims by calling them routinely to accountability, the prayers are not intended to make life more difficult.
O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah, then purify yourselves. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful. al-Ma'idah 5:6