“We need to empower our sisters and give them the confidence and the understanding that they need to elevate their self-esteem and make sure that they become the better people that we all want to be”
Can’t argue with that. But, context is everything.
Rewind 12 minutes to the start of the video that ends with that comment (and the video that compelled me to write this blog post).
It’s not that it is the first video on hijab that has left me feeling wanting; it’s just that this one left a particular sting.
At first it was like a cringeworthy joke, trying too hard to be cool but getting it so, so wrong. But as the minutes went on…it didn’t seem so funny anymore. If a topic is a serious matter, treat it as such. Light-hearted is one thing, but there was nothing light in my heart at the end of these jabbing jokes. Because it was my heart at the end of every jibe.
“In no way do I mean to offend, mock, or disrespect any person…” It was a sincere disclaimer…
But then it came anyway…
“I’m going to call this the Cockatoo…with spray painted jeans…and bangles that are probably fake and plastic anyway”
The Cleopatra; “because she has recently purchased nice expensive earrings, her ears are showing…newsbreak you are not Cleopatra”
Then a quick glance at the Minnie Mouse Hijab" and a description of the “Convertible Hijab” (“I’d rather call this the Hypocrite Hijab”).
The Barely There Hijab; “she hates everything and everyone around her”
The Camel-Hump Hijab (“the fatter the hump is the closer you are to God”)
The Gangster Hijab (she thinks she is a rebel because you can see her 7 studs through her see-through scarf)
And rounded up with “The Helmet” and the “Kardashian” (“cake faced and high heels and she’s only walking down to Woolies”)
No this wasn’t satire. He was being serious.
As the video came to an end, I paused. What was it that I was feeling? This wasn’t the kind of aggravated reaction that you sometimes have when you are challenged on one of your weak spots. You know the ones; you know deep down you’re doing wrong, but you are going to argue to the death, and as stubbornly as the bad habit of yours that is under discussion. You have a variety of fail-safe tactics you use every time; you’ll be loud, you’ll mock, you’ll bring out the relevant card from your extensive collection (sexist/racist/ignorant etc etc) to try and win the argument and most importantly appease and thus temporarily convince yourself.
But no, this wasn’t that (although perhaps it will be dismissed as such). This was something else; more heartfelt. This was disappointment; hurt; sorrow. I was sad. Because this video was about me.
Funnily enough, I don’t really fit in to any of these labels (so maybe I’m safe!)...and the truth is…if I’m honest, I have thought some of these thoughts myself.
So what's the big deal? It's the TRUTH, right? Well to me, the "big deal" is actually the biggest lesson I have had to learn since I put on my hijab.
You see, I probably started as somewhat of a "Cockatoo" (and yes the bangles were fake AND plastic). When I went to live in Iran I didn’t wear hijab, but head coverings there are obligatory. The law, especially in Tehran, is very relaxed. You just throw a scarf loosely on your head (your hair mostly showing) and you’re fine. I mean the “Tehran uniform” circa 2007 may basically be the origins of the Cockatoo; jeans, boyfriend shirt, bangles and sandals, and a lose scarf thrown on for good measure.
And you know what. This offensive butt-of-the-joke hijab style was the subconscious start of my journey. Because while everyone else whipped-off their uniform as soon as they got on the plane back to London, I remember very clearly the journey, a few years in, where I didn’t like how I felt when I whipped my Cockatoo off.
Without the Cockatoo. There would be no Nargess circa 2016. And while Nargess v2016, doesn’t fit neatly into any of these hurtful labels, she knows, that ultimately, in the eyes of those who thought the labels up, she is one and the same. And perhaps I am not supposed to care…but I do.
I wonder? What would my category be? “Work in Progress.” “Not Quite There But Trying Her Best.” “It was a long road to this level of inadequacy.” “Do you know how hard I worked to be failing so badly in your eyes?” “I try my hardest every single day and the next day I try even harder”.
A few years ago, a colleague of mine said he was scared of death because he hadn’t yet “fixed up”. I remembered that feeling…I once said I didn’t want to go on Hajj because if I went I would have to wear a hijab on my return and I simply was not ready to do that. So I didn’t mock him. And I didn’t judge. He asked me if I felt the same? I said no.
“Did you try your absolute best today?” I asked. He said no.
“I did,” I responded, “So I don’t fear dying today, but I’d like to be around tomorrow to try even harder and be even better”.
If you don’t want to fear death, just starting living your life to the full today. Know what your target is and know that on the way to reaching it, you will have to fail at being “there” every day. And that’s ok. Because your target is your aim. Your challenge is to try your very best. You’ll fail your target every day until you reach your target, and then you’ll be set a new one. And you’ll fail at that for a while, but you just keep trying your best. Every. Single. Day.
That’s called growth.
Trying your best is not an excuse. It is not the get out of jail free card. It is the not the wishy-washy diluted version of anything. It is the struggle. It is a practical and lived experience. It is pushing yourself to the absolute depths and heights of truth every single day.
When I started doing “my best” 4 years ago, I made the Cockatoo look like a Chador. And I wonder, did I deserve a negative label then?
I’ve written about my journey before, so I won’t go in depth about it again. But I will repeat what I think has been my most important lesson to date.
I had been through a process of spiritual growth and improvement for almost a year (in the run up to and in the initial months of wearing my hijab); I was trying my very best every day; and i felt better than I ever had in my faith. Then one day I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. And I knew what I looked like. I was one of “those girls” who I used to mock (especially before I wore the hijab). “If it’s that tight what’s the point” “Don’t wear it if you can’t wear it right.” “Where is she going with that amount of make up?” “What’s that on her head an satellite dish…?”
I was talking about the Cockatoo, the Cleopatra…and the “Hypocrite hijab” except the only hypocrites was me…
It was a sobering moment for me. How many of those girls that I had judged, were having their first day ‘’on the job”, how many were trying their very best. How many had come such a long way? How many were as sincere, and hopeful and vulnerable as I was at that point in my life? How many of them deserved a negative label?
Soon, another challenge presented itself…how I felt vis-à-vis people doing things that I didn’t find palatable anymore. I found myself thinking I was better. Not in an overt way, but in subtle thoughts that could easily have gone undetected. But I was lucky. Because I was trying my best every single day, I was also reaping the rewards of that; gaining more understanding, of myself and others – this flaw of mine was something that I identified early on and is something I have been working on ever since.
For me, the biggest challenge of wearing my hijab is to keep focused on myself and my own imperfections. And to carry on growing. To not be stubborn, but not dilute the ideals and principles my religion is teaching me. To be sincere and forgiving. And to remember that every person has their own story.
First I need to understand if that person is trying their very absolute best today. Then I need to discuss whether their targets are correct. And if the answer to both is yes; then WHEREVER they are in their journey (whichever mock-a-hijabi style they have on); they don’t deserve negative labels.
Do not get me wrong. Having an incorrect target is different to trying your best every day towards the right one.
But you don’t empower by demeaning, you don’t give confidence by speaking in jest and you don’t teach self-esteem by hurting others.
If you want to instruct how something should be done then show positive examples; praise the things that are being done correctly, and support growth through empathising with the struggles an individual is facing as they try to “be better”.
As a Muslim woman I am working towards being a better version of myself every day. It can be very hard. Sometimes lonely, often vulnerable. It wasn’t nice to be made to feel so awful about my sincere and heartfelt attempt. And I felt sad for all the other (especially young girls) who would have felt the same.
To those girls, I want to say; I respect you. It is not always easy being a Muslim girl in this country; you have kept on your hijab. Through the years that, for me, it didn’t even enter my mind to wear it. I know when you hear certain things said to you and about you, you want to do that “aggravated response” and I don’t blame you. There are worse things you can be doing than struggling with the perfect hijab, and for doing as much as you are; for protecting that sanctity despite all the difficulties, I respect you. However, don’t let the defensiveness settle on your heart. Don’t dilute the target. Don’t move the goal posts. Don’t change the target just because you are not there yet. You just keeping moving. Keep trying, every single day. If you are, like me, not where you want to be, but sincere in wanting to get there; then there is nothing to mock. All you deserve is support and praise. You don’t deserve the negative labels.
On the other end, I have nothing but love for those who are doing “it” better than me. I smile and say Alhamdulilah when I see women who don’t face the same struggle as me. Those who are comfortable and confident enough not to find my “petty hijab” struggles a challenge. In my own journey so far, I have learnt that confidence comes from inner peace and an understanding of who you are and what your faith is. The beauty of this creation called human, is its simplistic complexity, and its complex simplicity. When you try your best every day, God will reward you by constantly setting you a new challenge. You may have learnt a lesson I have not yet mastered. And I may have mastered a lesson that you have not yet acknowledged exists.
It is true that I need to learn the confidence of better hijab but perhaps those who have spoken about my journey in these hurtful terms and negative labels need to learn how to better understand and communicate their very important message.
I would be sad to see them have an aggravated reaction to this. But I do not think that will be the case. Because I afford them sincerity – in the most serious of terms – even though they did not afford it to me.