It had been a lovely day. It was the week before Eid Al-Fitr and I’d spent the day with my daughter and Mimi, a fellow convert. We’d taken a trip out to a Somali strip mall in order to shop for new abayas for the upcoming holiday. Our previous trips to this particular mall had been hit and miss. My friend and I are obviously not Somali and were often met with a certain level of hostility. In light of this, you may wonder why we continued to patronize this establishment. It was simple-they had the best deals. Sure, I could visit the shop of a fellow convert and be greeted with a smile and a hug each time. But I’d end up spending $60 or more per abaya, while the Somalis would sell them for $35. The savings alone made the hostility worth it.

However, this trip had been completely different! We spent the whole afternoon in a shop owned by two younger Somali sisters and they were awesome. They were kind and extremely helpful. I sensed a deep sincerity in the way that they treated us. It wasn’t just that they wanted to make a dollar. No, they were sweet and loving to us for the sake of Allah alone. We hung out and joked with them. We asked them questions about the deen and they were more than happy to help us out. By the time we left the store, I’d purchased five new abayas, six new khimars and a prayer outfit. Mimi and I were both smiling as we walked out of the mall. Our happiness, however, would be short-lived. A middle-aged Somali lady in a brown jilbab approached us, scowling. I saw the look on her face and wondered what I had done wrong. I was wearing a plain black abaya and flats, which usually kept the ‘modesty police’ off of my back. But it wasn’t my attire that upset this sister. It was my daughters’.

“YOU”, she said, pointing a finger and yelling at my six-year old daughter, “Why you no cover your legs?”

“Asalaam alaikum sister”, I said, trying to get her attention so she would address me, the adult, and not my child,”What is the problem?”

“WHY YOU NO COVER HER LEGS?”, she yelled.

By this point I was both perplexed and angry. At the time my child was wearing hijab. Though I had been ambivalent about her wearing it at all when I converted-I felt that was a choice for her to make herself once she hit puberty-she pleaded and pleaded for permission to cover her head. So I granted it, buying her multiple one-piece Amirah style hijabs. She wore them with her regular clothes. On this particular day she was dressed in a lightweight turquoise sweater and matching skirt, which fell to her mid-calf region. Apparently to this woman, this was too much skin for a 1st grader to show in public! Feeling my child grip me tighter and try to disappear into my abaya, I began to see red. A few choice words came to mind. But I reminded myself that, offensive as this woman’s behavior was, she was still my sister in Islam. Wasn’t there a hadith that said we should make seventy excuses for our brothers and sisters? So instead of cussing her out, I decided to try to take the high road.

“Excuse me sister”, I said as calmly as I could,”There’s no need for her to be covered from head to toe under Islamic law. She has not reached puberty yet and isn’t even required to observe hijab yet…”

“But it not PROPER”, she shouted back at me,”Man could see her leg and think it look good!”

At this point I was utterly speechless. I could not believe that this woman thought it was my responsibility to keep grown men from lusting after my 45 lb, six-year old child. In my country we have a word for grown men who look at little girls and get sexually aroused: pedophile, I thought to myself. At this point I was extremely tempted to go off on her for her bad manners and for the way she had humiliated my child. I knew that if I stayed and continued the conversation I would do just that. In a last ditch attempt to control my anger, I decided to remove myself from the situation. My hands shaking with rage, I gave her the salaam, turned on my heel and walked away. Behind me she continued to shout.

“Next time you make her wear pants! It no good for girl to show legs to man!”

I kept walking and ignored her. Once we could no longer hear her I stopped and talked to my daughter. I assured her that what had just happened was not her fault. I told her that this woman had no right to talk about her this way. However my assurance fell on deaf ears. Within days of this incident my daughter began to act like she was ashamed of her body. Even when at home and surrounded by females, she wanted to be covered from her neck to her ankles.

I watched this transformation with shock and dismay. She was six-years old. This was supposed to be a time of happiness and innocence. Instead she was carrying a burden of modesty that was completely inappropriate for someone her age. When she asked to begin wearing hijab I allowed her to. I reasoned that forbidding her from wearing hijab would send a mixed message and lay the foundation for problems with it in the future. In hindsight I should have never let her wear hijab at all. Unintentionally, I was sending her the same message that the Somali lady clearly stated that day: parts of your body are shameful, you must hide them from public view and it’s your responsibility to keep the opposite sex from looking at you. In letting her cover her head, I was giving my silent assent to the idea that females-even little girls-are sex objects.

One day in the last week of October, my daughter asked if she could go hijab-free for one day. I told her that she could. As I put her on the school bus that morning and watched her walk up the steps, I was struck at how different she seemed without hijab. She went back to being the carefree little girl that she had been before. She seemed like herself again. And I was extremely happy to see this. I knew then that I no longer wanted my daughter to wear hijab. If she chose to wear it as a teen, fine. But for the time being, I was not going to let her carry that burden.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

One thought on “Shame

  1. This story is so hard for me to read because it’s just so infuriating. I just don’t understand this obsession with the female body and the pathological need to cover it, even extending to little girls. My daughter is 5 and goes to an Islamic school. She’s gotten in trouble more than once for wearing fingernail polish. Her teacher even sent a note home which I promptly ignored. I just feel bad for my poor daugher, it must be confusing to her.

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