Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hijab at Gay Pride - My Covering Story

I come to the practice of covering as a transgender woman, having been raised in a Muslim country by Sunni Orthodox (others would call them Wahabi) Muslims.  My mother was Episcopalian until she found Islam some time in my early childhood; I believe I was in first grade when she started going to a mosque and then started covering.  I had never been raised in her prior tradition, just given general ideas, and her excitement about her new path was contagious.  I read the books and learned the strange and magickal words in other languages and accepted wholeheartedly that this was good and the way that it was taught to me.  My mother married an Egyptian man who worked in Saudi Arabia and so we moved there with him when I was in fourth grade.

I struggled with my identity for a long time, who I knew I was being in conflict with who I was being told that I was.  My religion did not lead me to any satisfactory solution in regards to me gender.  Because of this and other things, I fought with my mother when I graduated High School to be allowed to move back to the States and live with my grandparents.

I found Pagan paths a few years after I moved back, and realized that Pagans weren’t evil or bad people and that there was a lot of value in Pagan practice.  I started to identify as Pagan and had a massive internal struggle as I cast off parts of my old faith a bit at a time.  I remember distinctly a phase where it felt like I was pulling hooks out of my spine, hooks attached to tense, invisible lines or cords.  It was painful and liberating.

I was afflicted with early-onset male pattern baldness.  I had always had my hair long as a teenager and young adult; it was the only feminine expression that I could get away with and losing my beautiful hair tore me apart inside.  I felt disempowered and that my only connection to my womanhood, to who I really was, was being torn from me one hair at a time.  I eventually just shaved my head and kept it short because it was easier to deal with it that way and keep it neat but it jarred and scarred me internally.

I eventually got to the point where I was ready to deal with my gender identity and began to live as I knew myself to be and transition medically.  At this point I began covering because of my hair loss.  I wore colorful scarves tied simply bandana-style, and over time my scarf collection grew and expanded thanks to friends (thanks, Deb!) and hippy stores in the area that I lived.  I have many colorful scarves that I use
My hormonal changes started allowing some of my hair to grow back.  As it started filling back in I realized that at some point I might be able to go uncovered and enjoy my stolen birthright.  At the same time, though, I had been reading about how ancient Isians would go covered, and was exposed to practitioners of other traditions where women went covered. 

Then, when going to the DMV to get my driver’s license changed to reflect my new name and proper gender identity, they asked me to take off my scarf for the picture.  I nervously invoked New York State’s religious exemption regarding covering in pictures and encountered no resistance to it.  However, walking out of the DMV with my new license made me wonder if making that statement and using my faith as an excuse to cover for the picture meant that I should be walking the walk and embrace it as a regular practice, even though my hair was beginning to fill back in.

Little things happened, too.  When my partner’s ex-husband was on his way over and almost came into the apartment one day I panicked, thinking, “But he’s not muhrim, I need to cover!”  I wasn’t raised as a woman in Islam, and still the concept of muhrim (people who are muhrim are “pure”, people who are allowed to see you unveiled) leaked in to my psyche and I began applying it unconsciously.  I began tucking hair in to try and keep it from showing rather than just covering most of my hair, as well.  I didn’t want to be a “hojabi”.

Today was Pride in Rochester, the city I live in.  I’m a leader in the trans community of Rochester and posed like a figurehead at the front of the float, proudly waving the rainbow flag and greeting those I passed with what I hoped was a good balance between lively enthusiasm and royal aplomb.  I kept seeing my own reflection in the back of the truck pulling the float, and at one point I let little wisps of hair on the sides of my head free and immediately felt bad about it.

We have a large festival after the parade, and while in a bathroom there I was looking in the mirror and saw myself and my scarf.  I took it off to fix and adjust it for the first time since I had left the house, and had a moment of pause.  On a whim, I tied it under my chin (rather than behind my head, tichel-like, as I’ve been doing) and folded it over on my cheeks.  My face was framed as my mother’s had been, as countless women I’d been raised with had been.

I didn’t know how to feel about it.  It felt much more complete and comfortable.  It felt more of a whole thing, and less awkward.  At the same time, I had short sleeves and shorts – I wasn’t covering “properly” for a Muslim woman – and I’m not a Muslim woman.

I put it back into the tichel style and went back to our booth at the festival.  Without taking the scarf off I showed the others there what it looked like as hijab.  I got some compliments, and one person remarked on how easily I had done it for not having done it before.

I don’t feel one hundred percent right doing it.  Part of it is identification – I’m not Muslim, and it’s a style associated with Islam.  At the same time, it covers all of my hair, and is something that provides the comfort of familiarity and a sense of continuity.  It feels “safer” than my standard style.

I like it but I don’t know if I like wearing it.  Part of me really wants to experiment with it, and part of me is afraid.  A lot of the fears are unidentified, but I know there’s a fear of being mistaken for Muslim (which is unfair to Muslims and could potentially be unpleasant for me, especially if I have an encounter with someone who actually is Muslim), there’s a fear of being like my mother or walking too close to the road that she walks on… I don’t know what all of them are. 

It’s both comfortable and unsettling.  I don’t know what to do or how to feel about it.  I’m sharing it on this blog, but also with the facebook groups that I belong to for covered women.  I am still trying to digest how I feel about this. 

The one thing that does put a smile on my face about the situation is the fact that I first wore hijab for Gay Pride.


  1. Thank you for sharing with us, Laine. Covering is such an obvious expression of...something. People will want to label it, label you, put it (you) in a box and demand some sort of pre-packaged reasoning for what you do and why. You will continue to work with it and experiment, to practice explanations and create an "elevator speech" about it. And eventually you will realize that it does not matter what others think. The only person you are responsible to is YOU. <3

  2. a wise person i met via the internet at one point noted that if we do the math, it is possible to argue that all of humanity comprises our ancestors. as such, we have a birth right to things that may not initially seem correct for our cultural positioning. i am not saying that cultural appropriation isn't a thing, but rather it is possible to employ elements of what is currently identified with a given culture with respect and do so with a sense of legitimacy. in many respects, you have a greater claim to the scarf style commonly recognized as hijab then you think. not only were you raised (because let's face it, you functionally spent your whole childhood in this milieu) within that cultural context, but you have an extensive education as to the reasoning behind wearing hijab (distinguishing modesty in dress and behavior from the scarf style is hard, but it is the former i'm referring to). while your motivations for hijab are different from those of muslimahs, your intention to behave in a fashion that is correct for you is the same.

    additionally, as you look into the history of veiling in the ancient world, you will find examples from many cultures that look similar to what is done today. ancient Hellenic women wore their veils in a variety of styles, including what we would recognize today as hijab. there are only so many ways to wear a piece of fabric on your head. go with what you are most comfortable with. most of the muslimahs that i have come to know smile and encourage people who are not practicing Islam to embrace modesty in dress and behavior. it's like a Christian person encouraging a person of a different faith to pray regularly. in both cases, the practice is considered to have healthy benefits for the practitioner and even the non-believer may find something helpful in it. <3