I wore hijab for ten years full time although I took it off when I got divorced for certain reasons. I have come to the conclusion that it is very important for a person to look modest according to the norms of their culture. Unless you are thoroughly enmeshed in a foreign community or a multicultural community, dressing like an Arab or Pakistani when you are neither Arab nor Pakistani simply causes people to look at you and talk about you. It can totally rob you of all privacy. It does not send the message, “I am a Lady.” It says, “I am a freak.” It can be mortally dangerous to isolate yourself from society, whether you are a single woman living alone without protection or a married woman being psychologically or physically tormented by her husband or inlaws. To some extent, encouraging recent converts to don the hijab Arab style is a form of psychological entrapment similar to any other cult. Don’t get me wrong, Islam is the true religion and not a cult. But the level of isolation experienced by new hijabis includes being fired from job, kicked out of parents’ home, loss of all childhood friends, loss of fiance, loss of all university friends, and often these life support networks are NEVER fully replaced by the monthly dinners at the mosque or the weekly Quran study class. People can’t really live without others understanding where they come from.
Furthermore, I have found the opposite to privacy and dignity to have occurred when I put on hijab. Prior to putting it on, I was a slightly nerdy girl that no one ever noticed. I put on the hijab and everywhere I went, Pakistani men stared at me lustfully. I got hounded by marriage proposals to the point where I became terrified to answer my phone or answer my doorbell. Yes, an Iranian doctor I didn’t even know got my address somehow and rang my doorbell to propose marriage. It was absolutely terrifying and as a result of the combination between social isolation from my own culture and the desire to fit into a community, I got married to someone who was not mature enough to be married, and entered a decade of personal hell. It turned out NOT to be the case that marrying someone in the community would mean you have friends.In fact, “trying too hard to appear like a good Muslim” actually isolated me even within the Muslim community. And the family resented my husband’s choice of bride. The stupid idea that I had to wear Arab hijab and marry a foreigner resulted in me giving the cold shoulder to nice, compatible guys (black and white) who might even have converted to Islam to marry me.
Hijab just attracts a very narrow selection of men obsessed by what other people think of him and what they think of him when they see him with you.
If I could go back again, I would have never put on hijab and kept my religion to myself and just wore the scarf to pray. If and when I felt like covering publicly I would tie my scarf the way I always tied it before I became Muslim. I was always dressed in long sleeves and skirts before I was Muslim anyway. Covering your shape is far more important when it comes to deflecting men’s attention than covering your hair. In fact I tried on niqab one summer and was totally freaked out by how many western men would look at me in a totally perverted way. If I just glanced at them they would have a nuclear meltdown. It really made me realize that in certain places, wearing full covering could get you raped.
That being said, I did note that within the poor and violent inner city environment, wearing hijab did make me safer as a pedestrian and many urban women choose to veil for that reason. Yet it seems much more socially acceptable for Black or Brown women to be able to wear hijab or niqab without attracting stares and comments. They also have tight-knit cliques that they fit into and socialize with so isolation is less of a problem. I think each Muslima has to look at her situation and keep her safety in mind. If she knows she has no one in the Muslim community she can trust to do more than greet her at jummah, and she loses everything, she has then chosen to become a liability to the Muslim community. Then they will have to divert resources into helping you, instead of helping the homeless and the true needy. She could become so lonely that she becomes emotionally destroyed and possibly has a nervous breakdown or debilitating depression. Whereas, if she just kept her life pretty much the same, without donning foreign dress, and just went to the mosque for religious services, that is the type of support and friendship most Muslim communities are willing to give. The Muslims are simply not equipped to take your emotional load off your shoulders and be there for you the way your own lifelong friends and family have been there for you. In the future Muslim communities should probably set up some communal living situations for people who need that.
Obviously, as you become more pious and your personality changes, your relationships will shift, but it will be more of a gradual process that you can deal with without risking everything and then forcing the Muslims who hardly know you to pick up your pieces and take care of you like a member of their family, as if they didn’t already have enough problems.