What it means to wear a hijab

Art by Maine Manansalan

Having been born and raised Catholic, I wasn’t all that aware of other cultures or religions. We would discuss them at school in passing, sometimes getting into pillars and noble truths. But there was still that little bubble, made up of people like me, for whom it was hard for that information to get from head to heart.

Islam, in particular, held a special interest. For the longest time, I remembered the comparisons, the ones that often saw Muslims and Christians on different sides of the spectrum. It was in the elementary exercises — the ones where you look for opposites; the reenactments of Florante at Laura. You could blame it on a long history of colonial education. But nonetheless, it was this sense of “otherness” that made me wonder if we were as different as the world said we were.

When I finally moved to Manila to study, it was the chance to interact with people of varying backgrounds. I found it a privilege to do so, finally getting answers to these burning questions. And the answers were refreshingly familiar.

Some find the road to Islam the way others find their way to Christianity: spending most of their lives with questions and curiosities of their own. Sometimes, the road begins with a sense of doubt, the feeling of misalignment between one’s personal beliefs and one’s “assigned” religion. Kyle Pandapatan, a friend of mine, had been labeled Muslim at birth, yet she had been more familiar with Catholic, liberal and East Asian beliefs and ideologies. Flexi Sarte, a convert, learned about Islam from her mother’s Muslim neighbor, and grew up questioning some of the Catholic beliefs she grew up with.

Understanding the religious and cultural significance of wearing a hijab, through the eyes of two hijabis.

The funny thing about curiosity is how much it can uncover. Curiosity, for instance, is what set my friend on Hajj and into more rigorous research on the Islam faith. But it’s not really the beginning that matters. It’s what comes after. And like all things, it’s something you learn one step at a time.

Islam, I learned, has quite a lot of interesting parallels with Christianity. For one, both religions are quite diverse — much like Christianity’s many sects, Islam has its own branches, all with different practices. Both place great importance on “God’s command.” Its core belief, however, is that there is no God other than God — or Allah, in Arabic — and that the prophet Muhammad is His final messenger. One can be holy by following Muhammad’s example, much as Christians follow the example of Jesus. And this core belief is similar to the First Commandment.

Moreover, like with other faiths, Islam does not believe in forcing people to perform acts of faith. To be true and genuine, all acts must be done willingly.

But perhaps the most polarizing — and most misunderstood — aspect of this is the hijab. Often used to describe the headscarf, it actually goes beyond its physical aspects. “The Qur’an said, ‘Say to the believing men that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste). This is better for them’; ‘Say to the believing women that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste) …and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur (veil) over their bosoms,’” noted Flexi. “These are the words of God Himself, and the reason why we cover ourselves.”

Hijab is a way of being, a code of modesty that anchors itself on mutual respect. Yes, the headscarf is part of it, and often brings out more functional advantages than initially thought. But, more importantly, it is about being seen as one is as a person, regardless of what one looks like. As such, hijab does not only extend to women, but to men as well. Kyle likened it to a nun’s religious habit: “When a nun wears their iconic uniform, they are respected. When a hijabi wears their iconic clothes, out of ignorance of misunderstanding, some jump to the conclusion they are oppressed. There are many who wear and do hijab because they want to.”

The hijab then becomes a symbol — not just of solidarity among one’s Muslim brothers and sisters, but also of one’s dedication to their beliefs.

But even so, full-time acceptance and integration of these beliefs in this country still has a long way to go. There still arise questions regarding Islam, usually revolving around a surface-level understanding of Islam, like how many wives a Muslim man can take and the terrorist groups in the Middle East. And while hijabis may not be as openly discriminated against in this country as they might be in others, they’re still subject to higher expectations when it comes to following Islamic law.

But perhaps this is an added benefit of the hijab’s iconic look: when it comes to discourse on religion, you at least know whom to ask.


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