Converts in Kuwait: From Skirts to Abayas
By Sarah McBride
KUWAIT: Like all devout Muslim women here, the figure in the veil and black cloak gave off an air of mystery and other worldliness. As she disappeared inside a building, it was easy to imagine her background: raised in her faith, shrouded in an abaya since the first sign of puberty. Actually, the woman rushing so purposefully inside the high walls of the Women's Committee of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) was an American raised as a Protestant, who converted to Islam in her twenties. She and other converted Muslim women meet weekly at various organisations around town to discuss issues of their new faith. They have a lot of company --- thousands of Muslims living in Kuwait are former Christians, and many of them embrace practices that seem antithetical to the morals of those brought up in Europe or the United States. The most obvious custom is wearing the veil.
"Modesty, mostly" is the reason that Hazel, a British woman who converted to Islam in 1981, gave for wearing it. "When you're covered, you're treating each other as human beings without being distracted." Another convert, Iman, points out that covering is ordered in the Quran, and it is not nearly as restrictive as some people believe. "The translation for hijab (the term used for covering the hair, arms, and legs) is 'shield', and it is shielding the woman from harm and corruption. It doesn't restrict the freedom of the woman to move about, to carry out all her normal duties," she said.
It is stipulated in the Quran, rather ambiguously, that women should cover from head to toe. But the Hadith or Sunna, a collection of sayings of the Holy Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, and a description of his life, says women should be covered except for their hands and faces. Nowhere does it say women should wear black --- this is a custom of the region rather than an Islamic requirement.
For Linda, a Canadian woman who converted to Islam in her 30s, wearing hijab was something she had to ease into. "Living in the Middle East has helped a lot," said Linda who met and married an Egyptian man after she converted. She thinks she still might be dressing in the Western tradition if she and her husband had not spent a year in Saudi Arabia shortly after they married, by the end of which time she was wearing hijab. Linda recalls gradually becoming more and more uncomfortable with some of her clothes. A turning point came when she dressed in a shirtwaist dress one evening to meet friends. As she and her husband waited for them in the lobby of her apartment building, she realised how ill at ease she felt in her outfit. After checking with her husband, she ran back upstairs and changed into something looser and longer. After that incident, she bought her first abaya.
Covering her hair was also something she took step by step. "A friend gave me two light scarves, chiffon, blue' and beige," she said. She wore them from time to time, sometimes over her head, until she got used to the idea. Then she started wearing the traditional opaque scarf, tied at the throat and covering the neck. The decision to wear hijab was taken with her husband, after much consultation. Today, Linda would like to cover more by wearing a coat, which buttons up the front and never flies open to reveal the clothing underneath, as abayas sometimes do. But her husband does not want her to, so for the time being, she continues to wear the abaya. "He wants me to look nice," she explained. "He thinks that just because a person is wearing hijab doesn't mean they can't look nice." True to his word, Linda always does look well put together under her abaya, and takes obvious care with her appearance. Soon, Linda's adolescent daughter will have to start wearing hijab, a transition both are somewhat apprehensive about. "She's nervous about it, because not too many kids (in her English school) do," Linda explained. "It's going to be a little bit difficult. I wish that it would have come naturally, earlier."
Another regular visitor to the RIHS is Badriya, an Egyptian chemist in her thirties who lived in Canada for many years. Although she was raised in Islam, she started wearing hijab in 1990, two years after moving back to Egypt. "I saw my younger sisters in hijab, and I started to ask myself why I didn't wear hijab," she said. She tried on a sister's scarves, and decided to start covering. But there was no going step-by-step for her, graduating from flimsy wraps to the large cloth that covers hair and neck.
"One day, I said, okay, I'm going to wear hijab. The second day, I went to my work, covered." But as with Linda, her decision was taken jointly with her engineer husband, whom she married in 1982. "My husband - I won't say forced, but he encouraged me," she explained. "He said, you're working with men, you should cover." Now, Badriya regrets not covering sooner, and is contemplating covering more. "I hope, if it's right Allah will let me cover my face," she said.
Iman is a Muslim convert who does cover her face. Originally from Oregon in the United States, she has gone well beyond hijab to wear a mask called bashiya, which hides the entire face except the eyes. These peep through slits show not at all, because she often covers the bashiya with a semi-transparent black veil known as niqab. She also wears gloves, so she does not have to show an inch of skin when she is out on the street. Despite her propriety, she says she does not advocate that everyone cover the face. "There's no compulsion --- it's up to the individual," she explained. "It's my choice and I stand behind it." Nevertheless, she is thinking about easing up a little. "I'm thinking of going to navy blue," she announced breezily. "It's not Islamically required to wear black." She is also contemplating finding an alternative for her abaya, which has been seeming cumbersome of late. "I move a lot --- I'm always stopping and having to adjust it," she said.
Like Linda, she eased into Islamic modesty. Although she converted in her mid-twenties, she did not become devout at first. She gradually started wearing hijab in Seattle, where she met women in an Arabic class who were practicing Islam fully. To the office, she wore long-sleeved blouses and long skirts, which were fine with the dress code of the fabric company where she worked. Sometimes, she put on a hat and gloves. "I dressed very elegant, as they put it," she said. One day, a friend from Saudi Arabia called her and asked her to read; a certain verse from the Quran. "It was the verse dealing with hijab," Iman said. "It was like somebody had taken a flashlight or a spotlight and shined it on this verse of the Quran." After that she started to take hijab much more seriously, but still her understanding of it was flawed. For example, her clothes would be modest in style, but too flashy in colour. Bright red was a favourite, which defeats the purpose of deflecting attention. She also did not really grasp the concept of an abaya, but tried to wear one while praying. "I wrapped this gigantic bedsheet around me because I'd seen it on TV", she said, laughing.
Listening to her, it is at first hard to see how anyone with such a seeming vague idea of her religion could embrace it so whole-heartedly. But for many converts, the peace they found with Islam came long before a deep understanding. Talking to enough of them reveals a pattern: Until they became Muslim, they were often depressed and adrift, feeling a large spiritual void. Many of them experimented with several religions before turning to Islam. In many ways, Linda is a good illustration. "I was not very happy," Linda said. "I felt lost, I was drifting. I didn't feel like I belonged in my society." Her first move was to go back to her church, the United Church of Canada. "But the United Church . . . it's a very boring church," she said. "There was no vitality, there was no life." At the same time, she was learning about Islam, where she found a belief system and rules she liked. "The answers were there, it brought (faith) to life," she said. In Christianity, "it's very difficult to find them." Eventually, she converted.
For her family this seemed strange, but they don't understand Islam, Linda said. One recurring problem is her mother's failure to grasp that the incentive for wearing hijab is spiritual, and does not depend on location. When Linda returns to Canada for visits, her mother invariably tries to get her to take off her scarves, saying she doesn't need to wear them in the West.
Hazel faced the same difficulty back in England, with her mother assuming she wore the veil only to make her Kuwaiti husband happy. "Go on, take it off, I won't tell him," her mother would urge her. As an Englishwoman embracing a very unEnglish practice, she thinks she makes some people uncomfortable, she says. Others are more snide than embarrassed. "Isn't it a bit hot?" is a favorite question about her clothing. Laughing, she said her favourite reply was, "Not as hot as hellfire . . . it's a bit cheeky, I know, but they deserve it."
Iman faced far more serious problems. She went through a divorce in her mid-twenties, and lost her two young sons to her ex-husband. A large part of his custody case hinged on her conversion to Islam, she said. Other members of her family shun her. At her mother's funeral in 1980, her devout Assembly of God uncle told her that the family considered her as good as dead for converting from Christianity. "When we bury her, we bury you," she said he told her. Shortly after that, she moved to the United Arab Emirates to study at the Sheikh Sayeed Center for New Muslims, and has not left the Gulf area since. Staying here, where she directs a women's group at the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, enables her to practice her religion more fully, she said.
Perhaps most impressive is her obvious commitment and conviction. "I chose the right religion," she said. "I've stayed with it." Badriya and Linda are assumed names to protect the privacy of the people interviewed.
From the Kuwait Times, page 1, Tuesday, 3 January 1996 / 10 Ramadan 1416.