The following is a Japanese woman’s account of her journey to Islam. She explains, in detail, the various phases that she went through as a new Muslimah and the various misunderstandings that she initially had regarding the position of hijaab and niqaab in Islam. From a simple headscarf, she progressed until she was covered from head to toe, embracing hijaab and niqaab in its entirety.
In the beginning of the 1990’s, when I embraced Islam in France, the controversy surrounding the wearing of hijaab in school was an extremely heated issue. The French were faced with economic problems which had resulted in high unemployment and social insecurity. This was predominantly felt in the big cities. The immigrant population, especially from Muslim countries, was seen as one of the causes of unemployment. The sight of hijaab in their towns and schools aggravated already negative attitudes towards Muslims. The majority of people thought that allowing students to wear hijaab was against the public education system’s principle of neutrality on religion. I had not yet become a Muslim, and I did not understand why the schools were so concerned over a mere piece of cloth worn on a student’s head. Observing the hijaab from the outside, I also did not understand its significance to Muslims. But I considered that in maintaining neutrality in matters of religion, the schools should still respect a student’s beliefs and his performance of religious duties. As long as this expression did not disturb the school’s discipline, it should not be prohibited.
The French, along with most westerners, expected that the hijaab would pass away into history as westernization and secularization took root. However, in the Muslim world, especially among the younger generation, a great wave of returning to hijaab was spreading through various countries. This current resurgence is an expression of Islamic revival. It is part of the process of restoring to the Muslims their pride and identity, which had been repeatedly attacked through colonization and economic exploitation.
I come from Japan. In our history we experienced the first contact with western culture during the Meiji era (In the 1860’s when Japan was closed to foreign countries). During this period, the Japanese reacted against western lifestyle, including western dress. So to my people, the adherence of the Arabs and others to Islam could be compared to the conservative traditionalism or anti-westernization that the Japanese themselves experienced. Man seems to have a conservative tendency and consequently rejects and reacts ignorantly against the new and unfamiliar. He seldom stops to investigate or understand whether it is good or bad.
It is exactly the same with non-Muslim people who judge the hijaab as a sign of oppression. They believe that Muslim women are enslaved by tradition and are unaware of their “lamentable” situation. These people think a Muslim woman’s salvation will come through a woman’s liberation movement or some other type of socio-economical uplift which will give her independence, awaken her mind, and release her from the bonds of tradition and hijaab.
This naive point of view is commonly shared by those who have little knowledge about Islam. Accustomed to secularism and religious eclecticism, non-Muslims are simply unable to comprehend why anyone would want to mold his or her life to conform to a religious system established many centuries ago. They do not understand Islam’s strength and appeal, which is universal and eternal. They are disturbed by the fact that an increasing number of women of divergent nationalities all over the world are turning to Islam and covering themselves. They feel uneasy about this “strange object” – a material which not only covers the woman’s hair but also hides something special to which their eyes can have no access. From the outside, a non-Muslim can never effectively see what is behind the hijaab. Neither could I. Many books dealing with the subject do so simply from a point of external observation. Their authors cannot grasp what a female perceives from behind the hijaab. And only after I became a Muslim in 1991 did my vision become clear.
I have no country, tradition or social identity to defend through the hijaab. It upholds neither social nor political significance to me. It signifies only religious conviction.
During the process of deciding whether or not to embrace Islam, I neither seriously contemplated my ability to perform the required five daily prayers nor deeply thought about wearing the hijaab. Maybe I was afraid I would discover within myself a negative response which would affect my decision to become a Muslim. I had lived in a world which had no connection to Islam. I was not at all familiar with prayer and Islamic cover, and I could hardly imagine myself ever performing these duties or adopting those ways. Yet something happened within me, and my desire to enter the fold of Islam was so strong that I did not really worry about what awaited me following my conversion. Indeed, it seems remarkable, but I was guided into Islam by the grace of Allah Ta‘ala.
The First Step
After my conversion, although I was not accustomed to wearing hijaab, I soon began to realize its benefit. A few days after my first attendance of an Islamic lecture, I bought a scarf to put on when I attended the next lecture. No one told me to wear a scarf – I just wanted to do so out of respect for the lecture and the other Muslim Sisters there. I was impatient for the day to come because the lecture had inspired me with a spiritual elation I never experienced previously. My heart, so hungry for spiritual nourishment, absorbed every word of the lecture like a dry sponge absorbs water. Before going to the lecture room, I made wudhu and put on the scarf. After the lecture, I prayed along with other sisters in a room filled with solemn silence. The few hours I spent at the program made me feel so happy and content that I kept my scarf on even after leaving, in order to preserve this happiness in my heart. Due to the cold weather at that time, my scarf did not attract attention. This was my first public appearance in hijaab, and I sensed a difference within myself I felt purified and protected. I felt closer to Allah Ta‘ala.
As a Japanese woman in a foreign country I was sometimes uneasy in public places when men stared at me. Yet, with my hijaab I felt protected. I no longer perceived myself as an object of impolite stares.
Whenever I went out thereafter, I dressed in hijaab. It was a spontaneous and voluntary act which no one forced upon me. The meaning of the word “Islam” is submission to Allah Ta‘ala’s will and obedience to His command. For a person such as I, who had lived many years without a religion, it was difficult to follow any command without reservation. But Allah Ta‘ala’s orders are without fault, and the correct Islamic attitude is to accept and implement them without questioning. It is only man’s understanding that is faulty. And I, like many others, only believed in my own power of reasoning and continuously questioned the need to adhere to any existing authority or system of values. However, at this point in my life my will spontaneously conformed to Allah Ta‘ala’s will, and I was able to fulfill my Islamic duties without any feeling of having been compelled – alhamdulillah.
I became content in my new covering, which was not only a sign of my obedience to Allah Ta‘ala but also an open manifestation of my faith. A Muslim woman who wears hijaab is clearly recognized as a Muslimah. In contrast, it is often only through verbalization that a non-Muslim’s faith can be known. With the hijaab on, I do not need to utter a word. It is a clear expression of my belief, a reminder to others that Allah Ta‘ala exists, and a reminder to me of my submission to Allah Ta‘ala. My hijaab prompts me, “Be careful, you should conduct yourself as a Muslim.” Just as a policeman in uniform becomes more conscious of his profession, my hijaab strengthens my identity as a Muslim.
The Second Step
Two weeks after my conversion, I returned to Japan to attend my sister’s wedding. Embracing Islam, I had discovered what I was searching for. As a result, I was no longer interested in obtaining a doctorate in French literature. Instead, my passion turned to learning more about Islam, so I decided not to return to France.
Remaining in a small Japanese town was certainly a test. I was a new convert with very little Islamic knowledge and completely isolated from other Muslims. Yet this isolation intensified my Islamic consciousness. Accomplishing the five daily prayers and wearing a scarf helped to confirm my Islamic identity and strengthened my relation with Allah Ta‘ala. In my solitude I turned often to Allah Ta‘ala.
The manner in which I dressed now went through its first major change. In public, Islam prohibits women from revealing the shape of their bodies; therefore, I had to abandon many of the clothes which accentuated my shape. Miniskirts, pants and short sleeved blouses do not conform to hijaab, so I made myself a Pakistani style pants and top. It did not bother me when people stared at my “strange” new fashion.
The Third Step
Six months after my conversion, I traveled to Egypt. In Cairo, I knew only one Japanese person, and no one spoke English where I was staying. I was extremely surprised at the first sight of the lady at my residence. She was covered in black from head to toe, including her face. Previously, in France, I had seen a woman in a black dress and her presence among the other Muslims, who were wearing colourful dresses and scarves, appeared very strange. I recalled (incorrectly) thinking to myself, “This is a woman enslaved by Arab tradition, unaware of the real teachings of Islam!” At that time, my Islamic knowledge was very limited and I wrongly believed that covering the face stemmed from ethnic tradition, having no foundation within Islam. A similar thought came to me as this woman in Egypt led me into her home. I wanted to say to her, “You are exaggerating! This is unnatural!” Her attempts to avoid any contact with men also seemed abnormal.
Shortly thereafter, this sister informed me that my attire was unsuitable to wear in public. Although I believed my apparel satisfied the requirements of Islamic dress, I was flexible enough to adapt. I sewed a long black dress and a long headcover called a “khimaar”. Thus, I was completely covered, except for my face, and I even considered veiling. It seemed like a good idea in order to avoid the continual dust in the air, but the sister said that there was no need, perhaps thinking that I would not be able to do this in Japan or that my intention was not correct. These sisters firmly believed and correctly knew that covering the face was a part of their religious duty. Most of the sisters with whom I became acquainted were veiled. However, they constituted only a small minority within the huge city of Cairo. Some people were apparently shocked and embarrassed even at the sight of my black khimaar. Average westernized Egyptians kept their distance from the covered Muslim women, calling them “Al-Akhawaat” (the sisters). Yet, at the same time, men treated them with a special respect and politeness. These “sisters” seemed also to share a special bond. Generally speaking, the women who completely veiled were more conscientious of their Islam. Those who wore simple scarves or none at all appeared unconcerned with their religious obligation.
Before my conversion, I had preferred an active pants style to a feminine skirt. But now my new long dress pleased me very much. I felt as exquisite as a princess. Besides, I found it to be more comfortable. I did not dislike wearing black. On the contrary, I found that my black wear was quite suitable in a dusty city like Cairo.
During my stay in Cairo, I was happy in black. However, I reacted negatively to my Egyptian sister’s recommendation that I remain so even when I returned to Japan. I became angry with what I considered anachronism and ignorance of the circumstances. Due to my lack of knowledge, my understanding was that Islam commands women to cover their bodies and conceal their figures. As long as this is accomplished, one may adopt any style of cover she pleases. Each society has its own fashion. I assumed that if I appeared in a long black dress on the streets of Japan, I would be considered a lunatic. I argued with my Egyptian sister, explaining that my apparel would shock the Japanese and that they would not listen to me. They would reject Islam on appearance alone, never trying to hear or understand its teachings.
By the end of my stay in Egypt, however, I had become accustomed to my new long attire and even considered wearing it in Japan. However, I still regarded wearing black in my country a bit shocking, so I made some light coloured and white khimaars. Dressed in this manner, I once again returned to my homeland.
(to be continued insha-Allah)