Hijab and Havaianas

I am someone who defies convention.

I converted to Islam shortly after 9/11. But that didn’t mean I would become a conventional Muslim.  I wanted to know God in a way that made sense to me.

Every time I pick up the Quran, I’m in awe and feel even more sure that this revelation is how God wanted me to become closer to Him.  But that epiphany is far from beautiful and inspiring for the majority of non-Muslims and Muslims I meet.

There’s a simple explanation: I don’t wear the hijab (headscarf). My decision not to wear it is not out of defiance, but because it doesn’t work for me.

Shortly after I converted to Islam in November 2001, I was told that I needed to “dress like a Muslim”. I needed to trade in my jeans and designer shirts for modest dresses, and to conceal every strand of hair on my head with a scarf.

When I asked why this physical makeover was necessary when my conversion was related to an appreciation and love for God, creation and justice, I was told that the Quran requires women to wear it. Furthermore, I was told that it is the only way a women can protect herself from men.

I followed this advice.  The first day I walked out of my apartment as a “Muslim sister” people I knew didn’t say hello. I was stared at in the street.  But, it wasn’t the furrowed brows that proved to be my setback. Instead, it was the unwanted advances from Muslim men in my community.  I felt like a teenager locked outside of the girl’s locker room, wearing only her underwear with men surrounding her and leering.

I ran home and tore the hijab off.  For the first time since I accepted Islam I felt embarrassed, weak and confused.  Why was I told to do something that made me feel so physically vulnerable by those who were supposed to guide me in the religion?

After a year of having the same experience repeatedly, I decided that wearing the hijab wasn’t working for me.  I wanted to look normal in my culture so that I could encourage others to find God as I had, without being on the defensive.

I studied the Quran, and concluded that the hijab is not a requirement. What is required is covering the chest, and the body’s curves as well as modest interactions for both men and women.  In spite of this, many Muslims feel they need to accept the headscarf as a requirement because Islamic scholars told them so.

Apparently, my job as a convert is to agree and not challenge this. But if I were the type of person to just do what I was told, I would not be a Muslim in the first place.

I came to peace with the concept of hijab after my departure from the U.S for Brazil in 2007.  Here, men wear Speedos without shame, Havaianas can be worn to formal events, and professional women wear tube tops without eliciting a second glance.

In São Paulo, the surest way for a woman to make herself visible is to wear a hijab. In the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen four hijabis – Arab immigrants who didn’t speak the local language. Yet, there is a large Muslim community here.

So are they really Muslims if they don’t dress as Islamic scholars decided they should? I believe that is for God to decide their authenticity and sincerity.  Only God knows what lies in the hearts of those who believe in Him.

Living in Brazil, I believe that modesty is a great way to avoid harassment by men.  No man has ever approached or harassed me here.   In California, I’d receive at least one inquiry per week. And, if I was at the Friday prayer at my local mosque, two to three Muslim men would approach me in one day – but only if I was wearing hijab.

Either Brazilians don’t find me attractive, or I blend into this society while maintaining modesty as a Muslim. Men don’t turn their heads at what is normal to them.  Interestingly enough, my most dangerous travel experiences of unwanted advances occurred in the most conservative Muslim societies that observe the strictest dress codes, even though I was covered.

It is my opinion that hijab as a concept rather than a headscarf can be adapted into any society. I asked myself, how can I use the concept of hijab to protect myself from unwanted attention here in Brazil?  Becoming invisible to avoid being robbed or even killed for theft is important here.  I leave my wedding ring in the safe, and wear casual work-out clothes in the street.  I walk my two-year-old to school every morning with my seven-month-old in a Baby Bjorn. This is my hijab in the country I now call home.

I’ve finally accepted that I don’t need to fit into other people’s opinions of how I should appear.  I just need to believe in God and be smart about the society I live in.  That is what makes me Muslim.

Angela Collins Telles lives in São Paulo, Brazil. Before her relocation, she served as the Director of a private Islamic School in Orange County. She has appeared on CNNInside EditionThe Today ShowFox News, and Al Jazeera and been featured in People magazine. Angela and her husband Marcelo are proud parents of two sons, Gabriel and Ryan.

14 Comments on “Hijab and Havaianas”

  1. katie says:

    Love the article !!!! As an American convert, I can relate.

    • Regarding how “the surest way for a woman to make herself visible is to wear a hijab” – hijab isn’t done to not attract attention; rather, it’s about not attracting negative attention. We wear it because God commanded us to in Quran and Sunnah/Hadith; we wear it because we are proud to be recognized as modest, God-fearing women. ❤

      • Nadia says:

        Actually God has not “commanded”, as you put it, us to wear the hijab. If you actually research the historical context in which modesty was mentioned in the Quran you will realize that the author of this article was completely accurate when she stated “I studied the Quran, and concluded that the hijab is not a requirement. What is required is covering the chest, and the body’s curves as well as modest interactions for both men and women.”

        I am a proud modest Muslim woman born and raised in Southern California and can honestly say that I have acted with more modesty and been treated with more respect than my sisters in hijab and all because I carry myself with modesty and therefore, everyone else also respects my boundaries.

  2. a says:

    I am not a convert, but feel the same way about Hijab, which has taken on a life of its own in recent times. It is the one thing that defines the level of piety in a Muslim woman, which is done so much more harm than good. If one decides not to wear Hijab, does that leave her open to unwanted attention – does she ‘deserve’ it? Scary…especially since we are living in 2012!!!

  3. Audra Caravas says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. I converted to Islam in 2009 and have had a similar experience with hijab. It was really nice to read your words and know that I am not alone! 🙂 Thank you!

  4. Tehmina says:

    No wonder you got so many propositions— you are gorgeous!!

  5. Chinyere says:

    Angela! Excellent! I especially love how you acknowledge that if you were the type of person to do what you were told, you wouldn’t have arrived at Islam in the first place. Not just with hijab, but with other issues within Islam, I feel like people upon converting are often pushed into an outlook on religion that is somewhat contrary to the organic beauty that brought many to the religion in the first place.

    I think that those who feel like wearing a scarf is essential for their submission and get spiritual strength from that, that they are welcome. But we need to be more expansive in our concept of modesty than how much skin and hair is covered or not, and understand what that means for the individual societies we live in.

  6. ibrahim issaka says:

    pls hijab is very very good for muslim woman and i lean some thing in this storry but pls for me am a single i dont have wife to use a hijab but i like it is very good to me

  7. Leigh Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing; it helps those who are struggling with their faith journey to be able to witness strong and confident women such as yourself.

  8. guest says:

    The author discredits the majority of Muslim scholars in one full sweep, without having studied the Qur’an, Islamic history, Arabic grammar/syntax/poetry, narrations, etc. It’s downright ignorant to entirely brush off scholars in any field; the article gives the impression that all Muslim scholars issue Islamic verdicts out of their own whims and opinions – something Prophet Muhammad himself strongly condemned. The study of the Qur’an and the science of hadith are not games. The reason we have people like Al-Qaeda is precisely because of loosely interpreting verses of the Qur’an without a background in Islamic studies.

    The hijab verse commands women to use their ‘jalaabeebihinn’ to ‘cover their bosoms.’ If a layman were to read the translation of this verse, s/he may assume that women must cover their bosoms and stop there. But the question that is being neglected here is: what does the Arabic word ‘jilbab’ mean, and what is the historical context of the verse? It’s best to read up on how scholars define hijab and interpret this verse. In a nutshell, jilbab is what the women used to already cover their heads in the heat of the dessert – except they left their bosoms exposed. So the Qur’an asks women to draw those same jilbabs over their bosoms.

    Regardless of her point of view concerning the hijab verse, the Qur’an explicitly states that Muslims must take what Prophet Muhammad prescribes and neglect what he opposes – rendering attention to the hadith (narrations) crucial in discerning all obligations and prohibitions. In a number of hadiths, Prophet Muhammad is asked what body parts a woman can expose, and the answer is “the face and hands.”

    It’s not about what the latest fad or scientific view promotes, but what God commands, because if a person believes in a Creator who is also all-Merciful, all-Wise, and all-Powerful, then it necessarily follows that everything God prescribes is good for you, and all that He prohibits is in one way or another bad for you. If the way she dresses now begins to attract attention (lustful or otherwise) in say a more liberal environment where women go topless, does that mean she should conform to society instead of submitting to what God commands?

    Moreover, a distinction between ‘harassment’ and ‘attraction’ must be made, as well as the type of attraction. I could dress in a Gothic fashion and garner attention, or be fully covered and garner attention. People may look at me, but with nothing (lustful) to see. In the author’s case, did hijab lead to harassment or lustful attraction? Because if the former, by that logic Muslims should also stop praying if they’re harassed for it. Hijab isn’t about harnessing men’s desires, but to do as God commands, and to maintain her dignity (also why older women or unattractive women must also wear hijab). I think it’s disingenuous that she makes her case with hijab defeating its purpose and THEN concluding that the Qur’an does not advocate for hijab.

    • Em Ed says:

      Hijab isn’t about harnessing men’s desires?!
      Hijab is about maintaining modesty b/w both genders, so answer to the above, it so is about harnessing men’s desires (as well).
      And again, all your other explanations based on Quran and Hadeeth, are again very literal, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing wrong with exercising modesty within the means that best work for you – as long as your focus is to maintain modesty.
      Let’s be not so quick, to disregard others’ best intents and efforts as disingenuous.
      Each to his own struggle, as long as we are sincere seekers, God is oft-forgiving, and shall be our Guide.

    • Sarah says:

      I agree with the points made in your response, “guest”. True, the author:

      1) discredits the majority of Muslim scholars without having studied all that’s necessary to understand Islamic teachings accurately.
      2) misunderstands the Qur’anic verse. Jilbab is what the women used to ALREADY cover their heads in the desert, and with their their bosoms exposed, Allah asks women draw the jilbab over it.
      3) uses sentimental arguments. If hijab draws attention in a topless society, would she go topless to fit in?
      4) doesn’t differentiate between ‘harassment’ and ‘attraction’.
      5) begins with defeating the purpose of hijab and concludes her justification with God (Qur’an) not advocating for hijab.

      Agreed, God knows what lies in the hearts of those who believe in Him. He also gave commands we should abide by. Hijab comes in a package: we’re ordered to be modest on the outside while striving with our character to be modest on the inside.

      Men are commanded not to look, and this verse comes before the command for women to cover themselves. Their harassment of a woman who wear the head-cover does not justify that hijab is wrong.

      It can be said that the culture of Muslim men is flawed in that they have the habit of “looking” at women in hijab as you experienced, but this does not render hijab as a wrong action. Modesty is covering the hair because it is great part of a woman’s beauty, as well as the chest and the curves of the body.

      As the author concludes, she can finally accept that hijab is part of God’ opinion (and not “people’s opinion”) of how women should dress, and yes, along with believing in God and being smart in society. But we have to realize that it comes in a package. When one disregards hijab, it is an empty place unfilled by mere “inner goodness”.

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  10. Sana'a says:

    Thanks for the article and having the courage to speak up and adding your voice as a practicing Muslim woman about hijab. Although, I’m not disagreeing or refuting the fact that Islamic law, based on the Quran and sunnah, prescribes women to cover their heads (which, generally, is a good idea). However, Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab are treated as “less pious” than hijabis even if they dress and carry themselves modestly. Sadly, our modern discourse about Muslim women usually starts and ends with the hijab.