When she turned 15, my daughter announced her intention to start wearing the hijab (Muslim head scarf). At the time, we had been living in Qatar for nine years and upon our arrival in Dubai she donned her first veil.
Nothing prepared me for the deluge of feelings that followed. Her soft cheeks, her doe shaped eyes and a perfect nose used to be encircled by a halo of dark brown hair that I tended to lovingly while she was younger. I reminisced about those countless hours washing, combing and braiding it, nourishing it with regular applications of coconut and almond oils. I remembered the way the sun shone off the auburn and gold highlights when she played in the park. I thought of the road ahead of her--how hard it will be, how little she knew of what awaited in the future.
A sense of irrational fear and foreboding enveloped my days following her transformation. It was post 9/11 and the subsequent anti-Islamic sentiment was rampant. Terrible scenarios churned in my mind. What if she became the target of condemnation on our next trip to the U.S. and Europe? What if people looked at her with mistrust, suspicion or simply unkindness? I put together a list of reasons to discourage her from this life-altering decision.
First, she was too young. I wanted her to wait until she finished college at least, in order to have a greater understanding of to what she was committing. On the other hand, since many of her friends were already 'hijabis', I knew this tactic wouldn't work. Second, I felt she needed more information about the path that lay ahead, the difficulties that she might face. Previously, she was an active girl, won prizes in horseback riding, tae kwon do and gymnastics. She was on the swim team. I wondered if the billowing hijab would alter her priorities or stifle her dreams in some way.
The thing that struck me the most once she started wearing the veil was the instant profiling from strangers and those close as well. Some branded her a timid girl whose family probably forced her into this choice. That couldn't have been further from the truth. Others elevated her to almost divine status, as they saw only the virtuous, thinking highly of her every move and hanging onto her every word. Somehow, in a matter of months she had attained the respect of her peers and family that takes other teenagers years to achieve.
Her impish locks disappeared beneath the length of swirling silky cloth. Those dark eyes looked at me, at the world with an assurance, defiance and mostly conviction.
There were times when I was startled by the sight of her in front of the school, books across her chest, a heavy bag on her back, chatting animatedly with other girls, some hijab wearing, others Christian, even Druze.
Who was this girl? I would ask myself repeatedly. And what had she done with my daughter? On sweltering Dubai days, I would worry she was too hot, only to have her tell me calmly that she was fine. She never fiddled with the scarf, never complained when the air was too wet and hot even to breathe. Over time, she experimented and then molded her own version of trendy hijab, manifested by wearing rings on all her fingers, owning an electric guitar and driving my car like a possessed madwoman.
Her European side of the family politely avoided the topic. Some pretended not to notice the obvious change and a few voiced their disbelief, questioning why we would allow this transformation. Even my more liberal Muslim friends and acquaintances swiftly concealed shock when I introduced her. The hijab highlighted the obvious contrast between mother and daughter.
"Did you force her to wear it?" asked a voice shrill with the promise of delicious gossip later on. "But she doesn't have to wear it, you know?" from others intending to inform me, a clueless Westerner. In their eyes I detected a flicker, a hint of blame as if somehow I must be responsible for my daughter's "suffering".
After all, they whispered, aren't those who wear the hijab usually forced to? Aren't they all dominated by male relatives, society and overzealous imams?
Their ignorance exasperates me, because I know a Salha, a Nadia and a Zahra and many other young girls who have adorned themselves with the veil on their own volition. Many third culture kids yearn to belong. In the absence of a parents' homeland comes a sense of displacement, of questioning just as many other teenagers might question their very existence. Some find their identity in their faith.
As a Muslim convert, my path has been different from my daughter's--an amalgamation of experiences and influences resulting from my years spent as the stepdaughter of a Muslim, growing up in a Muslim country and embracing Islamic culture and later, a Muslim husband. Even though each of us practices our religion in her own unique way, the two of us make perfect sense to each other.
Mine is a moderate, spiritual view. In a religion of rules, I follow the ones that speak to me in the most sincere form. I believe in the good in each man, child and woman, I trust that God is looking out for us. I know we are all loved.
My daughter practices hers on her own free will. She fasts and prays and has an unshakeable trust in the words that rise from the Quran. Hers is a journey galaxies away from mine, the strength of her character evident by her dedication to a lifestyle that is by no means easy in today's world of skeptics. I admire her courage and wish I could have some of it too.
Wherever her life might take her, she will make her own way, her own choices as she always has. And then, she will stand by them. Her joyful certainty has me humbled. I'm in awe of her tranquil composure, her highly held head on which a delicately swirling, tenderly wound hijab rests like a crown. She carries it proudly, unflinchingly, unapologetically.
As she rushed to board her plane a couple of months ago, I followed her with my eyes. A sparkle caught my attention. I smiled at her newly bought earrings, the scarf that was coming undone in her haste.
That's when I saw it. A single tendril of dark hair caressing her neck lovingly.
She turned, blew me a kiss and was gone.
This piece first appeared on the website InCultureParent.com