Why was a Chaplain’s wife wearing a hijab on a Thursday in the middle of Lent? Well, I blame my friend who co-ordinates Northumbria University’s Discover Islam Week; she’d been encouraging me to experience an aspect of Islam first-hand for months and this was the first time I’d been available.
The challenge was to wear a head covering for a whole day. I didn’t have to use anything out of the ordinary; with a bit of enthusiastic wrapping and a few safety pins, I was able to use my favourite purple pashmina with an additional scarf underneath to cover my fringe and pinned up hair.
I was nervous. I admit, I kept my diary as clear as possible and was relieved that both children were at school that day. I avoided the morning school run for once and sheltered indoors for most of the morning. To work up to the challenge, I spent some of the morning reading a selection of pamphlets and dipping into the Quran (in English!), developing on my, frankly, school level knowledge of the Islamic faith.
I wanted to take the experiment seriously. Therefore, I wore a scarf whenever outside the house and avoided pork and alcohol for the day. Although not entirely necessary, I felt I was representing someone else’s deeply-held religious beliefs and did not want to dishonour them while wearing such an obvious sign of their Islamic faith.
I was apprehensive throughout the morning, getting gradually more nervous as the time to leave the security of home got closer. Interestingly, I put on more make up than usual; perhaps I wanted to create a mask for myself. Although I don’t put that much importance on my hair (it’s often covered by a hat) I wanted to be proud of what was on display. I also dressed conservatively; wearing a long skirt rather than trousers; dressed as I often would for church rather than a weekday low key day at home.
As I walked down our local high street to the post office and hairdressers, I didn’t feel as confident as usual; I found myself avoiding people’s eyes. The fact that we live in an area of Gateshead in which Jewish, Muslim and (non-)Christians live side-by-side did not prevent me from feeling unusually self-conscious.
The irony of having a cut and blow dry on a day I was covering my hair wasn’t lost on me. I had more topics than usual to talk to my hairdresser about; the fact that we want to overcompensate with make up, talking, smiling when our hair is covered or not there (she’d once had her head shaved for charity) gave me more food for thought.
When I faced the afternoon school run, I was slightly relieved that the weather was so cold; I entered the playground so wrapped up that my fully covered head wasn’t too noticeable. It was also World Book Day so the children were in their pyjamas for the day (encouraging bedtime reading), so a Christian mum dressed as a Muslim for the day perhaps wasn’t too noticeable.
I noted with interest that I felt i had to explain why I was wearing a headscarf whenever I caught someone’s eye. ‘It’s only for today! I haven’t converted!’ I felt as though I had to justify my behaviour; perhaps I was justifying the experiment to myself, reassuring myself as I explained.
My son’s after-school swimming lesson was the most difficult situation. I had hoped to join the other parental spectators and have a chat without drawing attention to myself. However, not only did my son fall over at school, hurting his hip so we were late arriving, he fell over again in the changing room so had to have an ice pack administered at the side of the pool before gingerly joining in half the lesson – guess who was by his side throughout, in full view of all the spectators, sweating under two scarves and a coat to (mistakenly) lessen the impact of my head covering.
Despite this, and the increasing sense of feeling hot, bothered and closely observed, I found myself keeping my temper in check more than usual as the children got changed slowly, ran around the changing rooms and pestered me for snacks. Perhaps because wearing a head covering represented someone else’s deeply held religious beliefs, I was acting as an advocate; I didn’t want Islam to get a bad reputation by losing my temper. It’s not always so obvious which parents are Christians when it comes to herding tired, grumpy children…
I was certainly relived to take the scarves off when at home; not only did I feel hot and stifled, but it had limited my peripheral vision while driving.
‘Mummy, take it off. You look scary’ was the reaction of my four year old daughter. Although, fickle as she is, she was asking me to put it back on again a few hours later.
I travelled to the evening’s event at NorthumbriaUniversity on the Metro, bundled up against the weather, and feeling very self-aware again. I avoided other travellers’ eyes more than usual. I was relieved to join my Muslim ‘sisters’ for an upper room discussion about modesty. I certainly enjoyed the hospitality of vegetable curry, Quality Street and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Most sisters were Muslim although a few Northumbrian Uni students and a couple of other friends of the very-persuasive Marium had also worn a headscarf for part of the day.
The atmosphere reminded me of student Christian Union events; the enthusiasm, passion, zeal and conviction of the discussion leaders brought life and vibrancy to the experience. I added more pamphlets (‘tracts’) to my expanding collection but resisted the temptation to correct a few misinterpretations of Christian belief and practice.
To my surprise, I found this day a significant and moving experience to reflect upon for the rest of Lent.
Choices we make in life, of what to wear, how to speak to our children, how we deal with stressful situations, and so on, reflect our deeply held beliefs and values. I usually dress modestly and believe along with St Francis that we should ‘preach the gospel at all times, using words when necessary’. My Christian faith underpins my moral standards and I have the greatest respect for others who hold similarly deeply held beliefs.
There is much to admire in Islam: strength of family ties, the five pillars giving structure to daily behaviour and attitudes, the commitment to prayer and study, the desire to serve a living God, amongst other things. However, there is also much to dialogue with; discussions I continue with my Muslim friend, particularly about the character and meaning of Jesus and the definition of a sacred text
If anything, my all too brief study of the basics of Islam over the past week or so has reaffirmed my faith in Jesus, as reflected in Christian orthodoxy.
I believe in Christ who was ‘crucified, died and was buried; He descended to the dead; On the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven’. I will happily reaffirm my baptismal vows this Easter Sunday: ‘I believe and trust in Christ’. The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are central to my faith as is the personal relationship with God and the redemption through Christ, not works or obligations.
I enjoyed the hospitality and friendship offered by ‘Team Mohammad’ and will continue to read, learn and dialogue in more depth, but can reaffirm that I am firmly in ‘Team Jesus’.
Amabel Craig has lived in Gateshead with her two children and husband, Arts Chaplain and Team Vicar, for the past eight years and holds a Masters degree in Theology from Durham University.