The winter of 2013 was an eventful one for me. As a second year medical student from Pakistan, I had the opportunity to visit the United States for a research elective at a university there. There were many lessons learnt and memories made, but there is one that has especially resonated with me.
As I was hurrying back from lunch to the office one day, I had trouble with the key. A lady kindly offered to help. I had bumped into her before and exchanged a few greetings. However, that day after the door finally managed to get unlocked, she turned to me and said, “So listen, I have been meaning to ask you….why do you cover your head?”
I was, in all honestly, taken aback. But I also noticed something else. The tone she had used was neither condescending nor pitying. In fact it was one of curiosity.
And, it made a difference.
My answer was simple. I told her it was a part of my religion (Islam), which in turn, was part of my identity. I also mentioned that it had been my choice and wasn’t something I did simply because of tradition. I couldn’t explain much or launch into a detailed explanation out there in the hallway, but she seemed satisfied with the little details I did give; and she gave me no less than a positive response saying she thought it was a beautiful concept.
While the Hijab appears to be a central theme in the above anecdote, I want to highlight an aspect that has nothing to do with covering my head: harmony amongst people and within a society.
She chose to listen to my narrative, simple as it was, over whatever pre-conceived notions she may have had or any assumptions that people usually make regarding the Hijab.
The lady chose to ask me why I did something that she had seen few people do in her homeland, when she saw that it clearly highlighted that I was a foreigner and a Muslim; she did what few people think of doing, albeit unconsciously: she gave me a voice. She chose to listen to my narrative, simple as it was, over whatever pre-conceived notions she may have had or any assumptions that people usually make regarding the Hijab. She chose to get to know me rather than the version of me that society most commonly constructs (i.e. just another oppressed Muslim being weighed down by her religion).
Being extremely busy, I barely had a chance to see her again, but she taught me one of the most important lessons I could have learnt as a human being: sometimes in order to get to know people and give them a voice, all you have to do is throw aside whatever you think you know, whatever assumptions you have and just listen. Listen to why some people cover their heads. Listen to why some don’t. Listen to why people are in tune with their religion. Listen to why others are not. Listen to why some seem to be enjoying their lives to the fullest. Listen to why others are not. Listen and understand these differences instead of treating them like the elephant in the room.
I would not like it for myself that others make an opinion about me without ever meeting me, based on what they may have heard from other people. And, the least I can do is offer others the same courtesy and treat them the way I would like to be treated.
Our Beloved Prophet (sa) understood this more than anyone else, and enjoined it by saying in his famous Hadeeth, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
Can we ever appreciate the wisdom of this beautiful Hadeeth enough? As Muslims we are taught not only to refrain from negative assumptions, but also to speak good of others; yet, every day, we seem to be doing the opposite.
In Surah Ar-Rahman, Allah (swt) mentions how He, in his infinite Mercy, taught man to speak. Physically speaking, it is pretty amazing how Allah (swt) did this, how He fashioned the vocal cords inside of us. I got the opportunity to view them once, when I got to observe an anesthetist as she intubated a patient. Intubation requires for a tube to be fitted down the throat into the trachea (windpipe) after sedation is achieved. And, as the anesthetist slid the laryngoscope in for visualization, I got to stand right beside her and view the inside of the throat. The tube moved in effortlessly, coming to a stop as they reached the windpipe. From my angle, I could view the vocal cords. And with the light of the laryngoscope, these small white cords appeared almost to glisten.
Here is the reality. Right in the middle of red, wet, tissue that is in our throats these glistening white cords stand out like pearls. They are tiny- you would hardly think they were created for a purpose. But, their Maker knew where to place them exactly so that they could come together to produce sound, the very essence of communication, of how we get to know each other. And these tiny, lovely pearl-like cords are there in the throats of every human being, delivering the purpose according to the way they are used. They are there in the neck of a tyrant as he spews out hate; they are there in the victim as he cries for mercy. They are there for the adult who may espouse some wisdom, for the child as he murmurs and cries, for the oppressor and the oppressed.
And these tiny, lovely pearl-like cords are there in the throats of every human being, delivering the purpose according to the way they are used.
These cords are in harmony with one another. But when we abuse this incredible power we have been given, we lose that harmony. And this loss can result in the ugliest of manifestations….broken homes, broken families, even broken nations. Hence, if we really want change, let’s start from here. Let’s beautify our speech. Let us be more understanding and considerate of others. Let us take back our narrative together, as a human race.