I like celebrating milestones. Marking the passage of time is something I do even when I don’t really need to. Augustine’s musings on time are more eloquent than mine, so I won’t indulge myself on the subject any longer.
However, this week (or last week rather since today is Sunday) marks my ten-year anniversary of two major life-changing moments: 1) I officially became more than half my former size and 2) I started wearing the headscarf.
I’m always a bit hesitant to go into a full explanation of why I decided to wear the headscarf full-time that jumu’ah in 2009. Unless one believes in God and unmerited blessings, I get the sense that my answer will not be satisfying (to non-Muslims; Muslims rarely ask), so I would rather not get into it. It’s also much more personally revealing than one would assume (funny, right? Talking about covering being revealing?). For me, beginning to wear the headscarf full-time is deeply tied to my weight loss. I dislike talking about my weight loss story in public forums, because it’s as if I’m openly inviting people to praise me (which I need to temper) and then that completely derails the conversation.
And yet, it’s so intertwined that I also cannot ignore it completely. So, on this ten-year anniversary, I need to revisit it.
Most of the women in my family don’t cover their hair, I say. Growing up, only two women (cousins, both American-born and living) wore it religiously (meaning, all the time and not just during Islamic gatherings or for prayer).
My mom started covering her hair in 2000 after her cancer treatment. But it wasn’t out of shame. Somewhat like my own reason, it was out of a sense of gratitude toward God that my mom felt compelled to wear the headscarf. She could have just worn a hat during remission and then when her hair grew back, gone back to the way things were. She had beautiful hair — and still does! My 70-year old mom STILL has thicker hair than I do. Why didn’t I get that from her? No, cancer strengthened her faith.
And in a less direct way, losing weight strengthened my faith, too, although much more gradually.
I don’t mean to imply that Muslim women who cover their hair are stronger in faith than those who do not. But to ignore my own complicated relationship with my body and its effects on my spiritual development would be misleading and obfuscating the reality.
As a young girl growing up in Toronto in the ’90s, whenever I saw a woman wearing a headscarf, the assumption was that she is super religious in a way that does not allow any room for fun: i.e. she doesn’t watch Bollywood movies. Because for me, my definition of fun for a long time was equivalent to Bollywood. But I watched movies, I loved to dance, and I loved to sing, all things some really conservative people say are unIslamic. So for me, there were “moderate” religious Muslims like my family who prayed, fasted, did all the five pillars and more, but still retained their Indian culture and practices. And then, on the other hand, there were the Saudi-influenced Muslims who said everything not from the Qur’an and sunnah was a bid’ah (innovation).
It wasn’t a conscious bifurcation on my part. I was absorbing a lot of political, social, and cultural movements that I did not understand at the time. I understand them now and have come to see that these blanket assumptions made on both sides have been damaging both on an individual and communal level. In some ways, I complicate this bifurcation today.
I was always bigger than most kids. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was close to morbid obesity. I knew I had to finally lose weight. Long gone were the days of stubbornness and refusal to stop eating two platefuls of rice for dinner each day (and sometimes even lunch!). Never mind the fact that I couldn’t find anything to wear and all that pain shopping trips caused. It was a diagnosis of pre-diabetes that really scared me into action. Over the course of 3 years, I lost more than 100 pounds. It was a shock, not only to everyone who knew me, and to my body (which I would only find out much later), but more importantly to my sense of self. Before, I was always “Fat Rafia” in whatever space I walked into. That’s why I absorbed myself into studies, because looks in a looks-obsessed (North American) society and (Indian) culture, weren’t going to save me. All of a sudden people who had once derided me for being ugly were now calling me beautiful? While I did enjoy being able to wear clothes I never imagined I would ever fit into, after a while I realized how superficial people can be… and that I was turning into one of them.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy. Was I feeling disconnected from God or was I being moved closer to Him, when on that Friday, the 14th of August, I felt a compulsion to not take my hijab off after prayer? I saw a vision of myself wearing the headscarf at work, smiling, and I interpreted that as a sign that this is what I had to do.
After wearing the headscarf, that’s when I started to become, I guess some would say, “obsessed” with my faith. I wanted to enroll in a madrassa (didn’t do that), but I consciously chose to work for Islamic organizations, got my Master’s in Religious Studies, thought about becoming a chaplain (also didn’t do that), and now, doing what I do and hope to do (perhaps more on that later). It’s safe to say that Islam consciously colors my life. It is the lens through which I see the world and how I live my life. Hajj has firmly cemented that, I pray, but I know there’s more for me to do.
And as of this week, I’m finally okay with my body. Just as recently as May of this year, gaining 10 pounds would have been enough for me to vow to not eat cake… until I lost that weight. Since June, I have gone up a size and may need to get slightly larger and longer shirts. But knowing that my body is doing what it’s meant to do is worth it. I thank God for this. In many ways, I’ve defied medical research in the past and I have done it once again. But it’s not anything I have done. It’s all been because of God. I can’t prove it to a skeptic, but I don’t care to. I know it in my heart.
That’s not to say that this journey of rediscovering my faith and learning about the delicateness of my body have been easy. They certainly have not, but both have been so intertwined that it’s hard for me to talk about one without the other.
Has the mission of My Body & Soul been fulfilled for me? Perhaps that’s a bit too early to say. But I no longer see it (i.e. my body) as a problem to be solved (i.e. just lose weight and then everything will be okay). So in a way, yes.
And, as I hoped for back in 2014 when I started that project, I now firmly know it is my faith in God that will ground me when I start worrying or get upset at myself for not living up to an unattainable ideal.