Friday, March 10, 2017

Our Black Muslim Mamas Been Rockin' Hijab Since Before We Were Babies

By Jamillah Karim, with Joi Faison

Mama Marjorie, "She's the True Cover Girl"

I love Deen Squad’s new video “Cover Girl” with chorus “She Be Rockin’ That Hijab.” It captures much of what drives my writing on American Muslim women: that we cover not only for God but with style and beauty; that it is our choice; that it does not prevent us from accomplishing great things; and that Western society’s portrayal of Muslim women betrays its racism when Mary the Mother of Jesus' covering is honored and ours is vilified. 

This picture of Ayisha with child reminds me of depictions of Mary the Mother of Jesus

What better way than to convey this message than with beats, lyrics, and images portraying Muslim women around the world as cool, beautiful, and stunningly stylish?

And yet there is a better way, one that evenly represents us all. My dear sister Ayisha brought it to our attention first on her fb wall, “I'll admit, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking where the HECK are the Black Hijabis??!! I started to see one or two, but all was better when sister Ibtihaj came up on the screen!! Whew!”

And then my dear friend Joi said it:

Joi and Jamillah, Eid al-Fitr 2015

“Sometimes as an extra brown girl, of the deep earth hue, I get real tired of seeing others repped where I should be too. I gets tired of barely cameo appearances, the sidelines, and periphery. I gets tired of the invisibility, of the dismissiveness, of the ghost whispers of existences. Cause Lawd knows I gots bones and breath and feeling and prayers and fasting and giving and giving and forgiving. Lawd knows I show up on my mat daily to meet my Maker and He hear the dua of my mother tongue, learned Arabic, and the ‘Allahumma helps’ in the dark of the night, wrapped around balls of tears....Making me feel like doing a Sojourner Truth rendition of ‘Ain't I a Muslim.’”

And when Joi said it, I knew it was time to be like Hagar again and write as a worshipper-scholar-activist must do.

Courtesy of Nassar Madyun, Atlanta, GA

Black Muslim women of my mother’s generation, and even before her, women who embraced Islam in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, made it cool and bold and beautiful to wear the scarf and the khimar when it was terribly unpopular or even unthinkable to do so. And yes, that’s what we called it back in the day, the scarf and the khimar, before immigrant Islam asserted its authority and called it the hijab.

Women in the Nation of Islam will quickly remind you of this fact, that Black women were the first to publicly identify as Muslim in America. One Nation woman told me in an interview for my second book, “I strive to let... [people] know that if it wasn’t for the sisters prior to me before ’75, I wouldn’t be able to wear a khimar, headpiece, veil or whatever; none of us would. I wouldn’t be able to carry the name Muhammad.”

Courtesy of Bilalian News, circa 1975

In multiple ways, Black Muslim women carry a serious legacy of Islam in America. Whether our Mamas were drilling at the Temple, taking care of their babies at home, or out in the street selling community newspapers (after Imam W.D. Mohammed became leader), they were rockin' hijab regally and courageously.

The Vanguard, the drill team unit of MGT, in pant-skirt uniform, Harlem, 1971

Jeanette Nu'Man, Atlanta
Maryam Sharif, Shahidah Sharif's Grandmother, circa 1976, NY
Shahidah Sharif's mother baked hijab cake for sister's birthday

Here are just a few moments from my adolescence in the Warith Deen Mohammed community in Atlanta that stand out, demonstrating the way our Black Muslim Mamas made it possible for Black, Brown and White Muslim girls to be rockin’ hijab today.

First Memory, 1980s - In the basement of a humble house in Decatur, GA, five African American women gather to design and sew clothes for a Muslim women’s fashion show. Sister Amira Wazeer, founder and designer, started the modestly attended show “Celebrations” to nurture and celebrate style and modesty.

Second Memory, May 1992 - Beyond the basement for some years now, "Celebrations" is a first-rate show featuring designers from across the country including Shukuru, Lateefah Treasures, Ikhlas Muhammad, Lubna Originals, Lady Zakiyyah, Hanifah’s Secrets, and Anju.

Amira Wazeer

Celebrations featured in AJC, May 10, 1993

Five hundred women from Atlanta and beyond meet at the Hyatt Hotel for Celebrations, now the biggest fundraiser for the Atlanta Masjid. In her royal dress, Sister Amira proclaims to the crowd of sisters in delightful, majestic garments of various hues and expressions both modest and striking at once,

“You are royalty, you are the vicegerent of Al-Malik (The King of Kings). Dignity of dress therefore is required. Hesitate not! Seize the opportunity to be recognized as a believing woman.

“We are trendsetters. Europeans have copied Islamic design. We have influenced the garment industry to the point that Islamic style is in. Head wear is in. What we have been doing for years is now vogue.”

Third Memory, July 1992 - Before my senior year of high school, I finally embrace the scarf on my own after my mother has been encouraging me to wear it for the last four years. And I make the choice not when it is easiest and most convenient--that is, during the school year where I attend Warith Deen Mohammed High--but during a summer program at Clark Atlanta University. My mother seizes the opportunity to make me feel beautiful in my scarf. I recall it vividly. After a quick trip to the material store, she brings to my dorm room scarves of every color you can imagine--pink, purple, white, navy, yellow, red, black, and sky blue--in material easy to wrap the way the women in my community have long rocked it.

Fourth Memory, July 1992 or 1993 - On a hot afternoon in July, a congregation of nearly 100 Muslims stand on the parking lot of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam to view a press conference in response to “Women of the Veil,” a 12-page report featured in The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Although no members of the invited press attend the conference, the five African American Muslim women panelists--including a pediatrician, a computer analyst, and a school principal--express their dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Atlanta newspaper covered Islam and Muslim women in the Middle East.

And so when I watch the Deen Squad video, not only do I feel sentiments like those of Joi and Ayisha--Where are the Black Hijabis?-- but also I feel indebted to the women of my mother’s generation. I feel called to write their stories once again.

Always, I carry deep respect and recognition for our Black Muslim Mamas, even on the day I took my highly anticipated picture with Ibtihaj Muhammad. After my picture with her, I took one with her mother, Sister Denise. We all know that it was her mother, always conscious of God and modesty, who spotted girls fencing in a schoolyard and directed Ibtihaj to the sport that would make her famous and us proud.

September 2016

How I would love to post my picture with Sister Denise except that she requested that I not share it on social media. And that’s how our Black Muslim Mamas be rockin’ it: always humble so their daughters can shine. My Mama, yo’ Muslim Mama, Ibtihaj’s Mama, our modern day Hagars.

I could go on. Of course Deen Squad's video evoked gratitude for my spiritual Mama Tayyibah Taylor, the first to make us Cover Girls via her creation Azizah Magazine. But I’ll stop here, and since we are celebrating Women’s History Month, I'll end with an excerpt from my book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored by Dawn-Marie Gibson. 

With Tayyibah Taylor in front of MLK statue at Morehouse Chapel, March 2014

This excerpt is from one of my favorite sections, “Women Worshippers: Dress and the Practices of Sunni Islam,” where I describe the way in which Imam Mohammed immediately introduced the five pillars of Islam and other practices in 1975. (In the late 1970s, the new Nation of Islam community is called the World Community of Islam in the West, WCIW):

Modesty was still emphasized as an Islamic value, but women could now wear mainstream clothes. Women were happy to design new styles or shop at the store. Amidah Salahuddin notes, “Imam W. D. Mohammed eliminated the garments in the Nation of Islam [as part of] transitioning us to become more Americanized so that we would fit into American society and in our workplace and not seem as though we were different.”

Women in the WCIW developed a unique form of dress that continues to set them apart as women under the leadership of Imam Mohammed. This distinction results from the challenge he left for women to figure out for themselves how to create a uniquely American or African American Muslim style. This was very different from other Sunni African American Muslims at that time, who simply adopted the dress styles of other Muslim cultures. 

Atlanta Muslim women continue the legacy of Celebrations with a show organized by our generation, The Sealed Nectar Fashion Show, led by Naimah Mwenda Abdullah

“The challenge,” Jeanette Nu’Man describes, “was trying to figure out what to wear that was appropriate and understanding the Qur’anic guidelines in terms of what modesty really means.” Fashion shows became popular in the community, recalls Fareedah, as Imam Mohammed invited fashion designers to “come forward with some ideas.” 

The two hijab styles that evolved and most set this community apart were the “scarf,” a square scarf folded into a triangle and tied around the back, and the “headwrap,” or gele. Early on, some women wore the scarf loosely tied with bangs slipping through the front. Eventually more women adopted the headwrap, which Jessica describes as a peculiar trend in which women went from the very conservative uniform headpiece to a more relaxed version—that is, the lightly tied scarf—to a more conservative form in which women again covered all of their hair in the headwrap or the scarf. Here is why she moved to the headwrap: “For many of us, it was getting back to a personal identification or expression of our covering. For instance, a lot of us were Afrocentric and chose to use more African ways of covering versus looking at Chicago [namely, the Bilalian News] for our style. And then the fashion started kicking in and we saw different ways of expressing our modesty.” 

Jeanette also chose the headwrap because she had worn Afrocentric clothing in college prior to joining the Nation. While Jessica and Jeanette were embracing their African heritage in Atlanta, Amidah observed women in the WCIW being influenced by a variety of ethnic Muslim groups in the more cosmopolitan setting of Harlem:

We had the Senegalese sisters with all their headwear on. And then we had a lot of the immigrant sisters from Pakistan . . . and Egypt. So the khimar [a hijab with the material draped beyond the neck, either to the back or the front] came in and sisters were doing that beautifully. . . . We had so many influences that you could pretty much [come up with any style]. And then we had sisters like Lubna, African American sisters who were designers coming up and developing their own fashion wear for sisters of African American background, so that they have their own expression.

American clothes, either store-bought or handmade, eventually predominated as the style that came to characterize women in Imam Mohammed’s community, but because of modesty requirements, even the American clothes took on a uniquely African American Muslim expression. “Short dresses over pants,” recalls Fareedah, were an example. “They were very attractive.” On top of such modest arrangement of garments, the headwrap mostly, but also other hijab styles, would unmistakably mark these women as Muslim, which most women desired.

I invite you to purchase a copy of Women and the Nation to read more. For now, enjoy more pictures that Ayisha and I found in our personal collection. Many of them were taken during the Eid Holiday, our favorite time to rock our head wraps boldly and beautifully.

Shukuru's Daughters