By: Zainab Abdulwahab Zubair

My Childhood.

Being born into a moderate Muslim home, where Islamic knowledge is being cherished, and every Muslim child is expected to acquire the knowledge of reading Qur’an before the age of twelve, my parents chose to send me to Islamic school at an early age of three. In my home town, Okene, a small town in Kogi state of Nigeria, was beautified in those days with different Qur’anic learning centers, with every street virtually having a learning centre.

My Qur’an class was a few distance away from my home, which I attend every morning and evening, before I was enrolled into the English formal school at the age of six, between the period of three years to six I was only able to learn some few and short verses of the holy Quran, I was not very keen at studying the Qur’an, the whole system was boring and uninteresting, the teacher keep repeating some verses, which we were to learn by heart, without really understanding their meanings. These, coupled with the fact that the teachers were very harsh in discipline the children with cane and some minor punishments, like kneeling till closing period, which may last for an hour or two depending on the time an offence is committed.

 The only interesting periods were the occasions of Maoulud Nabiy celebrations (the occasion of birth anniversary of the holy Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his household). On this special occasions, children from various Qur’an schools across the town, normally took to the street in parade and chanting different and beautiful Islamic songs, children were to show pride in their new and acquired skills in Hadith memorization and interpretation. These were to be recited to listeners who shower the kids with gifts both in cash and kinds, which were required to be handed over to the head teacher, as these were seen as the "the teachers harvesting season” since teachers receive virtually no payments from parents for teaching their kids. Special attention were apply to Maoulud  programs   in teaching the children the Hadith along with its meaning, special songs emphasizing  moral lessons from Quran and Hadith  specifically for this occasion were taught to the children.

Other joyous occasions, were Wednesdays and Thursdays, set aside specifically to celebrate children who have successfully mastered the act of reading some portions or all the verses of the Quran, for example, children who have successfully mastered the reading of the Quran from Surah Nas (chapter 114) to Mulk (chapter 67) were to present special dish of chicken to the school, which is shared among the kids and the teachers, or  specially dish of goat meat  in case of  Surah Nas (chapter 114) to Yasin (chapter 36) or Ram were the students have successfully finished the whole of the Quran etc.

At the end of  my primary education, precisely at the age of twelve, I was yet to complete my Quran reading, therefore my dad insisted that I finished reading the Quran before embarking on secondary school, the zeal of going to secondary school, made me to decide to finish reading the Quran at all cost and eventually I did.

Starting a Qur’anic Class Again

It was popularly believed in those days that the popular veil for Muslim women (Hijab) is meant for married Muslim women and not for young girls and unmarried Muslim women - contrary to this believe there were an uprising of Islamic movements where girls as young as nine years old were seeing putting on the Islamic dress code, their practice was seen by many including myself as act of extremism, therefore girls like these were tagged as been "illiterate or uncivilized”.

Immediately after my secondary education, I was at home again awaiting admission into any of the Nigerian University, though I do not wear Hijab nor do I pay attention to my daily prayers, but I always wanted to know and serve God better. Not practicing the act of putting on the Hijab was normal, since it had never occurred to me that it could be an obligation, therefore I was always happy the way I was, but as I tend to grow bigger I became withdrawn from constant outing and only associating with only my close family members and a childhood friend who also had the opportunity to attend the same secondary school as mine to void comments and glances from opposite sex, I there seek solace in reading novels and helping my mum in her household chores. I prefer to do the house work from morning till night, instead of being sent out to hawking things or on errands.

I was happy this way until one glorious day when my immediate elder brother walked in and asked whether I would like to perfect my Qur’an reading, this I gladly accepted as I never try to open the Quran again to read since I left for secondary school; and I always feel envious and wanted to read the Quran with nice tune especially any time I happened to come across one who could read and recite the Quran with beautiful voice. Therefore I was happy to start the reading of the Quran again, but under a different and more relaxed atmosphere. This time around my teacher – a young man, almost my age mate, volunteered to teach me the Quran. We started reading the Quran verse by verse at the end of each reading he always make sure he gave short talk on Islamic moral; like respect to parents and elders and importance of prayer etc. He never mentioned the Hijab to me, and I was glad about that, though I knew him to treat those with Hijab with special respect and often referred to them as "sisters” while to me the so called "sisters” were nothing but a bunch of ignorant and rude girls.

 The Turning Point of my Life

The decision to join the group of sisters was never an easy one; it came after a long battle within me in taking decision between pleasing Allah and been condemned as fanatics or continuing with my usual way of life. It all started the day we read the Surah Al-Ahzab (chapter 33), I noticed that my teacher repeated verse 59 of this surah several times and later asked me to check the English meaning of the Quran and explained it to him the next class. To my utmost surprised the verse turns out to be the verse addressing the manner of dressing prescribed for women in Islam- hijab – the dress code for Muslim believers; I was astonished because, I always had the belief that the act of putting on hijab was never mentioned in the Quran and even if mentioned it is exclusively for older women and definitely not for young women and girls. After reading it, I became disoriented, not knowing what to believe, the next class I had to explain what I understood from the verse to my teacher which I deed with my heart full of worriers and pain of discovering the truth about the Hijab. My next assignment was to check again verse 36, from the same surah. Coming across the second meaning was more tormenting to me than the first one, this time around the verse was addressing those who choose to follow their personal desire after Allah and His Apostle have decided on a matter. This time around, it was as if the verses were directly referring to me, for the first time in my life I was convinced about Hijab as the words of Allah, the big question now is how would I put on the Hijab? And most importantly to me it makes me looked ugly and awkward especially looking at my reflection several times from the mirror.

I remained indoor for several weeks not wanting to go out without Hijab and not wanting to wear the Hijab the only option is to remain at home in order not to disobey Allah. I was on this situation, when my only friend and school mate came calling, she was surprise upon hearing my story, but advice me not to fall into the group of these "extremists” people by engaging in Hijab, when I explained my state of mind to her, she became furious and said, "if you have decided to join ‘this group’ there is no point for us to be together again”, her words hurt me  so bad, that I decided to make a choice between pleasing people like her or Allah, and I therefore decided to please Allah by accepting the Hijab.

The first time I put on the Hijab, I was not pleased with the reflection of myself on the mirror, but I decided to keep going. After a few months of putting on the Hijab, with criticism from those who do not like Hijab and some encouraging words from some sisters who took it upon themselves to offer me moral support, I was able to overcome the challenges of going out with my Hijab feeling  truly liberated and happy at last.