Let me tell you a little story about an encounter I had with a niqabi at a popular market in Lagos.
It was a hot and dry afternoon in Lagos and my mum managed to lure me out of bed and to convince me to go to the market with her. Upon arriving at the market, we briskly made our way in and out of different shops. I felt chocked by the smell of armpit sweat mixed with the repugnant smell of urine rising from the open gutters of the Balogun Market. With desperation, we frantically pushed past the crowd of people on the street and finally located our last stop in the market.
My arms grew numb from the pain of the heavy load I had to carry and I drifted in and out of consciousness as I listened to my mum engage in a conversation with the store owner. I suddenly felt the heat and close presence of another body to my right side so I turned to see who it was and my heart flipped at the sight of the woman. The muscles of my heart went on a frenzy and my heart could nearly tear itself out of my chest. The multiple shouts and cat calls in the market was deafened by the sound of my pounding heart. I felt washed by a wave of intense heat as I stood next to the faceless niqabi shrouded in all black.
Now, this incident took place 3 years ago but to help you better understand the situation and how I felt, you must know that I’ve lived in the UAE and in the Uk for some years. I had niqabi colleagues and companions I was close to at uni and never did I once feel threatened by their presence. My experience with the niqabi at the market was the first time I ever felt so much fear standing next to a niqabi. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I became unreasonably paranoid and felt glued to the spot on the ground even though my body and soul was telling me to run. WHY??? I feared right then and there that my asthma would be triggered and my life would be finished but then the most amazing thing happened.
The woman started to ask the store owner some questions and I can swear to God the lady had the softest and most gentle voice I’ve ever heard in my life. If my body had turned to ice at that moment, it would have melted at the warmth and softness of her voice. I instantly became calm and my heart beat slowed. I had no idea I was holding my breath the whole time.
I remember our long walk back to the car; my mouth felt cotton dry and my head was filled with so many questions. Why did I become so afraid of her? I searched deeper and deeper for an answer and it finally dawned on me why I had been so scared.
You see as human beings we are limited to taking in information via our senses. The things we see, hear, smell, feel and taste all send an information to our brain. At the time I felt the presence and heat of another human close to my body, I had turned to look and find out who it was but when I was faced with complete blackness, it put me in a great state of shock. I could not see anything except for the lady’s eyes which gave very little away. I could not tell whether the lady harboured a smile or a snare underneath the veil. We all gather information from people by reading little things like the expressions on their faces but because I was unable to read anything of the lady’s face, I didn’t know if she was a threat to me or not. That was what terrified me; not being able to read or decipher the situation.
Usually, before I approach someone I would try to read their face or the aura and energy surrounding them to see if it is okay for me to approach them or to return another time. At that moment at the market, I had sensed someone encroaching on my personal space and when I turned to figure out who it was, I didn’t know if I should move away from the lady (as you would a drunk person) or to feel rest assured. My eyes did little to help gather information about who she was but after hearing the softness of her voice, I got the answer I wanted and my body instantly calmed down.
That experience was life-changing for me and I’ll tell you why. As a Muslim, I’ve always supported my sisters who choose to wear the niqab in whichever part of the world they live in. In a world where wearing less is seen as the right thing and most people choose to expose their bodies, others who choose to cover or remain fully clothed are judged to be extreme. I hated the fact that many muslim women (especially those living in the west) were being oppressed or physically attacked and abused for simply choosing to cover their body the way they wanted. If there was a march or protest for the freedom of muslim women to wear the niqab, kheemar or hijab, you’d probably find me in the front lines. I could never understand why someone would feel threatened by another simply because of the way they dress. It’s not like you see them holding a knife or a gun or some other harmful object that helps to justify your fears. I could never find the link between someones clothing and someone’s irrational fear so I used to judge some people including the ”islamophobes’ and thought they were just downright unreasonable with their fears and simply racist.
After my experience with the niqabi at the market, my original views about certain people started to change. For starters I am a woman that’s proud of her faith. I love everything about islam; it’s a beautiful religion and it’s teachings matches my personal values as an individual. When I felt unwarranted fear standing next to the niqabi woman, I could for the first time understand why a total stranger or non-muslim could feel fear or slightly threatened by a niqabi. Now don’t get me wrong your feelings don’t always justify your actions towards another human being. I want to believe that this fear islamophobes have against niqabis is borne out of the reason that they feel like like they are engaging or meeting a faceless human being. A face you cannot read. On the other hand, I find this very twisted and ironic because the fact that someone smiles at you doesn’t mean they have good intentions towards you. People just want to see what they want to see. This is the fact of the world we live in. Everyone has an idea of how certain things should be or look and anything outside our limited views and idea is a cause for an alarm.
The problem is we humans are quick to judge and connect one piece of information to another. Seeing a smile on a strangers face is interpreted to mean that the person is harmless or this person is nice or this person likes me. It’s scary because this is not always the truth. Likewise not being able to see or read a smile on another persons face such as a niqabi doesn’t mean they intend harm or that they are hiding something or that they pose a threat to you and your family. The fact is everyone poses a potential threat but we can’t treat people badly or judge them based on their appearance alone.
Emotions are not just things that demand to be felt they are things that demand to be questioned as well. I for example constantly question my feelings towards people and things because I know how deceptive feelings can be if I don’t pay close attention to them. For example, something terrible could happen to an individual but another person could feel very ‘happy’ for their misfortune. In that case, happiness that we all paint to be a good feeling IS NOT A GOOD THING TO FEEL FOR THAT PERSON. If you are someone that gets easily trapped by their emotions then chances are you will most likely get carried away by the sense of joy you felt for someone else’s misfortune. Likewise, someone could get promoted or give birth and another person could feel resentment and sadness for their growth. You always have to question your feelings in order to keep them in check and prevent them from sprouting into something ugly.
The incident with the niqabi in the market felt like a hard blow to my guts because I felt like a hypocrite. It felt like someone was pointing an arrow to me shouting ‘Hey everyone! You see this girl who speaks up against people who react and behave a certain way towards niqabis…she fell victim of the same crime by unreasonably fearing them.” It was a teribble feeling. Although I didn’t react negatively towards the lady, so yes my mind was telling me to run away but I stayed glued to the spot. I tried my best to hide my fear from my face and not to make the woman feel uncomfortable but I won’t lie I could feel the blood draining from my face but perhaps now that I think about it is because I stopped breathing for a while without even realising.
That encounter taught me to be so much more understanding and to become less judgemental of others. People do unreasonable things out of fear, anger and pain. Right now if I were sitting in a bus in London and I witness a man verbally attacking a niqabi woman, before judging the man to be dim-witted or rushing to admonish and speak against the man, I would first try to help disarm his fears. I’d say something along the lines of ‘Sir, I can see you are under a lot of stress at the moment but I just want to let you know that you are completely safe. I can see why you would feel threatened by her appearance but the only expression hiding under that woman’s veil is her desperation for you to not see her as a threat and to let you know she doesn’t mean anybody harm.’ I guess that’s better than calling him out and saying ‘You unreasonable twat!’. It’s a sorry case for both individuals but life is just really complicated and a show and practice of a little understanding goes a long way in diffusing already tensed situations.
That’s a small experience of a bigger issue I want to address. In the Muslim community there’s a HIGH level of judgement and criticism that’s being practiced. Sometimes I wonder if some of these people picture themselves wearing a wig and a gown and they are sitting on some lofty throne and receiving some kind of payment for just judging others.
A hijabi or a muslim man sees another muslim lady not observing hijab and the first thing they think is she’s not a practicing muslim. Oh she’s not serious. Please tell me who are you to judge? Please please and PLEASE leave the judging to God (who is the owner of the religion) and you just focus on your own practice of the deen and your weaknesses and the things you need to work on.
People fail to understand that life is a journey and a series of events. You can’t judge someone based on the chapter of the life you meet them. It’s why dua is very important; someone who is very prayerful today could go off the rails tomorrow. Their current position does not determine their end. For example the journey to self love starts from somewhere and it’s not often from having good experiences. The journey to living a healthy lifestyle starts from somewhere and it’s not often from living a healthy life from the beginning. Similarly, faith and steadfastness doesn’t happen instantly. It takes time and a consistent habit to reach that level of ihsan.
Sinning and mistakes are unavoidable; everybody will sin and make mistakes. For some it could be for a month or for a year and others a decade or more. But that’s their life’s journey, which is different from yours, and which is different from mine. You don’t wake up with faith or being a ‘perfect’ muslim. Something life changing (big or small) must have happened for you to have faith or to question the existence of a God.
Having faith alone makes you a muslim but it doesn’t make you someone that practices islam. It takes conviction and love of Allah and the Prophet to practice the religion in its entirety. The conviction is where most of us are slacking; not following our words and the prayers we recite with actions. The love of God is also not automatic or something you can inherit from your parents. You need to find and fall in love with God before you make the firm decision or conviction to live your life according to His rules. Despite all of this, we must remember that we are humans before anything else. Being human means you are flawed which means there are days you will fall sick; so on those days you don’t have the zeal and will to observe the five salats or to perform ablution with cold water. We are flawed because we have feelings; sometimes we get hurt by the actions of others and a small part of us wants to retaliate and give people a taste of their own medicine.
We are flawed because we have desires; some lawful and others unlawful. Sometimes you break the vow you made to God and to your spouse and engage in illicit affairs with others. Whilst it’s tragic that you will live to account for and bear the consequences of all your actions, it’s more sad that you are a soul enslaved to your body and carnal desires. If you can’t control your desire to sleep with someone, what’s to say you can control your desire and rage to kill someone when they really get under your skin? Lust drives people to do things. Anger drives people to do things. Fear drives people to do things. The best among us are those that can control their emotions.
If you see someone going to the club, partying and drinking to a stupor all the time, best believe there is something going on in their life or a void they are trying to fill with the intoxicants. It’s painful to watch people we care about go down these path but the least we can do is to try and be there for them and to make dua for them. However, if you are an outsider, stranger or an onlooker you have no right to judge such people. You have no right to feel superior than them. You have no right to write them off and feel hopeless for them because NOBODY knows tomorrow. One conversation can change someones life. One near death experience can change someone’s life. One act of kindness can change someones life. One dream can change someones life. One nightmare can change someones life. One heartbreak can change someone’s life. One emotion can change someone’s life. One song can change someone’s life. One article can change someones life. One opportunity can change someones life. One insult can change someone’s life. One smile can change someone’s life.
There are a million thing you can do for someone but please try not to let judging be one of them. Judging affects you more than the person if you don’t know. You go on living your life holding this opinion about someone and it clouds your judgement and plants seeds of other negative emotions inside you. You never know when you start speaking negatively about the person to someone and you have no idea what their relationship is like with this person you are talking about.
I am not going to sit here and pretend like I don’t need to work on being less-judgemental as well. It’s something I’m actively working on and its hard. For example something happened a few months ago. I am not going to mention names but some of you may know this story because it involves two public figures. So there are two female philanthropists that established their own NGOs. One is the daughter of a billionaire and another is a popular Nollywood actress. The billionaire’s daughter had a fund raising gala and was able to raise billions of Naira for her foundation. Every descent human was happy for her success and most of the media houses in the country carried her story and accomplishments. Now the other philanthropist/actress came out on social media and expressed her sour views. She went on and on about how she’s been helping people for years and this young lady that’s been a philanthropist for just 2 minutes is getting all the attention and glory?
I was sick to my stomach by her words. It’s hard not to judge the actress. I started to question her intentions for starting her NGO in the first place. Was it really to improve the lives of the vulnerable or to get media attention and the respect that comes from being a philanthropist? I felt she should have shown more support and happiness for the other lady. She didn’t have to make it about her own efforts and how long she’s been doing her noble cause. It’s not the other lady’s fault she has a bigger platform and has access to resources and people the are loaded with more cash than she was.
Anyway, I felt sorry for the actress a few moments later. I was in no position to question her intentions for starting her NGO. Allah is the only one that can read hearts. I can understand as a human being what it feels like to not feel appreciated by either your boss or the society for your hard work and contributions. It can be heartbreaking. Although I do not support the actions of the actress I can certainly understand the pain she might have felt due to not being appreciated by the public and for that reason I cannot judge her. May Allah forgive me. The Prophet (pbuh) has cautioned us many times about assumptions and suspicions. He instructed us that even if we smell alcohol on someone’s body, the first thing we should think is that somebody spilled alcohol on them and not that they drank alcohol. You were not there to witness them drink it so you can’t assume negative things about people.
At the same time don’t be on the extreme end of the spectrum; some actions are clearer than day. If someone does something (i.e strikes you) don’t turn a blind eye to their action or be giving them excuses in the name of wanting to think well of them. Be reasonable my friend. Don’t be quick to judge or assume things if you don’t have the facts but don’t ignore clear warning signs either.
Always remember to do good to others and if you see things you’d like to change in them, depending on the situation, you can try to help them bring about the change or just simply make dua for them. If you genuinely care and want good for a person or would like to change their present condition then pray for them if you believe in the power of prayer and the Almighty who grants them.
Assist your brothers and sisters in making dua for them and may Allah cleanse and purify our hearts and assist us in having the best of intentions towards other people and to live a honest, righteous and judgement-free life.
Until next time,