Excerpt: What it means to be a modern Muslim

Little Mosque on the Prairie creator Zarqa Nawaz shares a humorous take on growing up Muslim in Canada. Here is an excerpt from her new book.


Teenage rebellion is a rite of passage. Throwing away the conventions with which our parents raised us helps us define who we are. Around the time I turned thirteen, this involved throwing away my hair. Short hair was part of my plan to burn and pillage my parents’ world view. But I needed to recruit some outside help.
“How short do you want it?” asked Aunty Firoza as she appraised the black waves that fell past my waist all the way to my butt.
“Cut it all off,” I said. “That’s pretty dramatic.” “Exactly.” “How do your parents feel about this?” asked Aunty Firoza, as she slowly worked the blades of my mother’s giant sewing scissors through my hair.
“They’re fine,” I said. It was technically a lie. My mother had resigned herself to my decision but refused to wield the scissors, so I’d had to ask her friend. My father was definitely opposed. Whenever I mentioned it, he’d pull out the Qur’an and say it was forbidden. All he could point to, though, was a verse about following the Prophet. My father said that the Prophet Muhammad would not approve and therefore he didn’t approve, but really I think he didn’t approve and was hoping the Prophet would back him up. In my father’s world, a woman’s hair was her glory. In my world, it was a pain in the ass.
“Why can’t I cut my hair?” I had asked my mother.
“Only modern Muslims do things like that,” she said.
It took me years to understand that not being “modern” didn’t mean that we couldn’t use electricity or drive a motorized vehicle. What it meant was we were going to look like the Amish but still drive cars, as long as it was to the mosque and not the liquor store. “Modern” Muslims acted like white people—had short hair, wore miniskirts and, the biggest heresy of all, talked to boys on the phone.
There was no Islamic prohibition against cutting hair, but I knew I was facing the last remnant of my parents’ old-world mentality. I’d had enough. I wanted a rebellion for my head. I decided my parents were terrible Muslims—what other explanation was there for people who invoked non-existent verses of the Qur’an to prop up arbitrary rules? And so the hair had to go, partly because I was done with looking like I belonged on Little House on the Prairie but mostly because it would drive my parents crazy.
When Aunty Firoza finished with the scissors, I was left with a bad but serviceable bob. The last time my hair had been this short, I was five. I felt totally liberated. I had won another battle against my parents’ restrictive lifestyle. My father was livid, but he couldn’t yell at another man’s wife. Plus he didn’t have a religious leg to stand on. Aunty Firoza avoided my father’s gaze and quickly went home. My mother consoled him: They had come to a new land; things had to change.
But to make sure they didn’t change too much, my parents sent Muzammal and me to Muslim camp every summer.
This camp was full of city-slicker modern Muslims with short haircuts and tight jeans, while my brother and I were the equivalent of backward, illiterate village Muslims. It was just like white-people camp except everyone was brown. My parents clearly didn’t know what was going on, and the two of us were thrilled and kept our mouths shut. Muslim summer camp was an escape from my parents, and they probably felt the same about me.
When I went to camp that summer, triumphant with my short hair, I noticed the new person on staff. She was an Egyptian woman hired to be the camp doctor. She was beautiful and luminous. But she was different: Her hair was neatly covered with a headscarf, which she called a hijab.
I had never heard of a hijab. Whenever my father drove my brother and I to the mosque, I covered my hair with a flimsy piece of cloth that sat halfway off my head. I would whip it off as soon as we drove away from the mosque and never thought it could have a name. My aunts in Pakistan wore the burqa, and my mother wore a dupatta, which is a chiffon-like cloth that she would wear loosely over her head, Benazir Bhutto–style, during prayers. Even modern Muslim women placed paper napkins on their head when they heard Arabic spoken at a community potluck.
The hijab was a new, modern way of being modest. It came with very strict rules: No hair, no neck and no ears could show at all. Even my supposedly conservative Muslim mother didn’t cover her hair like that. Clearly I had not been guided correctly.
The doctor started to complain to the camp organizers that we weren’t being taught the correct way of dressing in Islam. “Why are all the girls wearing T-shirts and jeans?”
For me, dressing as a Muslim girl just meant wearing long, baggy tops and pants. I wasn’t following any specific rules other than looking unfashionably bad. So this hijab-wearing camp doctor was a revelation. There might be a way to be even more Muslim than my parents. It was intriguing. The hijab was not like the dupatta, sliding on and off according to the whims of the weather or the wearer. The hijab was like a uniform, attached to your head with pins and ties. Gale-force winds could not tear the hijab off a devout woman’s head.
After camp that summer, there was a buzz about hijabs in our mosque. A friend of mine, Aliya, decided to wear hijab full-time. This meant she would wear it to public school, and even to the mall, where everyone would be able to see her. Two weeks later, Sameena decided to wear it full-time as well. Hijab was a virus spreading among the girls. The lectures that we attended at the mosque were about the tyranny of the beauty industry and how Islam freed us by giving us back our dignity.
“A woman’s body should be protected from the indecent gaze of a man,” droned the lecturers.
A man’s indecent gaze had never lingered upon me, but still, the message made sense on a theoretical level.
Some Muslim man—always a man—would say things like, “You wouldn’t take a diamond necklace through Harlem unprotected, and a woman is more precious than a diamond, so why should she go uncovered?”
Somehow the racist, sexist perfection of this statement rang true in my unsuspicious, malleable young mind. I was more precious than a diamond! My parents had never compared me to jewellery, the nerve! There was even a verse in the Bible that said women should cover their hair. Every picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, showed her hair covered. Nuns covered. Hijab was in the air.
But the best thing about hijab was that I had discovered it on my own—my parents had nothing to do with it, which meant that I could beat them at their own game: religion. I wanted so desperately to be different from them. Hijab was the answer. Some people think hijab is used to oppress people. It’s true. I used it to oppress my parents.
“I’m wearing a hijab to school,” I told my parents as I wrapped a sky-blue piece of georgette around my head, proud of my über- religious state.
They were stunned at first, but my father decided wearing hijab would mean I’d have more time to devote to school and not boys, which was fine by him. Where he got the idea that I was devoting any time to boys was beyond me, and I was disappointed by his lack of outrage. My mother reacted in a way I could have never predicted. She stared gape-mouthed at my clumsily wrapped blue head. How could she be dressed less modestly then her daughter? She had no choice but to wear hijab as well. I was furious—the hijab was my thing. How dare my mother adopt it as her own? But my anger quickly turned into that other primary teenage emotion: humiliation. My mother had always worn an elegant shalwar kameez with a diaphanous dupatta. She looked different from the other mothers, but beautiful in her own way. Unfortunately, she had no idea how to wear a hijab. Her severe cotton headscarf made her head resemble a tuna can. I was embarrassed to be seen with her in the mall.
“Just take it off,” I yelled when we went out together.
She couldn’t. She felt that if wearing hijab was part of her religion, then she had to do it too. So I had inadvertently shamed her into it and I couldn’t undo the damage.
Since my parents had ruined my hijab rebellion, my religious fervor refused to stop at my head. I started treating my hijab like a magic wand. I could wave my holier-than-thou hijab-covered head and complain about whatever I wanted. This wasn’t a privilege I’d been afforded when I was just a bare-headed Muslim.
“Wow, you guys take interest?” I asked my mother during a trip to the bank. I informed the gobsmacked bank teller that, unlike my neglectful parents, I would not be engaging in usury.
“Plucking eyebrows is forbidden,” I told my mother’s friends.
“There’s alcohol in vanilla extract, and you’ve used it for how many years?” I said as I threw my mother’s bottle into the garbage.
“How dare you listen to music,” I said and turned off my father’s Bollywood tunes.
“You guys are like modern Muslims who don’t even know about their own religion!”
I scoured the hadith for details of seventh-century Muslim life. My old bed broke, but I wouldn’t let my parents buy me a new one. I slept in a sleeping bag on my carpeted floor because authentic Muslims didn’t use box springs.
“Beds are not forbidden in Islam,” said my father, uneasy at my nitpicking approach to faith.
“I think God would approve,” I said, confident that I understood God’s will better than my parents.
When my mother took me to the seamstress to have my shalwar kameez sewn for Eid, I argued non-stop.
“I want long, loose shirts,” I told the seamstress as she measured my waist.
“I’m going to take it in at the waist to give it some shape,” she said innocently.
“No shape,” I said.
“But it won’t look good,” said the seamstress. “You’ll look like you’re wearing a sack.”
“That’s exactly what I want.”
The seamstress implored my mother with her eyes to intervene, but my mother knew better. There was nothing she could do. I looked like I was wearing a giant paper bag for Eid. I loved it.
My parents never saw this coming. Bringing their children to the West was supposed to be about improving their quality of life. Instead, they were being told they were crap Muslims. And their daughter seemed to be throwing away the conveniences of modernity, like beds. They just listened to my droning patiently. And then their patience paid off.
In late May, Uncle Mahmood, one of my father’s oldest friends, convened a meeting of our two families. His daughter Zereena had gone to camp with me the previous year. We’d both had a blast. I was looking forward to talking to Zereena about our plans for camp that summer. I had an enormous suitcase, which I could barely close. Were ten outfits too many?
As we gathered in his living room, though, Uncle Mahmood was clearly upset. My expansive teenage imagination assumed the worst: He’d make us weigh our suitcases and enforce a ten-kilo limit. But when he finally blurted out what was bothering him, it was much worse.
“At this so-called Muslim camp, they let the kids eat Chicken McNuggets,” he said with such seriousness that you would have thought we had been fed rat poison or, worse, pork chops. “The children should be forbidden from attending this camp again,” he intoned.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I loved Muslim camp more than life itself. And now Uncle Mahmood was ruining it for me.
“You’re not being fair,” I said out loud before I had a chance to think. “It’s a good camp and I really like going.”
My father watched the exchange with interest. Halal meat was a big issue for South Asian Muslims like us. Our family bought meat only from halal butchers. But Arab Muslims believed that meat slaughtered by Christians and Jews was acceptable and went on faith that someone of that religion was slaughtering the meat at the local grocery store. No one was going to quiz the butchers on how often they went to church or synagogue.
“There’s a difference of opinion about meat,” I said, racking my brain for the religious niceties and coming up empty.
“There’s only one real opinion, and proper Muslims follow that one,” said Uncle Mahmood.
I had turned my faith into endless rules. They had given me structure. They had helped me torture my parents. And now they were being thrown back at me.
My father had heard enough. “My daughter is right. We have to be more flexible when it comes to faith. We can’t be extremists when it comes to Islam.”
And in one fell swoop, my father dismissed the meeting and said I could go to summer camp as long as I wanted. His relationship with Uncle Mahmood soured. But as far as my father was concerned, Uncle Mahmood was a crazed religious nutjob. Halal meat was as big an issue for my father as it was for Uncle Mahmood, but he ruled in my favour because he knew how much I loved summer camp.
In that moment, I decided not to take Islam so literally. Religion had been my weapon of choice to break my parents’ hearts. But then it came back and almost broke my heart. Maybe God had sent me a sign through those Chicken McNuggets—my parents were good Muslims and it wouldn’t kill me to become a little more like them. After all, even though I had a strange haircut and paraded around in my hijab like I was the pope, my father still stuck up for me because I was his little girl.
“I’m thinking about growing out my hair,” I said. It was the only thing I could give back to him for standing up to me.
“It’s fine short,” he said. “But how about you sleep in a bed?” I agreed. My back was killing me.

Excerpt from LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE by Zarqa Nawaz. ©2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved.

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