ONE YEAR AGO:
“Why are you letting yourself be oppressed?”
His voice was calm, but sticky with anger. We were in the middle of a fight brewing to get ugly.
The cause of the fight?
I needed a new passport done in my hometown — a small town with ninety per cent Malay Muslim majority and one that has been ruled by the Malaysian Islamic Party in the last twenty years, and I got one with a photo of myself with a hijab on.
This is also a town where I grew up a Muslim. A town where I grew up for ten years wearing a hijab. A town where I grew up known to my parent’s friends as their smart, dutiful, only daughter, who studied and worked abroad.
Here’s a caveat;
I am no longer a Muslim now, and I don’t wear a hijab.
FIVE YEARS EARLIER:
I was sitting down with a respected mentor with my conundrum. We were having coffee at one of the upmarket coffee shops in the affluent neighbourhood just outside Kuala Lumpur.
Ironic, I thought and smiled to myself. The first time I met my mentor, she said she didn’t think I looked like one of the trendy Hijabbis who grew up in our nation’s capital.
I was at the end of my year-long writing project. For twelve months, I spoke to four women and countless others in between.
All grew up in one way or another with religion — Christianity, Mormonism, Buddhism, or Islam. One left, and three still holding fast to their faith for different reasons. All with a similar thread which I grew to find similar to my own; each of them living with the courage of their conviction.
And I’m about to take it one step further.
“I know no one has ever done this,” I said to my mentor. At least not without the drawn-out legal proceedings and the scorn of society as a consequence, I wanted to add, but I left it bubbling to the surface in my head.
“But I need to be honest.” I continued, drawing myself tall in the process more for my own sake than hers. Inspiring confidence I’m not sure I have in me.
She let out a long-drawn sigh. As if resigned to what she’s about to say. “You know what you need to do, right?” she asked.
“Leave. Leave, and never come back.”
I looked up to her in alarm. A well-known columnist on the subject of society and religion in Malaysia, I expected her to tell me to start marching out on the street to fight for individual rights and religious freedom. Not this.
As if pre-empting me of my own argument, she continued.
“Don’t worry about fighting for your rights or making them understand your choice. They’re going to slaughter you here and your family.”
I chuckled nervously at hearing the word slaughter. I knew she didn’t mean it literally. But hearing it out loud suddenly gives weight to my decision-making.
“Go. Just live your life and be happy.”
This was five years ago. Five years before that I had stopped praying five times a day, fasting for eight straight hours in Ramadan, making the Quran my primary source of solace whenever I feel uncertain, lost or forlorn.
When a close friend asked me why I still wear my hijab when I no longer believe, I gave him a terse answer every time. “I’m just doing it for my family.”
What I didn’t say to him was that I am still wearing my hijab so I can spare my parents a conversation so laced with shame, guilt, and humiliation.
I’m still wearing my hijab so that when my parents’ friends see me once or twice a year with a colourful piece of cloth covering my head, running errands with my mother or sitting down for breakfast with my father, they’d just smile and exclaim that my parent’s smart, prodigal daughter has returned.
I’m still wearing my hijab so that they will not say that my parents’ daughter has been westernised, liberalised or modernised.
I’m still wearing my hijab so that they will not say that my parents had failed in their duty to love, care and educate their daughter in a way prescribed by their religion.
At twenty-nine, I decided I could no longer cover my head without feeling like a fraud every time I see myself in the mirror each morning before I go to work.
I am not a believer. I no longer believe. This hijab doesn’t represent who I am and what I am can no longer represent those who carry this mantle with their life. It’s like a prayer I keep repeating to myself
“What would your parents think?” A friend I grew up with asked when I try to float the idea out loud.
“My parents are the most important people in my life, I would never do such a thing!” another friend chimed in, her eyes wide in shock as if aghast I would even consider it a possibility.
Later on, another friend, who is older and closer to me, pulled me aside. “Whatever you do, Ati, choose compassion.”
So began my life of sitting in the middle. Of switching from one side to another. Of transforming from my old self to my new self. I’ve done it so long I can practically switch in ten seconds.
A square cotton scarf carefully folded in a perfect triangle, so that no noticeable crease appears when I pull it out of my handbag. A spare pin always in the pocket of my purse, or pinned inside the fold of my shirt, so I can fix the hijab smartly, properly, like a good daughter I am.
I can emerge a different person from anywhere there’s a public hiding space; a bathroom, under the corner of dark stairs, behind a stranger’s car in the parking lot.
ONE YEAR AGO:
“Since when do you make it a business to let other people decide what you can or cannot do?” he repeated his question, bringing my mind back to the present.
I remember at the beginning when I told him these stories of me and my hijab-wearing doppelganger, he laughed the first time. I used to joke with him that I could be a CIA agent in training.
But now that he has seen it in person, he questioned why I should be so cowardly at ease with letting other people decide what I should and I shouldn’t wear.
“I didn’t want to hurt my parents.” I wanted to say.
But I just looked up to him, beseeching him to understand that this is my life that he so jeers at.
My life of compromise, my life of sitting in the middle.
Ati Aziz is a Malaysian-born writer who moved to Australia in 2016. A science communicator by profession, Ati considers non-fiction writing her creative outlet. Her works have been published by one of Malaysia’s largest English-language newspaper, The Star. In 2014, she ran her own 12-month feature writing project, Growing Up in Religious Asia, where she interviewed millennials from different walks of life about their experience growing up with religion.