My mother was a very thoughtful parent. While she’d never call it that, I’d say I had a feminist, hippie, black nationalist upbringing. And it was religious. Whether it was Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, religion was ever present in my life. We never had much money, and I didn’t ride in an airplane until I was 14, but I had a broad early education in cultural and religious diversity. I took communion, and learned about God from nuns at my Catholic elementary school during the week, then worshipped in black Baptist churches on Sunday. Sometimes my mom and her best friend would take us kids to club Ashkenaz in Berkeley, a night club that didn’t serve alcohol, and did allow children. We’d listen to live reggae music while sipping sodas and watching people dance. It felt grown-up and exciting. Her hair dresser and close friend, Kenny, was an immaculately coiffed gay man who had an enviable collection of women’s lingerie that he’d sometimes model for us. Kenny gave me candy, made me laugh and gave my mother the best haircuts she’s had to this day. I went home to sit amongst adults, and listen to Jamaican Rastafarians and American Black Nationalists argue things I couldn’t understand while Sade crooned about smooth operators in the background. All the Muslims I knew– and there were plenty whose adherence to the religion varied, but whose dedication to their Muslim identity was unwavering — were black.
At 8, my best friend was a Muslim girl named Haqqa. Her mother and mine had grown up together in a small city on the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area. They drifted apart after high school and then rediscovered one another after failed marriages and single motherhood brought them home for healing. Like a lot of African American baby boomers in that area, Haqqa’s mom had converted to Islam and was now raising her children in the faith. I thought her mom was beautiful. She had smooth, milk- chocolate skin and smile like sunshine, bright and warm. She covered her hair in African-style head wraps that reminded me of a queen’s crown. Haqqa didn’t cover her hair. In fact, I don’t think I ever noticed that she dressed any differently than any other girl I knew. I’m not always so good at noticing these things.
Halloween came around and I was invited to a party at a mosque in Oakland. They thought it would be better to have a party with plenty of candy in the mosque rather than face the dangers of trick-or-treating in our largely crime-ridden neighborhoods. This was in an African American Muslim community, nearly a decade before the Salafi dawa’s call to a divisive, misogynist, isolationist Islam began to poison Muslim communities across the U.S, so the celebration of a “pagan” holiday in the mosque wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as it might have been 10 years in the future.
I was nervous and excited about going to a mosque, but thrilled to have a chance to meet my friend’s friends. Things were tough for my mom and I then, so special opportunities to have fun and forget about our troubles were relished. I rushed home from school to dress up in my ballerina costume: pale pink tights, beneath a short-sleeved white leotard and a perfect pink tutu around my little hips, crowned by a bun at the center of my head. I don’t remember if we arrived at my friend’s house or the bad news came over the phone, but I knew we couldn’t go. “Why not?,” I questioned, near tears. My mom, angry that I’d been disappointed, informed me that my costume was inappropriate for a girl to wear to the mosque. I wouldn’t be allowed to go, because the only costume I had was considered immodest. She took me trick-or-treating. I don’t think I ever saw Haqqa or her mother again. Mom was always on my side. You only got one chance to hurt her girl.
This was my introduction to Islamic modest dress.