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My Fashionable Friend Who Hated Hijab

Sartorial squabbles at a Catholic school in Sudan

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

MyMy best friend, Leena, laid down the law regarding clothes: no green with blue, no checks with stripes, sandals and handbags must match. “The first thing I look at in a man,” she said, “is his shoes.” We were 11 at the time.

She was my companion during the long years of puberty when womanhood loomed ahead of us fractured and out of reach. I visited her almost every day. Her house was more feminine than ours, her father more indulgent. He had a sheepish smile and smelled of lemony, expensive cologne. I watched as Leena stroked his scalp. With him she became a cuddly girl again, her mother taking time from an almost continuous regime of grooming to look up and smile. It was neighborhood gossip that Leena’s mother went for regular massages. This, in my austere household, was viewed as the height of decadence.

On the playground, I smoothed down my new Eid dress, loving its loose softness and flowers. Leena studied me and said, “It makes you look pregnant!” When I stuck to her advice, she sighed and complained, “You’re so repetitive.”

Her comments about other’s scruffiness and vulgar tastes made me laugh. “He looks like he hasn’t had a shower today!” she would say, or “Her ears are too big for her head.” Or she would make pronouncements such as, “An ugly couple will have a beautiful baby” and rattle off the names of acquaintances to prove her point.

Once on our way home from school, stepping out from the grocer, we saw Leena’s father and a woman getting into the back of a taxi. The woman was in tight trousers, a black T-shirt sliding off her shoulders; she shimmered with gold dust and crimson, her hair twisted to one side to show long jingly earrings. Leena and I stood on the pavement and stared as they drove off.

When we started walking again, Leena’s voice was calm and objective, “My father is a womanizer, but he has good taste.” I thought Leena would make fun of the woman’s greasy lip gloss or even call her a slut. Instead she turned to me and frowned, “You really must do something about your bushy hair. Are you competing with Einstein?”

She was ruthless about her own looks. Every pimple was dealt with without mercy, every excess hair removed. She wore a wide belt under her clothes in order to slim her waist. Even when she dressed casually, it was deliberate and thought-out. The right jewelry, the right shoes, her hair done in a different style, the look innovative and well-matched. Unlike me, she hated our school uniform. Nothing pleased her more than meeting girls outside school and checking out how they dressed. Or the few events when we were allowed to come to school out of uniform.

We attended a Catholic missionary school in which most of the students, like us, were Muslims. It was the best private school in Khartoum, but Leena took a dislike to the nuns. Their white habits depressed her; their cultivated plainness was alien to her soul. “Worst of all,” she would snap, “are the pretty nuns. What a waste!”

Once she asked me, “Who do you think is the most beautiful girl in our class?” I nominated the popular, glamorous ones, including her. But she snorted and chose instead a studious Ethiopian refugee on a scholarship. The girl was without the benefit of fancy clothes or trips to the hairdresser. I was taken aback. Leena could scramble and find a gem. She cared enough to look beyond the obvious.

So I gathered my courage and asked for her judgment. I made a mistake when I begged, “Leena tell me the truth, the real truth. Am I pretty?” She passed her sentence on me. Her ultimate assessment. That was when I first started to want to break free from her.

It was for aesthetic reasons that Leena rose against the girls who started to wear hijab. Leena was no less religious than any of us, but appearances were her territory, her unchallenged area of expertise. The first girl who came to school with her hair covered caused a stir. Unlike the rest of us, she was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and her navy pinafore had been adjusted to reach her ankles. The nuns weren’t happy. It was a violation of the dress code, they said.

At break, Leena dragged me to the hijabi girl. She tapped her on the shoulder and spoke out loud, “Tell me, when your hair is your best feature, why do you hide it and emphasize your big nose?”

The nuns moved to expel the girl, but there were now new government policies which sided with the hijab. A missionary school in a Muslim country would always be vulnerable. The teachers turned a blind eye to the new taunts of the schoolyard. And Leena made the most of this. She got bolder as the popularity of the hijab spread, sometimes drawing these girls out in heated arguments, once even tugging a veil off a junior’s head. I was always with her, her best audience, her sidekick. I didn’t protest when she spread a rumor that girls who wore hijab would never get married. I didn’t stop her when she drove a younger one to tears.

In the schoolyard, I walked next to her, conscious of her grooming, her self-conscious air, her aura of fashion. But I was already plotting to match blue with green. To wear the same thing more than once and move away from her jurisdiction.

“A Very Young Judge” by Leila Aboulela. Copyright © 2019 by Leila Aboulela. From the book New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby. Copyright © 2019 by Myriad Editions. Reprinted by permission of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and by Myriad Editions.

Leila Aboulela is the author of the novels Bird Summons, The Kindness of Enemies, Lyrics Alley, Minaret, The Translator; and the stories Elsewhere, Home.

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