Sister Rose and a Teenager’s First Headscarf

I was nervous when I waited that cold morning in 1983 for Sister Rose. At 15, I was a senior student at school now, at the Convent school in Lahore, established over 100 years ago by Catholic missionaries from abroad. Later that year, I would be taking my O-levels, sent over from Cambridge University, so that the young daughters of upwardly-mobile and wealthy families could obtain British credentials. But for now, I was preoccupied with other things.

I was always a rather thoughtful child, inclined to moral and spiritual reflection. And in my early teens, an urge to seek a deeper spiritual life welled up inside me. It was not something I understood terribly well. The milieu was Pakistan in the 1980s, mildly mutinous under General Zia’s “Islamic” dictatorship. Most people I knew were more concerned about worldly matters than about spiritual quests. Perhaps Sister Rose would understand. She had, after all, sought the religious life as a young woman and now lived in a nunnery as a school headmistress. So that morning, I approached her nervously at the staircase.

“Yes?” she paused at the top of the stairs. Sister Rose stood across from the beautiful statue of Mary—Mary with a mantle over her head and a serpent under her feet.

“I was thinking, I’d like to start wearing a scarf on my head,” I stuttered. Sister Rose raised her eyebrows.

“What?” she raised her voice suddenly. And then with a sarcastic smile, “What are you revealing?” I reddened. Modest girls did not discuss their bodies in those days. And then sarcasm was not something I had learned yet. I said in a lower voice, “Islam tells us we should cover ourselves properly, and I’m 15 now and I should do it.”

As a child I was not in the habit of arguing with my elders. It was not a habit encouraged by my culture, my family, or my (Catholic) school. At school, silence and obsequious respect was encouraged. We did not answer back to our teachers. So Sister Rose’s interrogation was new for me. Sister snapped, “You can’t break the rules of the school uniform. So if you want to wear a scarf, you can transfer to an Islamic institution, or you can take your O Levels at home, but you will not wear a scarf in school. Is that clear?” She strode down the stairs as she spoke. A girl, standing by and listening, smiled contemptuously at me, in agreement with Sister Rose.

I went red and pale by turns. I had not seen this coming. I had not foreseen anything, in fact. Hijabs and face-veils may be popular in Lahore these days, and even chic. In my day, it was very unusual for a young woman in middle and upper-middle class contexts to start wearing a headscarf. It screamed hick, lower class, unsophisticated, old-fashioned, fanatical. It was hard enough to think on the endeavor. Now I was being thrown out of school by the Sister Rose that I admired so deeply.

For children, school is their entire world. A Pakistani 15-year-old in those days was not the equivalent of a more savvy teenager in the first world. It took me a few days to process the encounter with Sister Rose. I became physically sick as I thought of the terror of confronting my school authorities. I was being rejected by my world. Every day I went through a new state of mind and heart. And then, one day, I got so tired of floating in and out of terror, anger, embarrassment, sorrow, religious guilt and loneliness that I decided to throw caution to the wind. Sister had broken me. She had broken down the process of negotiation. She had blown up the bridge. There was no communication. There was no reason left to cooperate.

The next day, I put a white headscarf on my head and wrapped it around my shoulders. I looked much like Mary’s statue at school, except I was not confidently trampling over a serpent. I was terrified. My heart rattled in my chest as I stepped out of my car in the school driveway. I felt as self-conscious as only the most self-conscious teenager can. I avoided bumping into Sister Rose at school, but I stood out, with my scarved head. She could not have failed to see me. She said nothing. She said nothing at all.

A week passed. I felt like I’d had a lucky escape. I started to settle into a routine, going to school with my white scarf covering my head. My friends eyed me with curiosity as well as contempt. I received very little positive reinforcement from anyone. My mother, a religious woman, refused to say anything directly discouraging about the scarf, but she was clearly uncomfortable with it too.

Pakistan in the 1980s was an interesting world for this teenager who wanted to be a “good Muslim.” Government authorities were constantly talking about Islam, but the hollow rhetoric barely touched the lives of the upper to middle classes. One morning, a girl in class ridiculed my scarf and said it was frumpy and silly. Another argued that it wasn’t required in Islam. “There’s precious little we can do to be pretty in our silly school uniforms,” another said. “And you want to bring that scarf into the picture.”

I got irritated. I was, after all, only 15. “I’m only doing what I’m supposed to do,” I snapped back. “You’re also supposed to wear this same scarf, and you know it.”

A girl who hadn’t participated in the conversation, sat in the back and listened with a smirk on her face. Fauzia was from a troubled family background, and had a history with me. For me, she had become the school bully, and she continued in that role through college. That day, she saw her chance.

Later that day, during Urdu class, a girl appeared with a summons for me from Sister Rose.

I practically shook as I crossed the verandah and knocked at Sister’s small office. She looked up, practically glowering with rage. “Come in,” she said, and her voice was dripping with coldness. I sat down, and she eyed me and my transparent terror. Sister could smell blood. “What’s this I hear about you preaching to the others about wearing scarves?” she said angrily, with narrowed eyes.

“I haven’t. I haven’t,” I stuttered. And I then I realized. I might have. I tried to explain.

Sister was at her worst that day. No one witnessed her, the 30-something Anglo-Indian, verbally destroying the 15-year old who had no ammunition to fight back, no ready-made religious arguments to counter her attacks, no sarcasm to counter her sarcasm, no authority to counter her authority, and I had no veiled threats about General Zia’s Islamic government to protect myself. I had nothing, and she knew it. Until that day, I trusted my teachers as I trusted my parents. You do not prepare yourself to battle your parents. She broke me with her words until I wept.

Before the headscarf affair, I was fanatically loyal to my school, extremely fond of Sister Rose, and popular with my friends—“the class pet,” some called me. I had looked up to Sister Rose and empathized with her religiosity. I thought of her tears as she sang a hymn at the nativity play, and I thought of my own tears as I listened to a hamd (an Urdu hymn). With Sister’s rejection of my religiosity came an enormous distancing. It pushed me away from my friends and my social circle. I felt like my trust in everything had been broken. Sister had broken me, and I would not be broken like that again.

It didn’t have to be that way, I often think today. Over two decades have passed since that cold morning, and I think sadly of the unnecessary antagonism that Sister Rose engendered between my Islam and her Christianity. She and her religion took on the form of (half-)White imperialism. She brought her status as a school authority and as an adult and tyrannized over my religion. And why? Why was the headscarf such a sign of evil to her? Why didn’t she take it as a sign of the love of God—the same God she had devoted her life to? How did she manage to live in Lahore, in Pakistan, with that antagonism towards Islam and its practices, and yet maintain a spiritual life? And Sister Rose was not alone in that attitude. Sister Matilde, the elderly wizened nun who pottered around school helping little children, called me out in the cafeteria one day, curling her lip in contempt: “Why are you wearing that thing? Look around you—no one else is wearing it! It looks so strange!” And of course she, like Sister Rose, wore a veil and a habit every day.

Sister Rose’s hate engendered anger. It set me up for Islamism for at least a few years. It pushed me away from spirituality and toward an excessively politicized world view. Disempowered, intimidated, and lonely, I withdrew to myself and became an angry young woman until I found the warm embrace of Islamic Sufism.

Sister could have looked at my spiritual urge with a different eye. She could have talked to me of Love, and I would have been enriched by discovering it in her faith as well as mine. I would have been a happy teenager instead of a lonely one. Instead she encouraged the girls who were alienated by my new-found religiosity, and fostered their animosity toward me.

Today, I can look back at Sister Rose and Matilde with sorrow. Today when I see nuns, orthodox rabbis, and Buddhist monks, I’m filled with joy and a desire to share with them. Surely so many private hours spent with God must be full of light. I hope they are. I hope they engender love and peace for them, and through them, for others.

I no longer wear a headscarf because my understanding of clothing-related jurisprudential issues has shifted. I do wear it during prayer and other religious events, and I see it as a beautiful way to remember and express your spirituality. But I hope that even now Sister Rose, recalling Corinthians 11:4-16 as she dons her veil in the morning, enjoys the light of God throughout her day.