Pakistan, race, religion

Sister Rose and a Teenager’s Headscarf

I was nervous when I waited that cold morning in 1983 for Sister Rose. At 15, I was a senior student at school, 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. …

Read the rest at Religion Dispatches. I wondered how to frame this story – cultural imperialism, race, European Christian missionary work in developing countries, the education of children, power and religion, women, clothing — and I couldn’t categorize it under any one label. I leave you to try.


16 thoughts on “Sister Rose and a Teenager’s Headscarf”

  1. Felt different things as I read through this –

    (i) I saw a really cute and beautiful quest for a spiritual life by a 15 year old. That is so sweet. I would encourage such spirituality in any 15 year old. In fact, I felt I could give a tight hug and grab the cheeks of such a 15 year old and shake her. It is irresistibly sweet

    (ii) The terror at encountering a cold reception to the scarf sounded very familiar and relatable and so did the chains of obsequious respect resting heavily on the souls. Came from the same culture myself.

    (iii) The care required in coaching a teenager if one is a parent. (I like to mull over this idea though I am single). Teenagers come with such spirit and we adults crush it with our prejudices, instead of perhaps seeing an opportunity to discover that free spirit in ourselves.

  2. i thought the note on mary’s own head covering was particularly effective.

    the negative attitudes of christians towards the hijab is clearly not rational and rooted in very deep cultural biases. as you pointed out there are new testament demands that women cover their hair in church a practice that one can still see in various christian worship services. in the parish i attend, which has a strong russian influence upon it, somewhere between a third and a quarter of the women cover their hair i would guess. and it is interestingly enough not the older women but the college to middle aged women who tend to do it. i have also been in dutch reformed churches where the women were expected to wear hats to church to cover their hair, and the women cover their hair in the primitive baptist church as well. and the list could be extended (prayer veils in the more conservative latin masses, etc., etc.).

    i remember well that trying to think through one’s faith as a teenager is not an easy task…trying to adopt it and make it one’s own in a self-conscious way.


  3. Salamaat,
    That’s interesting. I went to a catholic high school in Kenya, and there was a similar struggle between the girls who wanted to wear hijab and the “system” that wouldn’t let them. Except this time the system that was established by the british, was left in the capable hands of African teachers who made it their mission to terrorize us.

    The good ole’ days…

  4. vivid piece cuz. what different experiences we had starting hijab on opposite sides of the world (and, um, about a decade apart 😀 )… i wonder if that time is actually the greater factor in difference than the distance? even in america it would have been much more difficult ten years before i started. i’d guess… anyway, i loved reading this! thank you!

  5. A touching and really well-written memoir of a real turning point in your life. Beautifully done and evoked 🙂 There is no category for it, or for anything else in the real stories of our lives, flowing like water over the rocks we encounter along the way to the Ocean.

    Ya Haqq!

  6. This was amazing Shabana. Not only was the image of Mary striking, but also the revelation toward the middle of the piece that Sister Rose’s own hair was covered by a veil and habit! One wants to not discount her spirituality when shedding tears during devotional hymns, but the hypocrisy and prejudice is just unbelievable. May Allah protect us from being so hard of heart in our own “spirituality.”

  7. Shabana, I forwarded the article to someone who was at the CJM and whose daughter is now at CJM. She had the following to say about her daughter’s situation:

    “She personifies the split personality of Pakistanis….wanting to stay connected to God (fearing the unknown punishment if they don’t) and still yearning to be ‘cool’ and have fun. Sadly there is no support for those trying to maintain a balance.”

    I have noticed that younger Pakistanis want to stay a lot more connected to God than was the case thirty years ago. I worry if this is coming out a “fear of punishment” that became prevalent because of the relentless brainwashing of the Zia years that was clearly driven by political considerations.

  8. This is interesting and reminds me of my first encounter in Pakistan with my ‘new beard’. (I was well-known cleanshave)
    I was in the office of a ‘Baji’ when she made a comment ,
    “Have you joined the “jama’t”
    and before I could say anything you spoke out (You were with me) sharply
    “yeh sunnat hai”
    That was the correct answer. I dont remember what ‘excuses’ I gave for having grown a beard.
    It also reminds me to write up now all the remarks I had listened to in 1981-2.

  9. “and before I could say anything you spoke out (You were with me) sharply
    “yeh sunnat hai””

    Sis sure was enthusiastically religious, eh.

  10. This is a beautiful post.

    When you mention how your trust was broken & how you felt lonely and deserted from all those around you… it makes me think that perhaps every person, at some point in their lives, goes through this experience- whether they realize it or not. And perhaps this is because humans are idealistic by their true nature- and they approach the world in that idealism… but since nothing of the world is ideal, it leaves them disappointed, lonely etc. But I think that loneliness or void one goes through; is what really brings one to find God. The Ideal.

    At least that is what happened with me 🙂

    Love & Peace.

  11. Assalamu Alaikum Shabana, loved this story, the irony is so obvious and sad. I actually begged my father to put me in a private girls school so i could start wearing my hijab in 9th grade. I wanted to get away from all the kids that knew me and have a fresh start because i didn’t want to deal with any questions. Some of the boys in my middle school where giving me a hard time and i wanted to get away from them.

    Anyways, i hope you try to wear the headscarf again someday inshaAllah (without niqab). Maybe you’ll have a different experience.

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