by Sapelo Square
“Remember when we just wore khimars?”
Somali American model Halima Aden’s recent decision to quit the runway reignited conversations about Muslim women, modesty and representation. Amid the flurry of online commentaries, including many congratulating her for recommitting to “correct” hijab in ways that reeked of anti-Blackness, we took notice of the erasure (once again) of the long-standing history of Black Muslim women’s varied stylistic and cultural relationships with headwrapping. “Remember when we just wore khimars?” many of us thought. A time when the color and style of our headscarves had everything to do with our outfits and mood of the day and not at all with the politics of ethno-religious hegemony (i.e., the idea that because you are Arab or South Asian you can stunt on everyone). In that spirit, and in honor of our fifth anniversary, we’re bringing back the community poem, “Elegy for the Khimar,” compiled in 2015 by Sapelo Square Senior Editor, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, with a new audio recording of her reading the poem. Read, listen and remember with us.
“Elegy for the Khimar”
But, for real, remember when we just wore khimars?
Back when Badu wasn’t heard of,
my cover wasn’t purdah,
Nor burkah, but my crown
Cuz I come from Queens raised by Queens and Kings…county that is…
When Black power was the call
all us standing tall, either pumpin’ ya fist or drilling in a hall.
Back when brothers stood post and sisters was the most.
And the Black family was the foundation.
Being Black and Muslim was all ‘bout that Black love.
Back when the wide points of my all-white, made me a baby nun to neighborhood families
When we polished our beautiful black skin with pure African black soap
And when Malcolm said we were beautiful just the way we are,
we believed him.
When I saw myself in khimar as more beautiful than my uncovered self
as the fullest version of ME.
Before my square-turned-triangular khimar, imprinted by the outlines of plaits and cornrows,
with a pashmina.
When safety pins – not straight ones – were scattered all over Ummi’s dresser.
And my homemade skirt was good enough.
Before an imported abaya became a must.
Why I ask, is an abaya a must? Is it right or is just because it ain’t from us?
Back when we didn’t need to travel overseas to find validation,
Import wives in a search for authenticity.
It was in our community,
khimars draped so gracefully
kufis rocked so proudly by our akhees.
Somehow all that changed on 9-11
When suddenly it was like we had no American Muslim history!
A new way of losing you and me.
Before the threat of erasure.
Before the thought of an elegy.
When khimar was common language. Our common language.
Before a mipster grabbed a mic. Period.
My creator defined me as MUSLIM and that’s good enough for me.
So don’t come with your labels calling me no hijabi.
See they want to put me behind the curtain;
make me sit in the kitchen when company comes.
But I come from that freedom fighter stock
and my soul still hears their drums.
So I will sit at the table when company comes. Nah, I won’t hide.
And I’ll be covering in my own style… KHIMARED UP with pride!
Remember when khimar was
what mama called it,
what baba called it,
and I hid it
under a non-Maghrebi accent
so the masjid folk would leave me alone.
Remember when we used to match our khimars to our outfits for Eid?
When we all prayed on the same day, at the same spot?
Then go eat halal beef bacon, homefries and eggs.
Brothers and sisters would eat all together with their families.
A minority inside a minority.
We organized our makeshift ranks without problem.
Some khimars wrapped in buns while others hung below shoulders.
On that day, we left our fiqh differences where we left our shoes – at the door.
When every Friday we’d eat bean soup for dinner.
Daddy would pick up a coupla slices of bean pie,
and a Muslim Journal on the way out the door.
When we had friends in the MGT drill team and thought those sistars were fly
and we weren’t ashamed to claim them as part of our community.
When we had the Riyaadah fashion shows and everyone came dressed to impress,
khimars and headwraps rising and defying gravity
with not a jilbab in sight.
All over the ‘hood from Harlem to tha Wood,
Nappy hair everywhere wrapped in Geles and fly a** Khimars.
And “As-Salaam Alaikum, my sister” was a pick up line.
I remember dem hotter than hot days of summer… we donned our khimars
Colorful and radiant we matched the stars, czars of the ancestors
Yes I remember…
These fads be making it like it’s a new thing, something temporary
Good thing we are walking Legacies, a history written upon our souls
All the way down to our toes, like gold mines
We be divine
Defying the colors of beauty, the shape of our story
My khimar. My crown.
My identity and serenity.
We drop these few bars
so the babies won’t forget the path
that was paved by women
like you and me.
According to the dictionary an elegy is: “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In early April 2015 Su’ad Abdul Khabeer posted a lament for the “khimar,” a name for the Muslim woman’s headscarf that is fading into oblivion, on her personal Facebook page. A few days later, on April 13, she posted this call for a community poem: I’d like to write an elegy for the Khimar, a word once used predominately in African American and AfroLatin@/Latina Muslim communities. I think it should be a community project and so please add a line of verse if you feel me and I will post our collective poem somewhere. This poem, compiled by Su’ad, is the end result of the many likes and verses written in response to that call by a diverse group of Muslim women of African descent.
Of course names and meanings change but we should not presume change is ever innocent. All the women who cosigned her post were Muslim women of a certain age and by “age” this is not a mere reference to how old they are but the times these Muslim women came up in. This was the age when there seemed to be a lot more religious self-determination among Black Muslims in the US. This was a time in which they ran their own communities and lived in Muslim worlds primarily of their own creation. In many ways the shift from khimar to hijab marks, for many, what it means to live under cultural hegemony, a move away from feeling completely comfortable in the Black/Afro-descendant Muslim skin, without having to justify and/or dodge assaults on their authenticity. And when people credit a Malaysian Muslimah artist for inventing a style ofAfrodiasporic headdress (it must be noted that the artist herself NEVER made such claims)—or act as if US Muslim Woman’s fashion was launched in the 21st century, the shift from khimar to hijab also marks the way Blackness is not only rendered invisible in broader US Muslim discourse but is being erased.