You come to it in degrees.
It is between you and God.
It was hard for me to cover my hair.
But when I know the reasons why, it is okay.
It is what is right for me.
This is what two Muslim friends told me today, over lunch in Abu Dhabi. Neither woman wore hijab (the head-scarf) when she was growing up - one in Lebanon, the other in Egypt. Their parents were not very strict, as in some Muslim families where girls approaching puberty must begin to wear the headscarf.
It was well after the women were married that they decided to take this step. (I'll call my Lebanese friend Nura and my Egyptian friend Alia.)
"Wearing hijab, I'm not as pretty," Nura says, her big brown eyes earnest. Her striped pink headscarf matches her pink tunic, white pants and white shoes. It is wrapped carefully around her head two or three times and secured by a discreet pin. Not a strand of hair shows, due to an inner white cloth that snugly covers her hairline.
"It is hard for me - I like my hair, I like to wear earrings," she says in her gentle voice. "But the hair is very attractive to men." As a Muslim woman, Nura believes it would be wrong to make herself overly attractive to men other than her husband. It is in the Quran that women should cover their hair.
Nura and Alia said that even after they decided to wear the head scarf, it took time to actually go through with it.
"I used to practice wearing hijab at home. Then I'd go to the door and I couldn't open it," Alia says. She is a striking woman, tall and slim with black eyes and fine features. She, too, has taken great care to match her head scarf with her outfit. "One day I opened the door and told my husband and daughter to just push me out so I couldn't go back in."
Both Nura and Alia seem genuinely happy. They exude peacefulness, that they made an informed choice that is in accordance with God's wishes. We laugh easily about family life, cooking, and the hazardous driving in Abu Dhabi. We discuss the commonalities of Catholicism, my religion, and Islam, theirs.
(At home they only cover their hair if a male visitor - a man they could marry - is present.) Nura and Alia both say they wear a little makeup, though their faith says they shouldn't.
Alia says she would not force her teenage daughter to wear the headscarf.
"It must come from your heart. If a girl or a woman covers her hair and she doesn't want to, it is very obvious."