If you think that you have just one life, think again. There's the life you think you have, the life others think you have and the life you really have- three lives!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Lifting the Veil

Ok. It had to happen sometime. I've been thinking about writing about the hijab, burqa, nikab and various forms of Islamic women's dress for some time and now's as good a time as any.

I am a Muslim woman- nobody can deny me this part of my identity. As far as I am concerned, the hijab, in its various forms, is a choice. It is not mandated by the Koran. I choose not to wear it. I believe that modesty can be displayed in many forms. I believe that I do not need to cover my hair to be modest.

I have, in the past, toyed with the idea of donning the hijab. At that time, I was feeling particularly angry and distressed by the acts of violence directed at women wearing the hijab in Australia. But when I really thought about it, the reason that I would have put on the hijab would have been to assert my identity- an act of defiance really- a statement. In doing so, I would have been guilty of what I have accused Western feminists of doing- of objectifying the hijab and reducing it to a symbol. So, to wear the hijab because I was angry would not have been the right reason.

I listened to and read the stories of hijabi women who declared that they rejoiced in covering their bodies, that the hijab gave them a sense of control over their bodies, that they felt they were being appreciated for their brains more than their looks. As much as I tried, I simply could not relate to this notion. Even when I was disturbed by the comments of some men in my workplace about my looks, I still could not relate to this notion. Even when a male colleague told me that I should "uglify" myself to be taken more seriously, I still could not relate to the notion of having to cover myself to be respected. I simply could not relate the problem back to me- if men cannot conduct themselves in a professional manner- that is their problem, not mine.

I visited Egypt earlier this year, and it was this trip that cemented my decision not to wear the hijab. It seemed to me that I was the only Muslim woman who did not wear it. Whenever I had a conversation with someone where I revealed that I was indeed Muslim, invariably I was asked why I did not wear the hijab. At first, the question threw me and I simply could not offer an answer other than that I lived in a Western country and that my work demanded a lot of public appearances where it was easier for me to get people to relate to what I was saying if I appeared to be like them.

But the more I observed the phenomenon of the hijab in Egypt, the more I rejected it. The hijab has become a fashion statement. Young women wear nude coloured body hugging tops underneath revealing halter necks, tight jeans, a brightly coloured scarf on their heads- this is the new 'hijabi'. They, like the Western feminist discourse on the veil, have objectified the hijab- it is not about maintaining any semblance of modesty or being appreciated for their brains.

I started asking women why they wore the hijab. Their responses varied:
I did not want to be mistaken for a Christian
The girls at school teased me
My hair is difficult to manage and I am too busy to go to the hairdresser every week
The cost of hair products is too high

Not a single woman I spoke to mentioned it as a religious choice. Not a single woman I spoke to "rejoiced" in covering her body.

My friend gave me some words of wisdom for which I am grateful. She said "Whenever anyone asks me why I do not wear the veil I simply reply that my hijab is in my heart"

I like that. My hijab is in my heart. And for now at least, that's where it is staying.


MechanicalCrowds said...

This is one of the best posts I read about this subject. I hate how society interferes with personal freedoms.

The Usual Suspect said...

Thanks for your comment mechanicalcrowds. Much appreciated

programmer craig said...

No comment on hijabs, just wanted to say "welcoem to the blogospher" and I bookmarked you :)

The Usual Suspect said...

Welcome welcome Graig- good to see you here buddy- enjoy!

Maria said...

Thanks for the insight!
This reminds me of the women-only car of the underground in Cairo, that I entered - in outdoor clothing and with my backpack. Totally underdressed (but not exactly uglified on purpose ;). Lots of fashion statements in there. I got some nasty glances...

I'd like to figure out what the veil is all about - you just added one or two more pieces to the picture...

All the best to you,

The Usual Suspect said...

Hi Maria
Yes, I've been in the Metro's women only car and was stared at as well. It was an experience to say the least.
I also got onto another car one night heading back to my hotel from Maadi- I got so angry because all the men were sitting down and the women were forced to stand. I also got stared at- but I gave as good as I got.

deenie said...

Wow, that really is a great post. Very thoughtful and concise. I'm also a Muslim who is choosing (for the time being) not to wear the hijab, and I too have lived in a Western society, so your words really spoke multitudes to me. I know exactly what you mean about wearing the hijab in your heart. I still toy with the idea, sometimes, but I can't see myself doing it yet. There's so much fear involved. I do know that's what I ultimately want. I just have to muster up the will, and the courage. And then there's the commitment issue. As of now, I'm not ready. But hopefully, I will be one day. And hopefully it will be for the right reasons.

Thanks so much for touching on such an important topic. It's nice to know you're not alone :)

The Usual Suspect said...

Thanks for your comments Deenie- in fact it IS nice for me to also know I am not alone.

hipster said...

My comment comes 5 months late:)

TUS, your viewpoints are greatly respected.However, similar to our prayer & fasting obligations, the hijab is mandatory & is mentioned so in Surat Al Nur:)

Nevertheless,I agree that no one has the right to force you to wear it or brand you as an inferior Muslim.

I have tasted both worlds ie being a hijabee & non-hijabee & I tell you that covering up tremendously compounds your spirituality & faith.
Just my 2 cents:)