Eighteen year old Canadian Muslimah Sumayyah Hussein explains.
I am sitting in my first-period class impatiently waiting for the teacher to stop babbling about monomials and polynomials. When the bell rings, a girl approaches, her face forming a question mark. She wonders if it’s okay to ask a “personal” question…
“Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?”
It’s not the first time this has happened and it is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.
One of the major misconceptions about the hijab (covering of the body except the face and hands) is that young women are forced to wear it by their parents or by male family members.
Sumayya Syed, 16, says that what parents or men want have nothing to do with it. In fact, she astounds people who ask by saying that every woman should have this form of liberation.
Syed maintains that when a woman is covered, men cannot judge her by her appearance but are forced to evaluate her by her personality, character, and morals. “I tell them that the hijab is not a responsibility, it’s a right given to me by my Creator who knows us best. It’s a benefit to me, so why not? It’s something every woman should strive to get and should want.”
The young woman admits to being surprised that many people wonder if she wears the hijab everywhere (at home, when sleeping, in the shower). The truth is that Muslim women only cover themselves in front of men who are not direct relatives (brothers, fathers, and uncles) to prevent indecent acts or thoughts.
Another young woman who wears the hijab, Zeinab Moallim, 18, maintains that some people assume that all Muslims who wear the traditional dress are immigrants who don’t know English and perceive them as “weirdos”.
“I remember in my class when I answer questions, some students look at me like I’m kind of dumb and I can’t answer (them),” she says. “So usually I answer, just to let them know I can do things.”
All of the young women interviewed agreed that the advantages of wearing the hijab are many. According to Rema Zawi, 16, “You feel modest…and you feel like you’re covered up. You have more self-respect. You have more confidence in yourself that you don’t need to care about (how) you look.”
Syed emphasizes that a major plus is that people actually evaluate her on who she is and not on her beauty or clothing. “It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you’re supposed to look like this,” she says. “It allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to worry about being popular through buying things that are ‘cool’.”
Hana Tariq, 15, who just recently began wearing the hijab, agrees with Syed’s view and says that the hijab lets you know who your real friends are.
“People who are friends with you because of the way you look aren’t real friends. And people who judge you by your personality are true friends, because people can change looks but they don’t really change personalities.”
The young women said the hijab provides them with an identity. They don’t have to tell people they are Muslims. It shows.
However, there are drawbacks. Mariam Hussein, 18, was in a store minding her own business, when an old woman came up to her and proclaimed loudly, “Go back to your country!” It was a difficult situation because the young woman considers Canada her home.
Responses to the hijab vary widely. Zawi is one of the few Muslim girls in her school who wears the traditional Muslim garb. She says some students treat her differently by looking at her in strange ways or vandalizing her property. However, she also finds that other students have questions for her regarding the hijab.
“I find that it’s so hard for them to ask because they’re really shy, so I confront them. I tell them, If you want to know anything, just talk to me.” One young woman’s first year at Silverthorn Collegiate was especially difficult. A counsellor was looking at her English marks from previous report cards, and said she found them “impressive”. But then she made a comment that hurt. “Well, it’s obvious you don’t need ESL,” she said.
The counsellor made the assumption that since the young woman wore the hijab, she had just emigrated and needed to take English as a Second Language. Syed, who attends a school with a fairly large Muslim population, says the people she knows treat her with dignity and the comments she gets from friends and classmates are generally not disrespectful.
“Most people in my life respect me with my hijab: they don’t swear around me, they don’t crack bad jokes,” she says.
Some people may think that the more a woman covers, the less freedom she has. But, according to Muslim tradition, it is actually the opposite. The less she wears, the more she is degraded and the more she is put in the line of fire of male criticism.
Syed is astonished at the behaviour of some women who claim to want “freedom”. She can’t understand how going topless, for example, represents equality. “People have to understand that we (males and females) are not equal in body image but we should be equal in rights, in justice. Taking off your shirt will not make you equal to a man; it’ll make you lower. Why? Because the woman’s body is created differently.”
Amani Elkassabany, 30, who is not presently wearing the hijab, has a different view. She applauds those who wear the hijab (especially those who wear it for God and with good intentions), but feels that it is not necessary to wear the hijab to gain respect.
“Just because a woman covers, doesn’t mean she is automatically entitled to respect, or has already proven the worth of her mind. Respect must be earned regardless of one’s appearance and it is not earned through a dress code alone.”
Elkassabany sees advantages to wearing the hijab, but thinks that having internal modesty is more important than external modesty. “This external covering is really just a reflection of an inner commitment to dedicate oneself to the worship of the Creator,” she comments.
She is also concerned about the restraints wearing the hijab implies, restraints that are exclusive to women. “Both men and women are required to dedicate themselves to God, but it is only women who are expected to demonstrate this dedication outwardly in the form of hijab,” she says. “This expectation on the part of [women] is what I find difficult to accept.”
Whether the hijab constrains or liberates women is an ongoing debate. However, statistics reveal that in Western society, women and men are perceived very differently.
One study, done at the University of California, found that media photographs emphasize the faces of men but the bodies of women. In the average picture of a woman, less than half the photo (45%) was devoted to the woman’s face. In the pictures of men, nearly two-thirds (65%) of the photograph featured the man’s face.
The same article reports the results of an experiment conducted with a group of 40 male and 40 female college students. These students were told that a study of freehand drawing styles was under way and were assigned to draw either a man or a woman, capturing “the character of a real person.” It was observed that the men drawn had very distinct features, with close attention paid to facial details. However, the images drawn of the women were mostly of the body, with the faces vague or even featureless.
Perhaps, as women de-emphasize their bodies, this severe imbalance will be at least partially rectified. Meanwhile, Islam provides a solution to this problem – one which dignifies and honours all women.