One World One Ummah

Living Beneath The Veil

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By Maryam Azwer
My name is Maryam. I am a Muslim, I am Sri Lankan and I am a journalist. And not one of these three identities challenge the fact that I wear a headscarf. The first one encourages it, the second one is indifferent to it. And so is the third. As a girl growing up among a minority in this country, I’ve had to answer my fair share of Islam-related questions: Why do you pray five times a day? Do you really fast for one month? What does ‘halal’ mean?
And (because I do it) the more popular: Why do you cover your head? Not the prison its made out to be and The ‘ninja’ look is in!Not the prison its made out to be and The ‘ninja’ look is in!

My usual answer would be: Because I’m a Muslim, and I believe that my religion asks me to do so.
But that of course, is just putting it in a nutshell, and isn’t enough of an explanation. So my religion asks me to do it. Why?
Islam places great importance on modesty, particularly in the case of women. The dress code I follow, the hijab, according to Islam, serves to protect a woman and preserve her dignity. The term hijab could refer to the headscarf, or to the general Islamic manner of modest dressing.

Across cultures, opinions have differed as to what exactly the hijab entails, and whether it really is compulsory upon all Muslim women. To my understanding, Islam has prescribed for women a dress code that does not attract too much attention to her body, and covers her entirely, save for her face and hands – a practice which I have adopted. Others believe a Muslim woman’s dress code would extend to the outer cloak, or abaya, and sometimes even the niqab (face-cover). Many women however, even those who wear them, do believe the abaya and niqab are optional aspects of the hijab.

Sometimes, this answer still isn’t enough to satiate one’s curiosity: alright, so maybe there’s some logic behind it. Maybe Muslim women like to be modest, and maybe that’s a good thing. But why cover up so much? Don’t you feel hot? Aren’t you sad that you have such nice hair but it all goes under that scarf? Doesn’t it restrict you?

I will admit, embracing the hijab isn’t always a piece of cake, and there is a sacrifice involved. For any Muslim girl, making that decision can at first seem like a mental tug-of-war.

Let’s face it: girls like to look pretty. They like to dress up. They like to flaunt their new hairstyles, or their pretty pink nail polish. They like people (particularly the opposite sex) to notice them.

Which is why when one comes across a covered up Muslim girl, it’s quite understandable that one would conclude that the poor thing was forced into the black tent-like covering by her father/husband/brother/uncle/imam at the mosque.

What some people don’t realise is, that it is possible for a girl – a walking, talking, complete with emotions, twenty-first century girl – to want to, of her own free will and through her own understanding, embrace an arguably old-fashioned dress code prescribed by a 14 century old religion.

The hijab has, in recent times, become more popular, for several reasons. Some see it as a trend: donning the headscarf and calling it your identity does sound appealing, and ‘cool’, particularly to the young. Some may even do it to fit in, and to feel more accepted by their community. Many girls and women say they find security in the hijab in these not-too-secure modern times.

Others have embraced it for more serious reasons – because they really do believe it is an important part of their culture, or like in my case – religion. Perhaps it has come about through increased awareness and knowledge of Islam; women and girls are learning for themselves what the hijab is all about, or for that matter, what Islam is all about, and opting to embrace the dress code. The way I see it, the hijab is no more an “I do it because my father made me” custom. Girls today – yes, even the conservative Muslim ones – are often at liberty to choose. Those who don’t want the hijab, stay out of it, those who do, embrace it – and because it is their choice, they are more likely to stick by it.

And at the end of the day, the hijab does not prevent me from being who I want to be. Society, in my opinion, has been more or less tolerant of my hijab. I have been able to carry out both my higher education and my profession with little trouble. Non-muslim friends have shown some curiosity at first, but accept and respect me for who I am. As far as I know, Sri Lanka’s majority non-muslim population displays little or none of the apprehension the Western world shows towards the hijab.

The truth is, I don’t feel oppressed, and wearing the hijab does not make me feel sad. If it did, I wouldn’t be doing it. The hijab, I believe, only restricts what my religion prohibits anyway (such as getting too friendly with non-family members of the opposite sex) and does not get in the way of my leading an otherwise normal life. It does get warm sometimes, but it hasn’t killed me or caused a heatstroke. I doubt it ever does.

In saying all this, I have drawn conclusions from my own experiences, starting off as a student in a conservative Muslim girls’ school, right on to college, and from there to the media industry.

In order to see if my opinions tallied with those of other members of the female Sri Lankan Muslim population, I recently spoke to a number of Sri Lankan Muslim girls and women of varying ages, some of them professionals, and all of whom said the hijab, abaya or niqab was their choice. They spoke on why they made this choice, whether or not it was an impediment to their professions, and whether it restricted a girl from being, well, a girl.

“After I started wearing the niqab, I did get stared at sometimes. For instance when I was hanging out at the beach with my friends, or at a shopping mall or a bus stop,” says Shamsul Arif. “I get the feeling that people are sometimes thinking ‘How come a girl like that is out here? Aren’t they supposed to be confined to their homes?’ But I do have my freedom, and wearing the abaya and niqab does make me feel safer moving around in the outside world.”

Interestingly, some women even say they experience a certain freedom despite being covered up. “It does seem rather restricting, but I realised that after I started covering my face, I receive less lewd comments from boys who hang out in public places. Now I only get ‘ninja’ comments and those aren’t too bad, they’re easy to ignore, and you’re free to be yourself,” laughs Hafsa Thameem, a school teacher.

Others were of the opinion that the hijab helped maintain a sense of professionalism at the workplace. Minha Jinnah is a software engineering student presently interning at a leading software company in Colombo. “The hijab has benefited me in a working environment,” she says. “I feel I am judged on what I am capable of doing, rather than for what I look like.” A colleague of hers who covers her face, claims that her employers are even “cool with it”. “The younger generation is more accepting of the way I dress, than the older generation,” she observes.

As for personal lives, Shifani Reffai, founder of women’s rights organization, Reach Out, had this to say: “I do know many Muslim girls who like to dress up, and they do. The thing is, our culture is such that most of our [girls’] time is spent among family or girl friends, and we aren’t required to cover up when we’re with them.” Hifza Khiard, a student of Islamic Finance, had more to add: “It [the hijab] does not necessarily stop you from dressing up or looking smart. Of course, depending on how seriously you take it, you’re not supposed to look too attractive either, but for those who are interested, the abayas and scarves come in so many different fashions today.”

Sarah Buhary, a mother of two teenage daughters, says her girls had a very positive attitude towards their hijab and abaya. “I know they sometimes like wearing Western clothes under their abayas, and they feel good about it, no matter that no one else can see it,” she says.
It’s a feeling I can relate to. Somebody once asked me why on earth I, a girl in hijab, would get a funky hair cut and don a pair of colourful earrings. What was the point, they wanted to know, when nobody could see it? I told them I did it for myself and nobody else, and that it made me feel good.

I’ll admit, statements like that do sound odd, but it’s true – it’s something a lot of hijab and abaya-clad girls feel: the thrill of doing something for yourself, without a care in the world of what anyone else will – or can – think of you.

Perhaps it means the boys in my class would never know if my hair is curly or straight. It probably also means I’d lead a safer, far less ‘interesting’ life than the girl next door but I can live with that. Because at the end of the day, I have an education and a job, I’m able to give back to society. I am loved and accepted for who I am, by the people who matter, I’m happy, and above all I have an identity. What more could a girl ask for, really?

Living Beneath The Veil


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May 22, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Posted in Articles

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