Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, April 21, 2011

Under Cover

By Sifana Sohail and TheAlien4mEarth

Kids playing in the park. Laughing, jumping, screaming, and sliding. A little boy walks up to the girl just as she gets off the swings. “Um, do you have hair under that?” he asks. “Yes, of course!” she blurts out, baffled by the question. The kid walks off, having gotten his answer. But the girl stops and thinks for a while, what on earth just happened?

Well, it's just another day in the life of someone who wears the hijab. You're expected to act a certain way, to feel a certain way, to have certain views and possess certain knowledge. At all times you expect someone to come up to you and ask scientific questions about your origin. Are you a daughter of Eve? That is to say, are you human?

Yes people, we are a completely different species. Stereotyping, at its finest.

There are a million and nine reasons as to why people choose to cover themselves. Most just want to appear modest. For others, the new look and identity may be a fresh beginning in their lives. Some wear their hijab as a political statement, as a protest against today's world treating the female body as a commodity. “My hijab is a symbol of my identity as much as one of my faith,” says Zafirah*. “Its part of who I am.” Indeed, that's how most who wear the hijab feel about it. “It makes me feel more secure when I go out in public.” And with the number of crimes against women rising to alarming levels these days, it's no wonder that more and more young girls are choosing to cover themselves.

Then again, there are people who are forced to wear it, though very few will openly admit that they hate wearing it. Sarra* was in the 7th grade when she wore a full borkha to school. This was in the US, by the way. Her mum used to drop her off at school; she would walk straight into the bathroom and strip down to booty shorts and tight T-shirts.

When school ended, a trip to the bathroom would make her presentable to the parents again. Some people just keep up with it because if they take it off, the onslaught of gossip, shame, discrimination will simply never end. Amina* started wearing the hijab at an early age because it seemed like the right thing to do. But as she grew older, some of her views changed and she acknowledged the fact that if she had never started wearing the hijab, she wouldn't have started now. However, she would never consider taking it off.

Sarai* says, “It becomes a part of you, it doesn't define you any more than an arm or leg, but it feels just as important. It slowly becomes an extension of you, and it does shape some of the finer points in your character.”

It takes time getting used to, and of course, it's hard. But gradually, you grow into it, just like a new haircut. Some even start to love their new look. And so many people (both male and female) think that those clad in hijabs, in general, are prettier than most women.

Many people expect hijab-wearers to know everything about religion and be super-conservative at all times.

Newsflash: Hijab wearers are not (always) prudes.

Samia*says that her mum tells her to be especially careful about how she behaves in public. “When I go out with my friends, my mum always issues a warning. I have to be more polite, prim, watching every step I take. Since I wear a hijab, people are quicker to judge my actions. At first I used to just get annoyed with my mum, but it's true. It's like the hijab gives them a license to criticise.” “Things that are okay for every other girl to do aren't proper for me. If I scream and shout when I'm with my friends, people will give me the weirdest look. This one time at an airport a man dared suggest I wasn't a good Muslim because I didn't give up my brother's seat for him. The nerve!” Sarai states indignantly.

One of the preconceptions about hijab-wearers that cause a lot of misunderstanding is that they think they are better than other people.' Yeah, laugh all you want, but there are people out there who really believe this. They look down their nose and leave the confused girls floundering in the wake of their 'you think you're so much better than us just because you got that thing on your head' comments. Live and let live, people.

Many have experienced the situation where a random person comes up to them and starts criticising Islam. Regardless of the expectations that come with the hijab, not all are experts on Islam. We don't always have sufficient ammo to fight off the accusations about our religion; if you want to take it up with someone, pick a qualified expert your size!

Laila* says she's faced this situation countless times in the past and often she wasn't able to counter the accusations due to her ignorance on whatever the person was saying. “It's not a pretty feeling.”

Then of course there are the overbearing aunties. “You wear a hijab and still do/wear this? Wow!” It doesn't sound like a compliment and it isn't meant to be taken as one. Teenage life is hard enough without those self-proclaimed saints providing a running commentary on our lives!

Of course, it's not all bad. Some people do treat a girl wearing a hijab with extra courtesy. And while we won't complain, sometimes it seems a little superficial to assume that we're the best of people simply because we cover. It's a much nicer and sweeter form of discrimination.

“How someone wearing a hijab acts and dresses is completely her choice right?” Talia* shakes her head when she explains. She admits that it seems pointless to wear the hijab if you wear tight clothes. Many people say that they tarnish the image. But Talia wishes that people wouldn't generalise the hijab label. They are, after all, individuals making their own decisions, and judging a girl by pre-set standards due to one of her choices seems unfair. “All girls have a comfort level. Some girls will wear skinny jeans. Some wear short-sleeved dresses, others wear full sleeves. People should be comfortable with that.”

In the end, the hijab is not just a piece of cloth that some girls wear around their heads. It's a way of life, much like the sword is for the samurai. It comes with its own set of rules, its unique perks and privileges. And each girl makes the hijab her very own in her own special way. What all who wear the hijab are screaming to say is, don't judge a book by its cover. It's what's under the cover that counts.



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