An issue I have found time and time again amongst the Muslim community has been the disproportionate emphasis on outer appearances, particularly that of Muslim women. In saying this, I am certainly not questioning the obligation to wear the Hijab and to dress modestly. I believe that wearing the Hijab is Fard, and as I wear it myself I would hardly dismiss its importance. I simply feel that asserting the duty to wear it has become far too commonly used as a method to criticise and label others, and this becomes especially dangerous when it is done by Muslim men.
It is very easy for Muslim men to criticise the way a Muslim woman wears her Hijab. Muslim men can fly under the radar of Australian society, choosing to be as visibly and identifiably Muslim as they so desire. As growing a beard is widely seen as a Sunnah practice, Muslim men can choose to not do so and thus in effect they are not able to be physically identified as Muslims. I know many Muslim men do choose to grow a beard and let others know they are Muslim, but this is their choice. Even a beard in itself doesn’t necessarily equate to a man being Muslim in the eyes of the public. Muslim men can (and some do) change their name to ‘Michael’ or ‘Fred’, but I can call myself ‘Jane Smith’ and it wouldn’t make any difference to how I am perceived by mainstream society.
This means that when I go to work I feel that I am representing not just myself but my community, and so any misstatement could potentially reflect negatively upon Muslims at large. This is a big responsibility, and one I share with many Muslim women who leave the safe haven of suburbs with a strong Muslim presence and actively participate in wider Australian society. I have been abused in public. I have gone to a job interview and been told that I couldn’t be hired due to my Hijab. I have endured countless stares, glares and incidences of finger-pointing.
Before I wore the Hijab, I didn’t understand many of its challenges and would feel slighted when I was treated differently to those who did. I thought ‘aren’t I just as good as them?’ However, I now know it is not a matter of goodness of character or deed. It is simply that before I wore the Hijab I didn’t have the responsibility of being the default representative of Islam wherever I went. I could sit through a tutorial on Islamophobia and have the luxury of not contributing anything to the discussion. Compare this to the following semester when I started wearing the Hijab and was doing a presentation: the tutor felt it was appropriate to ask why I wear it when it had little to do with my presentation topic. My fellow Hijabi sisters and I often discuss how we feel we can never have an ‘off’ day: if we ever feel cranky we cannot let others see this as they are likely to associate it with our religion. There are already so many negative perceptions of Islam that when I meet a non-Muslim I sometimes feel like I have to correct these before we can proceed to the simple exercise of getting to know each other.
I do not say any of this merely to have a whinge. Wearing the Hijab has made me a stronger, more confident person and the negative experiences are offset by the knowledge that I am upholding the decree of Allah swt. I am only sharing my experiences because I feel people are so quick to judge sisters who wear the Hijab without fully understanding our struggles. We are the flag-bearers of the religion in this secular society, and while we do so with good intentions, it is not always easy. We try to uphold the correct standards of modesty, but we are not perfect in our attempts and some understanding would be much appreciated. Understanding does not equate to permitting wrong, as many people seem to feel: it is simply a measure of empathy and solidarity.
Naseeha is fine when done appropriately, but name-calling and caustic jibes are most certainly not. Labelling someone’s Hijab a ‘shower cap’ is easy when you don’t have to walk down the street every day and be seen as a Muslim as opposed to a human being. I especially dislike it when Muslims make comments like ‘she might as well take off the Hijab with the clothes she wears’. Isn’t it far better that she wears the Hijab in some form than not wear it at all? We know what the standards of modesty are, but who amongst us can say that they have attained that perfect standard and maintain it without error? We are all on a journey towards self-improvement, and we have to understand that people are at different stages of this journey.
So next time you feel like criticising a sister’s appearance, remember the struggles she faces. She is often derided by non-Muslims; she does not need your derision too. She is your sister, and she deserves your respect, admiration and encouragement.