A Piece of Cloth

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A growing number of countries in the west has put a ban on head covering at least to some extent after 9/11. In the meantime ultra violent terror groups have risen in the Middle East tarnishing the image of the great religion of Islam with their gruesome

Narration (Samaneh Milani):

My name is Samaneh and this is the story of the head covering worn by Muslim women known as the Hijab. I was born in a country in the Middle East and now I live in Vancouver, Canada. A few years after arriving in Canada I stopped wearing the Hijab but I know that Hijab is more than a piece of cloth on one’s head. Although I still do not wear the Hijab the concept of Hijab has always stayed with me. I often ponder the meaning relevance and significance of the Hijab for my own life, but I’m not alone in this revisiting of the baggage of Hijab every once in a while. In many western countries and most recently the Canadian Province of Quebec the subject of Hijab is highly controversial. And there for the guys defending Secularism, a piece of cloth which is sacred to many has become the subject of political controversy and party politics. I am not a political person and I resist very abstract academic thinking, but I did want to understand and learn more about Hijab. I wore the Hijab for the period of my research and I engaged myself in conversations with four Muslim women with different tastes and experience with Hijab. Nadia is an immigration consultant who wears Hijab occasionally but does not believe in Hijab as an essential part of her faith.

Nadia, Muslim Woman (Immigration Consultant):

In my immediate family, none of us really wear the Hijab. My mother doesn’t wear the Hijab nor does my younger sister.

Narration (Samaneh):

Nina is the reverse, an immigrant from Egypt, she works for a non-profit fundraising support-organization. She practices Hijab in full.

Nina, Muslim Woman (Fundraiser):

Seemed like the natural step I was going to do eventually. That’s what I was raised to think and I even wore t before I should.

Narration (Samaneh):

Majedah raised in Canada in an ambitious grade 12 student. She grew up with Hijab in Canada and at times gives public lectures on Hijab.

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

I did start wearing it at the age of 9, but it wasn’t really because it was my personal choice. It was because everyone else was doing it and it was just a good thing to do. But I think as soon as I start reaching high school it was kind of a society was going against me and that’s when I started to learn about myself and what my morals were and what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be, and I think Hijab was one of the things that helped me understand who I was as a person.

Narration (Samaneh):

And Razma is a second year university student who never wore the Hijab during her childhood but has recently developed new relations with this Muslim female dress.

Razma, Muslim Woman (University Student):

When I want to think of Hijab I think of modesty beauty and strength, before when I didn’t wear the Hijab I thought of oppression, terrorism. Something I would never ever do. I would even say, I would even tell my friends I would never be caught dead wearing the Hijab and I quote that. That’s what I said every single time and know look at me, I’m representing it well I think.

Narration (Samaneh):

I also visited Eva Sajoo at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on her insights on the Canadian Muslim women experiences with Hijab and also its historical point of origin.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

In a lot of western countries, there is this strange idea that hair covering is a Muslim thing. In fact the roots of head covering go far beyond Islam. Muslims did not invent the head covering. Like most practices it has both religious and cultural origins, so the religious point of origin is that there is verse in the Quran which instructs women to drape a covering over their bosoms and generally to dress modestly and this has been interpreted by many Muslims to involve covering the head. Why? Because at the time there were women in the prevailing cultures not Muslims, particularly Byzantine women who customarily covered their heads because it was a sign of status. Working women in the fields didn’t do it. Wealthy women who could afford to, did and so they sensed that covering one’s head was an attractive thing to do and an appropriate expression of modesty and perhaps of status became quite popular. Now this practice has often continued outside of Muslim Societies as well. You can still find it in Spain where a traditional dress for women involves a black sort of shal, a covering over the head. It is common in conservative Jewish traditions for women to cover their heads with a scarf or with a wig, and of course there are Catholic and Orthodox nuns who habitually wear not just the head covering but in fact the full body drape. So the sense that it’s some strangely Muslim idea is quite an erroneous concept, really.

Narration (Samaneh):

In the West, however, females covering their heads in public is a practice exclusive to Muslim women. On the outside the way Muslim women wear their Hijab looks very similar, but in fact there are a variety of motives drawing Muslim women to wear the Hijab.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

A great variety of reasons why women are increasingly choosing to wear the Hijab in some parts of the world. One of them is of course religion that there are women who sincerely believe that covering their heads is a requirement of Islam and they are doing it as an expression of their faith and as piety.

Nina, Muslim Woman, Fundraiser:

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word Hijab is a Muslim woman or Islam. The reason why I wanted to wear Hijab is that I knew for sure that my religion said that explicitly or the people that I trust, who interpreted the verse, believed so. So this is why I felt natural. I wanted to do it eventually so why not now.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

Then there is the cultural reason. There are some women who have grown up in places where this is what women do and it is a part of larger group identity so rural women from some parts of Nigeria for example, who grew up with the veil. Everyone in the village wears it. May not be wearing it for an overtly religious reason but it is mixed up with the sense of identity and place.

Nadia, Muslim Woman (immigration Consultant):

Personally, for me because I was born in the Middle East, the Hijab represented a particular culture that people were from and so if I feel like I’m being made to feel self-conscious because I’m not wearing one then more likely than not I’ll end up wearing one and I’m comfortable with that, I’m fine with that. For me. I’ve never used the Hijab personally as a statement to express myself because that’s not how I express myself. I’ve used it as a means to be respectful to the environment and the culture that I’m in.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

Then of course there are the political reasons and this perhaps is the most interesting factor and responsible for the optic in the number of women wearing the Hijab. And this has two tracks, one of them has to do with globalization, with the spread of images, both of a certain western secular version modernity and also with a movement that resists that image and in this sense the Hijab is an expression of difference, is an expression of an identity that doesn’t fit into the mass spread western modern model.

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

What comes to my mind when I think about Hijab is liberation. I feel like it liberates me from the society that is constantly trying to put down the women for trying to be who they are if they are trying to cover up.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

And then of course in terms of politics it is impossible to ignore the effect of September 11th. What September, 11th did was to dramatically heighten tensions and negative images of Muslims, particularly in the United States but also in many countries in the western world. In America in particular attacks on Muslims went on 1600 percent after 9/11. Now in this context there were some women who didn’t wear Hijab before who decided to put it on and it was an expression of making one’s Muslim identity visible in a context in which it was seen as under attack and very much increasingly alienated from American society.

Razma, Muslim Woman (University Student):

I was someone who would never ever wear Hijab and ever since 9/11 terrorist attacks. I thought that wow this is not what Islam stands for. I’m someone who loves my religion enough to still be a Muslim but do I want to take the next step and be like a representative, almost like an ambassador of Islam. How can I do that? How can I be someone who shows Islam with…because without wearing Hijab no one is going to know that I’m a Muslim. So with the Hijab they will be like hey she is a Muslim. Hey, she is a good person. Wow! She doesn’t look like she is going to blow up any second, you know? So, yeah, I’ve been thinking about it and then on the nights of … in Muharram on the night that Hazrat Abbas got martyred in Afghan tradition we wrap cloths or scarves around an Alam and I was helping my mom at the very end to fold all of them together and I was looking at this one’s Hijab, it was absolutely beautiful. I was just holding them like mom what do you think about Hijab? She was just like I don’t know. She was kind of like had a little smile inside. She was like is my daughter thinking about this? So I’ve been thinking about it and I went home and I thought about it and right the next time you know what I’m just going to do it. I never thought about it I was going to do it. My sisters were all like are you crazy? You know none of them wear Hijab. And they were like it is a lot of responsibility and pressure. You are in high school, in the middle of grade ten. What are you doing? But I just did it. I wanted to represent Islam the best way that I could.

Narration (Samaneh):

I was in the middle of editing this film that the province of Quebec proposed Quebec charter of values. Modeled based on France’s version of secularism, the charter would ban Muslim women to wear the Hijab in Public. The charter has provoked the outcry of many Muslim Hijab activists including Fatima Ali a Muslim convert, Fatima told me more about the rationale behind the charter.

Fatima Ali, Converted Muslim Woman (Hijab activist):

The pretext of what is being stated publicly as it is a new form of neutrality. That they want to impose or suggest equality between men and women and basically they try to eliminate divisions. But that’s what has been stated on one hand and then on the other hand I know that Pauline Marois has also done an interview on the Devour where she specifically stated that Muslim women who wear the Hijab and work in daycares or who are educators are very susceptible to insight children to start practicing religion. So at the outset or you could say that she is making a general statement against all religious obvervations but I think at the core of this is really about the Hijab and even Thomas Mulcair has said the same thing in a radio interview where he stated that he feels like the scape goating has been going on and the scape goat in this particular incident is Muslim Women.

Samaneh (Narration):

This kind of targeting of Hijab however is not specific to states. At the social level there are many incidents reported in National media indicating attacks against Muslim women who wear the Hijab. Dina shared her experience.

Dina, Muslim Woman (Fundraiser):

Some people might look at you as their friend or the stranger s, they are curious and they want to know more about you. But they always want to know about where I’m from, what I do and some of them are like attacking. They can literary tell you, you have a violent religion. That actually was told to me, you have a violent religion, an ignorant religion that is trying to control females.

Old Man:

But the people, right, that we call in my culture ”Islamist” are the people-and I don’t agree with that- but “Islamists” are practicing true Islam. Even though I’m their enemy, they still, they have the guts to practice their religion.

Samaneh:

Real Islam is not about those political issues but if you want to think about it that way

Old Man:

That is propaganda. You wishy washy people got to have the courage to practice your own damn religion the way it should be practiced.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

There is a popular belief that Hijab represents gender difference and therefor gender subordination and this is a view that you can find in Canada, but also in France and United States in the UK and other places. A part of it has to do with the idea that difference must mean inequality and this is related to the legacy of slavery and Apartheid. Separate does not mean equal. And so to require a radical separation of sexes is now taken to be necessarily to indicate that one hierarchy over the other.

Razma, Muslim Woman (University Student):

My mom grew up in Afghanistan and she went through a period of her life when she would have to wear the Borqa every single time. When she lived in Afghanistan yes she had to wear it even when she were outside, everywhere she went. When she came here she totally took it off and she was like I’m in Canada, I’m liberated and I’m free. And she has kept that away forever and later on she may end up wearing a Hijab or might not, but that is the beginning of the story not the happy ending you could say. And after learning a bit, Hijab is not oppression. The Western and Eastern way of thinking is absolutely different. Western way of thinking, they think that we are oppressed because of the veil, but Eastern to Western, they think that Westerns are oppressed because of the media. Because of what beauty is. Islam teaches us is beauty is inside of you but what the western and the media here, what is, you see in magazines, on billboards, on TV. There is so much oppression with media that makes girls so depressed, cutting themselves. Oppression is cutting yourselves, oppression is going on these diets, oppression is not eating absolutely anything just you can be that one figure. My oppression that they somehow see is just as Hijab. I can do absolutely whatever I want whenever I want. I don’t feel oppressed at all. I’m the happiest person ever because I don’t look at the median. I don’t say. I don’t look up to Jey Lo. I don’t look up to Jennifer Lopez. I look up to Bibi Zeinab, Bibi Fatemeh and trying to be the best Muslim. If you look at how great they are compare to how great Jennifer Lopez is. I guess she is a great person. She donates here and there but do I want to dress the scandals?

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

My Hijab has helped me free myself from those unrealistic expectations and I’ve granted myself the power to say to the world you know what? I am much more than what you physically see. My appearance should be the last thing you notice in me. That in itself is an idea that redefines the standards of freedom. Let’s be real though, there are many women who are left to duel up, including myself. All women like to feel beautiful and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when this is taken advantage of and appearance has put above all other characteristics that a woman possess. When have we ever seen an ad about how woman’s intelligence makes her extremely attractive? My hijab reminds me as an individual that I want to be judged by my personality and trades that make up who I am as a person before my appearance. Hijab is asking to be heard before seen. Contrary to popular belief Hijab doesn’t mean oppression. In fact that indicates the opposite. Hijab symbolizes power to women not inferiority. All humans demand respect and why should women be treated as mere objects valued or devalued based on their appearance. My name is Majedah and I’m more like to call a proud Hijabi. Thank you.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

One the problems with all the Western conceptions of the Hijab is the idea that women who wear it are being forced to do so. That somehow there is a big bad father or brother or husband at home who is insisting that this girl or woman put this on before she leaves the house otherwise who knows what. And in fact in most cases it simply isn’t true that women are choosing to do it or not to do it for reason of their own and reasons that may be quite diverse. They don’t all put it on or take it off for the same reason. So the first thing is to realize that for most women Hijab is an exercise of agency and to try and legislate that a woman should put on a certain form of clothing or be forbidden from wearing that form of clothing is really the violation of the agency of the woman involved .

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

It is just my personal opinion, a lot of girls think they wear Hijab for men. They think they wear it to help I guess in a way control the lust of men and I think it a big mistake. I think women should not be wearing Hijab for men. A lot of people think it is meant to hydro femininity and I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think the purpose of Hijab is to make you less feminine or make you less attractive in any way. It is just to make you feel more modest to make you feel like you don’t all constantly have to be dressed in a certain way for men, like those women who do dress for men not the women who dress for themselves and that’s why a lot of women who chose to wear feel comfortable being covered up. Well, there are a lot of women who don’t wear Hijab and that’s fine because that is how they feel comfortable but there is a lot of women who want to choose to wear because they feel comfortable being covered up.

Dina, Muslim Woman (Fundraiser):

A woman has to be convinced with wearing it. If she wears it only because her parents told her, or the society pressured her into wearing it I don’t think she is purely worshiping God and this is even a worse problem. Because I don’t believe that God has got to send us to heaven or hell or we are going to be punished or rewarded for our behavior solely based on how we look in appearance. We are mainly judged by intention and this is why if a girl is covering her head, covering her body because she doesn’t have the guts to take it off, I don’t think it is worth it and I don’t think that she is being rewarded for that.

Narration (Samaneh):

The reality is the Hijab represents more than just a dress for these women. For them Hijab unfold to search in History religion and culture without which the individual feels robbed of her identity. I learned that when I asked my interviewees a rhetorical question. I asked them if they would be willing to take off their Hijab in exchange for a large sum of money. Fatemeh told me about the message they responses send to the liberal feminist advocate of Quebec charter of values.

Dina, Muslim Woman (Fundraiser):

Let me think about it, how long do you want me to take it off for you?

- How about a week?

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

No.

Razma, Muslim Woman (University Student):

Absolutely not.

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

Because I’m wearing Hijab for this world. I’m not wearing it for anybody except God. And if I will be rewarded Insha’Allah in the next world there will be more benefits, why would I accept a worldly 5 million dollars that would probably gone and I spend it like in a couple of years.

Dina, Muslim Woman (Fundraiser):

No, not even a moment. I would do it because I’m curious to take off the veil and see how I would look like but I won’t do it for money and even if I did it for money and I got my patio and everything I don’t think I’m going to respect myself later and I know not every girl should share this with me but I was raised to really care about how I think of myself.

Fatima Ali, Converted Muslim Woman (Hijab activist):

This was the expression to the party Quebec that there are people who would not submit themselves to the charter of values and if they even go for it and it does become law which it won’t and other parties in Canada actually support this but for some reason if it should become law there people who openly oppose this by not submitting to the charter who would probably pick up and move out of Quebec.

Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University:

Feminism is about recognizing the agency and the autonomy of women and so if a woman decides that as an expression of her faith or as an expression of her political affiliation or cultural identity she chooses to wear the Hijab I think that the main concern is whether she is choosing to do it and if as many studies have shown it a voluntary act by most of these women then I think the issue is basically empower women to exercise their agency in the way they see fit. That empowering a woman’s choice is about letting her do what she sees she wants to do not telling her what it is she ought to want to do. That’s in fact precisely what feminism is supposed to be argued against that telling women what is they ought to be doing.

Fatima Ali, Converted Muslim Woman (Hijab activist):

It’s a weird um… I don’t know the concept if you know what I mean. You know it is very hypocritical the way they speak out of both sides of their mouth. You know pressing forward for freedom of women but yet when a woman says consciously choose to dress like this, you are telling me no, that is not right. I have to change the way and if I want to be free I have to be like this, therefore you are taking away my freedom to be independent in a way that I have determined to be so you are just being a double oppressor.

Narration (Samaneh):

Poets accuse language of a certain inability to communicate human experiences. Although I do not wear the Hijab myself now there is something deeply spiritual about its experience that language fails to communicate. In my conversations I tried to elicit the inner experience of Hijab for these women. Nadia an occasional user of Hijab seems to invoke watch of the way I have the spiritual aspect of Hijab .

Nadia, Muslim Woman (Immigration Consultant):

The moment that I get when I feel like I want to wear the Hijab that feeling is a feeling of deep warmth. It is a sense of … it is like a sense of completion almost. It is like I was missing something before and then I get that feeling and then I wear it and then all of us complete.

Samanah:

Would you think everyone has to wear a Hijab? Or Do you think it is subjective?

Razma, Muslim Woman (University Student):

Well, I would like to say that I want everyone to wear Hijab. I would love everyone to wear Hijab and every one to be on the absolute same page but from the family I’ve grown up in I believe that Hijab is meant to be worn whenever you are ready to.

Majedah, Muslim woman, Hijab activist:

Because Hijab is a really personal thing you should -although there are guidelines- I think personally if you feel like you are being modest, if you are feeling like you are pleasing your God , or you are pleasing yourself , you are self –respecting your body basically I think that can be considered a form of the Hijab because Hijab just means to be covered up to be modest it is not specific like wear this, wear that.

Narration (Samaneh):

I’m still undecided about wearing the Hijab but making this film help me to better identify about my culture and religious heritage and become more conscious of the extent to which I wished to assimilate in the consumerist aspect of Canadian culture.

   

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