29 May 2009

I'm Muslim & a Canadian

Their Canada includes Hijab
by Amber Nasrulla
The Globe and Mail, (Toronto) August 22, 1994

Rebea Murtzaz is a 17-year-old high-school student who wears a teenager's uniform of blouse, jeans and Birkenstock sandals--but with a difference.

A devout Muslim, Ms. Murtaza nevers goes out in public without her hijab, a scarf that covers her head and shoulders.

Last year, the Grade 12 student decided she wanted to observe hijab in accordance with sharia, the canon law of Islam that dictates that once a woman reaches puberty, every part of her body except her face, hands and feet must be covered.

Emotionally, Ms. Murtaza was prepared to cloak her body and lower her gaze when in the company of men. Still the reaction from her peers in Grade 11 shocked her.

"I was in the hallway and people would say, 'She's a terrorist,' " said Ms. Murtaza, a student at Earl Haig Secondary School in the Metro Toronto municipality of North York. "It hurt. I don't like being thought of as a freak or different or weird."

Ms. Murtaza is among a small but growing number of young Muslim women in Toronto's Islamic community of 105,000 who have found the call of Islam and the commitment to wear hijab irresistible.

According to Statistics Canada census information, in 1991 there were about 253,000 Muslims in Canada, with the majority, 145,000, settled in Ontario. With more and more Muslim immigrants choosing Ontario as their new home (statistics show that last year, 2,500 immigrants came from Somalia, 2,500 from Iran, 2,600 from Pakistan and 2,000 from Iraq), young Muslims who grew up in Canada feel emboldened by the growing number of their co-religionists and are increasingly comfortable expressing their emerging identity.

"Wearing hijab is my way of saying, 'I'm Muslim and a Canadian'" said Ms. Murtaza, who, with three classmates who also are "new hijabis," persuaded school officials to designate a classroom where they could pray during school hours. "Being Canadian means making your own choices and choosing your own lifestyle." It's not about doing what your parents or peers want, but doing what you feel is right, she said. She explained that modesty is prescribed in two verses in the Koran. One says, "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them." In a later verse, the same instructions are directed toward Muslim women: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons" when out of doors.

Over the centuries, the concept of hijab--meaning literally "curtain," requiring both men and women to be modest and chaste--has evolved into the long flowing robes and head-dresses worn by many Muslims today.

Yasmin Zine, 31, a masters student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, whose research thesis explores how immigrant women negotiate and reconstruct their identity when they land in a new culture, says she is increasingly encountering hijabis who are young and university educated and who have chosen to cover up after studying Islam extensively.

By rejecting Western norms and conventions that have dominated their lives, Muslim women are able to create a new identity for themselves, Mrs. Zine said. They are fighting a culture that is not consistent with Islamic ideals, and are asking that they be judged by their spiritual, rather than physical, characteristics.

Mrs. Zine said they are saying, "We realize there is a dominant culture in Canada, but we don't have to be part of it."

At the same time, they have to contend with hostile stares and cruel comments from people who consider their dress an oddity.

Sajidah Kutty's life was a roller-coaster ride from the day she started wearing hijab in Grade 6. When she came to school wrapped in a scarf and baggy, shapeless clothing, her friends, seeing her in the hallway, ignored her and walked by without a word.

"I lost a lot of friends because of it," she said. "I came to expect more looks, more name-calling. Mostly 'Paki.'"

Ms. Kutty, 22, now a mass communications and creative writing student at York University in Toronto, feels that today's hijabis definitely have it easier because there are more of them.

"There's such an increase in it now," she said, gesturing toward the five women seated at a table with her in the basement of the Islamic Foundation in Scarborough. They are among the burgeoning number of young hijabis who choose to attend Friday-night study sessions at the mosque instead of partying with their peers. Ms. Kutty attributes the increased interest in Islam and subsequent observance of hijab to the war in the Persian Gulf. She said young secular Muslims were shaken into self-examination by the backlash against Muslim fundamentalists whose beliefs were equated with terrorism.

In looking at the source of discrimination, "we discovered our own faith. We discovered we were different, but it made us stronger. So we banded together."

In doing so, these young Muslims have begun to analyze the Koran and to attend religious discussions. One discovery was that many of their parents' habits, which they thought were prompted by religious observance, are actually cultural in origin.

For instance, an Islamic marriage is made through a contract that is confirmed when the bride receives a dowry, called mahr, from the groom. Mahr is for the bride's exclusive use in case her husband dies, or if they are divorced or there is an emergency.

In India and Pakistan, the bride receives mahr, but she is also expected to provide her jahez -- which consists of the bride's clothing, jewelry and other possessions, as well as gifts for the groom and his family.

The tradition of the jahez is not Islamic, but is rooted in Indian, and more specifically Hindu, culture. New hijabis reject the jahez because they feel it places a burden on the bride to shower the groom with expensive gifts.

Hina Khan, 20, a member of the Scarborough mosque's youth group, said that ultimately, she rejects Pakistani culture. "I have to follow the Islamic culture."

First-generation teen-age Muslims and other members of the younger generation are more confident expressing their individuality than their immigrant parents were, said Maqbool Aziz, a professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Ms. Khan said some of the fiercest reactions to hijab came from her parents--in particular her mother, who does not cover up. Her mother fears her daughter's beliefs will reduce her chances of a successful arranged marriage because her values will be interpreted as militant by prospective Pakistani suitors.

Ms. Khan rejects the concept of a traditional arranged marriage, and firmly believes God will find her a husband. "If Allah has somebody for me, then I will get married." Otherwise, she said, it is not something she worries about.

While these new hijabis enthusiastically embrace their coverings, they are undecided as to whether all Muslim women should be required to cover up.

In Saudi Arabia, religious police known as mutawin, often arrest women who aren't wearing a long robe called the abaya. In Iran, government-backed militia such as the bassij roam the streets to make sure all women are wearing the chador, a tent-like black cloak, and the rosarre, the veil. In some Egyptian public schools, teachers have imposed hijab on girls as young as 6.

While there are punishments under Islamic law for crimes such as adultery and theft, there is no prescribed punishment for women who don't observe hijab. However, according to recent media reports, Muslim women in the Middle East have been jailed for failing to cover up.

Mrs. Zine, who has been covering up for six years, said she does not condone Muslim theocrats who impose hijab. All Muslim women will turn to it when they fully understand and love Islam, she said.

Younger Canadian hijabis say that although they had the freedom to choose, they don't think it's wrong to impose hijab.

Ms. Murtaza said young girls are made to cover up for their own benefit. ``Often, you don't know what's best for you. It's the same principle behind a mother telling her 10-year-old daughter not to wear hot pants or bright red lipstick.''

Young Muslim women who don't cover up point out that there is no compulsion in Islam. Ruqaiya Baig, 18, and her friend Shamaila Khan, 19, grew up in Toronto, regard themselves as devout Muslims (they pray, read the Koran and fast), but don't wear hijab.

Asked why, Ms. Baig said: ``You get influenced by the West. I mean, it [love of Islam] is in my heart. It's what's inside that counts.''

This is my first post. I just shared a little bit of information about how Canadian people look at hijabis. Insha Allah I'll keep you informed.

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