30th January, 2009
"For years I was enslaved by beauty and sexuality. My life centered around lipsticks and high heels, till one day I gave it all up and chose to wear a scarf over my head and an abhaya to cover my body...my life changed forever," says Tahira Anwar, a 32-year-old Muslim Canadian.
Many women in North America are following Tahira's example and turning to the hijab -- the conservative garb widely considered in the West a primitive symbol of enslavement.
The word hijab comes from the Arabic hajaba and means 'to hide from view' or 'to conceal'. In the modern context, the hijab deals with a modest dress code for both men and women prescribed by Shariat (Islamic Law).
Shariat recommends loose garments for both men and women and for girls who have attained puberty. Islam requires that they cover every part of their body except their face and hands.
In a western society where fashion is a way of life, such a dress code is sure to become a social stumbling block. But that has not prevented many Muslim women in Canada from chucking their micro-minis for long, black gowns. These are the women who wear the hijab with conviction.
"Islam means submission to the will of God and God in his revelation to Prophet Mohammed made it mandatory for both men and women to dress modestly".
The Prophet (peace be upon him) himself wore loose clothes and recommended that women cover themselves in public. "Personally, the hijab gave me an identity of my own and people began to see the real me. They saw beyond my physical attributes and that is the greatest freedom any woman could wish for," says Tahira.
The issue of the hijab has been a controversial one for centuries and sparks off heated debates even today. Radicals feel that a woman needs to cover everything but her face and hands, while liberals say the hijab is not mandatory.
The hijab, for many westerners, has come to symbolize either forced silence or radical militancy. "But, this is not so. These are all misconceptions. Hijab is simply a woman's assertion that her physical persona plays no role, whatsoever, in her social interaction," says Jawad Jafry, a Canadian film-maker who has made a documentary on this subject.
"The issue of the hijab is an interesting one. While most non-Muslims question the need for women to be covered, they are unaware that modesty and integrity have been imposed upon both men and women in Islam," he adds.
Jawad did a lot of research for his film. "I found many career women wearing the hijab with considerable ease. To them the hijab was a way of life and a decorum for modesty. They wore the hijab with a lot of conviction and belief," adds Jawad.
The film was balanced in a way that it featured both women who wore the hijab and those who didn't.
Some women interviewed in the film recalled the difficulties they encountered at home and workplace for their decision to wear the hijab. "Some women recalled being singled out and others felt there was a stressful period of adjustment involved. But all women were unanimous that the hijab gave them a sense of peace".
Most Islamic scholars feel Islam respects the freedom of choice, though the choice may not always be the right one. "Hijab is an order by Allah and is prescribed in the Holy Quran. It is not a decree by the president or leader of a tribe or nation. Women who don't wear the hijab are not following the religion of Islam in totality," says Seis Elsheikh of the Islamic Information & Da'wah Center International in Toronto.
He points out that while the hijab lessens crime and abuse against women, it also stops the meaningless display of women.
"Women are used and misused as objects in today's consumerist world. You have a woman selling soaps, detergents... even things men use. She is often seen as an object of sexual desire. The hijab protects her sexual rights and is the best safeguard she can have against all misdemeanors," Elsheikh adds.
And, for the hijab wearers, the path hasn't always been an easy one.
Rukhsana Khan, award-winning Canadian author of children's books, faced a lot of discrimination when she took to the hijab. "Many children in high school made fun of me. Until a few years ago, students were suspended for defying the dress code. Today, it's a lot easier to wear the hijab and yet get accepted in a Western society,'' says Rukhsana.
Imam Abdullah Hakim Quick, president of the Islamic Social Service and Resource Association in Toronto and a columnist with Canada's National daily The Toronto Star, says: "The hijab is prescribed as a shariat (law) as well as a sunnah (what the Prophet prescribed) and is not any man's opinion".
He adds that the hijab is a liberating force. It liberates you from the shackles of self-glorification and self-beautification and takes you out into a world where people are respected for who they are and what they make of themselves.
"The hijab makes a woman feel safe. Safe from crime, molestation, abuse and rape. Is there a better tool for women empowerment?" he asks.