By Fatima Najm
When Saima Ali’s father suggested she wear the hijaab, Saima rejected the idea.
For Ali, who had just hit the peak of her popularity in grade 11 at Oakville’s Trafalgar School, the thought of showing up at school wearing the head covering had her in tears.
“I hated the thought. I wondered how people would see me,” recounts Ali, now a first-year business student at Ryerson.
Hijaab comes from the Arabic word hajaba meaning “to hide from view”. The concept is that a Muslim girl should cover everything other than her face and hands after puberty in order to conceal the shape of her body and to prevent being the object of every man’s attention. Although there is no standardized dress code, clothing must be loose enough to reflect her conservative lifestyle.
For the women who wear it, the hijaab is more than a piece of cloth that covers the body. It denotes a certain lifestyle and is about adopting a modest code of conduct. But in grade 11, these are difficult concepts for a young Canadian woman to grasp.
“Oakville is very white, there is a lot of pressure to assimilate, and when you’re having a good time, you don’t realize you’re forgetting yourself,” she says.
Once she worked up the resolve to wear it, everything worked out for Ali.
“I became more confident because people were seeing me for who I was, not how I dressed or who I hung out with. I felt so liberated.”
She lost a few friends who teased her taunts like, “what, now you’re gonna be good?” but she retained her circle of friends. “In fact, it grew. All of a sudden I got to know everyone: the jocks, the nerds, the rugby girls.”
Most of all, Ali got to know herself.
“I became more open, more accepting. I feel like a better person, I am not as predisposed to passing judgement on people for their preferences.”
Ali and the other women interviewed do not wear a cloak-like garment that conceals the entire body, and is essential to the concept of hijaab in other countries.
In Saudi Arabia, there is no room for discourse on the matter. It is the law — whether you are a foreign or native woman, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Muslim, you will wear a black cloak called the abaaya.
In other countries, it is either choice or family tradition that determines whether a woman wears a headscarf and outer garment. This could be in the form of the simple shawl-like chador, worn in rural Pakistan; or the chic manteau, a thin coat-shaped garment that hangs to the knees, and is sported by women on the streets of Iran; to the elegantly embroidered, gem-encrusted sheer abaayas preferred by women in the United Arab Emirates.
In Canada, the issue is not what the garment looks like but rather the identity of the woman. And despite a very Western perception that hijaab is a tool of oppression, to Ali, it is about exercising the freedom to represent herself and her religious beliefs.
“It tells the world my identity ˆ without my having to say a word,” says Sabina Alli, a second-year journalism student, as she adjusts the black scarf edged in golden lace that frames her face.
“Sorry,” she shrugs, smiling, “I’m having a bad hijaab day.”
Ayesha Ahmed, studying nutrition at Ryerson, is among the women who find it liberating to reclaim her body image in the protective folds of loose clothing.
“I am no longer the object of a man’s unwanted attention,” says Ahmed. “In the West there is so much pressure on a woman to conform to an ideal of beauty that the media brainwashed us with. I think that is oppression.”
Hijaab also functions as a proclamation of faith.
“[The believing women] should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…” (Qur’an 24:30-31)
Alli, a second-year journalism student, has been conflicted with taking on hijab.
“When I took it off, I felt like something was missing, there is nothing that I have ever yearned to do so much as wear hijaab,” she explains.
After being bullied in her schoolyard in high school, Alli stopped wearing the scarf she was to put back on in university. She also took it off in the middle of last semester, when she questioned whether it reflected who she was. Alli says she wasn’t ready for wearing hijaab at the time. She wanted to make sure taking on hijaab was a choice that she really wanted.
Alli is an unusual contender for the head covering; considering her family disapproves of the practice; “they are discreet about their reasons, changing the subject when I try to discuss it,” she says. “The people who are most dear in my life don’t agree with my wearing hijaab.”
But their disapproval makes no difference to her determination to wear the head covering. She hurriedly whips it off every day as she pulls into the driveway of her suburban home, before her family might see her. When Alli goes out with her parents, she uses a bandana.
Alli doesn’t like the phrase ‘taking on hijaab.’
“It sounds as though I am taking on some huge and difficult task,” she says. “I wear hijaab much like I wear any other article of clothing. In the morning, I’ll pull on my jeans, my sweater, and my hijaab — clothes are clothes,” says Ali whose style is simple — she wears a long-sleeved sweater and a straight, ankle-length skirt.
Wearing the hijaab may be a non-issue for Alli, but judging by the debate sparked by the expulsion of Quebec high school student, 13-year-old Emilie Ouimet, for refusing to take off her scarf in 1995, hijaab is still a controversial issue for many Canadians.
Normand Dore, a principal of Louis-Riel Secondary School, justified his decision with the statement that he made in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs article: “distinctive clothing like a hijaab or neo-Nazi regalia could polarize aggression among young people.”
The Montreal Gazette fought on the frontlines of the war of words that followed the expulsion, condemning intolerance, and coining the term “hijaabophobia”, to describe the issue in an editorial.
Ahmed said she was discriminated against, when she worked for the federal government’s Official Language Program in Cap de Madeleine, Que. Ahmed says that Marie Hamel, dean of the languages program at École d’Estacades, told her that if she wanted to teach at the school, she would have to take off her scarf because people in the town could not handle her reactions behind wearing hijaab.
Strapped for cash, Ahmed thought she had no choice but to take off hijaab.
“It was horrible. I felt like someone had forcefully taken something very dear to me away.”
She quit without giving any reason.
“They wanted an explanation, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them why I left. I felt they would have devalued my reasons, and ridiculed me.”
But she returned to similar discrimination in Ontario.
“I went to a Second Cup and there was a table of well dressed business men who were looking at me and laughing,” Ali says.
She decided not to dignify the behaviour with a response.
“What’s the point? They’re ignorant. We need to work towards awareness, not randomly react [to bigots].”
The intolerance demonstrated by some ethnocentric individuals has not deterred Ali.
“After Sept. 11, my parents did not want me to wear the scarf downtown because it makes me a target for people whose emotions are running high with hatred. But I decided to keep it on because it’s a part of me.”
“Hijaab is the icon of empowerment,” adds Alli. “A woman who covers [with hijaab] and still takes on the world has demonstrated the true meaning of confidence,” she says.
“It’s strength on another level.”