Losing the hijab to become a local

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Muslim teacher fired in France for refusing to wear hijab or shake hands with male teachers. (Image via http://edition.presstv.ir/)

Lizzy Keen talks to a young Afghan Muslim woman who gave up wearing a hijab in an effort to integrate.

FOR SOME non-Muslims, the hijab represents a rejection of both Australian values and women’s rights. That’s why, as I have explored, this garment is such an important symbol for Muslim refugees trying to integrate.

While she seems like a regular young Australian woman sitting in this café, where we sip green tea together, Aliah* is a Persian-speaking Afghan who grew up in Iran, where her parents met as refugees fleeing the Taliban in the 1990s.

Today she, her widowed mother, three brothers and sister live in Coffs Harbour, NSW.

Up until last year, Aliah had worn a hijab (headscarf) for eight years straight, before an uncomfortable encounter at her first supermarket job.

She tells the writer

“An older man came up to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t wear that (hijab). Don’t you see what’s happening with ISIS? Australians will see you wearing that and want to kill you.'"

Referring to the social unease and prolonged media focus on Islamic terror movements since 2014, the man appeared to be warning Aliah for her sake.

But in order to avoid more uncomfortable encounters like these, Aliah decided to stop wearing her hijab full stop.

New job, new encounters with the hijab

Aliah started wearing a hijab at aged 12, “when I started going to school and friends’ houses alone”.

Although the age varies across countries and classes, Muslim girls usually begin wearing the hijab at puberty: when they’re old enough to be perceived as a woman. The falling age for this, however, is often debated, as per the article Tweeted below. (Note: Other than in countries where it is mandatory, many educated city-dwellers choose not to wear a hijab.)

When her father died seven years ago in Iran, Aliah’s mother refused to return to war-torn Afghanistan, where the Taliban were particularly hostile to returning army personnel and their families.

After a three-year application process, Aliah and her family arrived at the home of the Big Banana.

Clutching our stomachs in laughter as she describes her mum’s early fascination with Aldi’s cheap bananas, it’s hard to picture Aliah as the subject of cultural intolerance.

But it all began with her black hijab at her first job at a supermarket in Coffs Harbour, where impatient customers left Aliah lost for the right words: Why do you work here if you don’t know what things are? What are you doing in Australia if you can’t speak English? Why are you here?

One question resounded:

"Why are you wearing that black thing?"

The locals’ words spoke to the gulf between them and the community’s New Australians, and highlighted the discomfort still felt for the "black thing" outside our cities.

In and outside of Islam, the hijab is a hotly debated garment. Although its origins predate the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, it is associated with the Islamic principle of modesty.

In this case, by concealing their hair and neck, Muslim women are seeking to draw attention away from themselves.

In Western societies, however, the hijab has at times produced the opposite effect, according to various studies and commentary by Australian Muslim women.

Removing the "black thing"

Indeed, Aliah’s hijab was drawing much more attention to her than expected, with customers approaching her almost everyday with questions about the hijab.

So, despite her mum’s initial fear that she would forget her own culture and religion, Aliah stopped wearing it.

Later that year, after a short stint of living in Sydney, where she returned to wearing the hijab among the city’s 213,000-strong Muslim community, Aliah returned to Coffs Harbour, hijab-less.

But she wasn’t prepared for what happened at her new job at a different supermarket in the region. That is, nothing.

Aliah tells the writer

“Nobody asked me any questions about my religion, thanks Allah! At first I thought the customers had changed, but I soon realised that I had become a different person to them without my hijab."

2014 French law bans head scarves and ostentatious religious symbols.

Non-Muslim perceptions of the hijab

The questions Aliah faced in her early days at the supermarket indicate that while Australia is recognised as multicultural, some people in less-populated regions are still on cultural training wheels.

That 82 per cent of overseas-born Australians lived in capital cities in 2011, compared with just 66 per cent of the entire population, helps to explain this.

Our awareness of the Muslim population has grown. Participants in research by Ipsos Mori in 2014 believed that 18 per cent of Australians were Muslims —  the real figure is just over 2.2 per cent.

But, as Aliah explains, non-Muslims can still find themselves caught up with the Muslim woman stereotype — veiled and therefore closed off.

“At my first job, one girl co-worker told me after a few months that before meeting me she was scared of Muslim women [in hijab]."

This cultural stereotyping falls under what Waleed Aly has called "subterranean racism": racism that, though its impact on the recipient is no less damaging, goes largely undetected. 

The media plays an arguably important role here.

Muslim women interviewed in Hebbani and Wills’ 2012 research expressed 'unfavourable impressions of media representations of Muslim women in regards to the hijab/burqa'.

Interviewees cited a correlation between media representations and Islamophobia, and expressed a desire to correct non-Muslim Australians’ association of Islam with terrorism. 

Aliah adds:

“A lot of people think that when Muslim women are wearing hijabs, it’s because they’re forced to.”

As Rozario’s research explains,

'... veiling and the allegedly degraded situation of women in Muslim societies [have become] prime symbols of the oppressive nature of Islam.'

Some might ask themselves why, after fleeing harsh political environments that mandate veiling and purdah (separation of the sexes), refugee Muslim women continue to cover up in bikini-wearing Australia.

But the irony of Aliah’s situation is that she didn’t remove her hijab because she wanted to look like everyone else, but because she struggled to integrate otherwise.

Being Muslim, being female

Will Aliah wear the hijab again in Coffs Harbour?

“Maybe. Sometimes I feel like I want to wear it again, even though it’s not exactly fashionable here."

This brings us to the topic of Islamic fashion, which emerged with great interest and polemic earlier this year.

While Dolce & Gabbana made headlines by releasing its hijab and abaya range, the rapid increase in Muslim clothing in mainstream outlets indicates there was already a large market gap waiting to be filled. 

According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2015/16, Muslims spent US$230 billion on fashion in 2014 and will spend US$484 billion in 2019.

This has opened model industry door to Muslims like Mariah Idrissi, the Moroccan-Pakistani model who fronts H&M’s "Close the Loop" campaign. 

Aliah ponders this overlap of self-expression and religious duty:

Well, modelling is showing off your body or face. The hijab is supposed to take attention away from the woman.

But when I asked a religious leader in Sydney about working with men, he said religion shouldn’t stop us from doing our job — models and actors included. Muslims can adapt to their environment.

Lifting her cup of green tea, she makes it clear

My religion tells me that if I’m feeling bad in my environment, I should do something to change it. That doesn’t change my beliefs, my values or who I am.

It doesn’t make me any less Muslim.

*Not her real name

You can read more of Lizzy’s words at www.lizzykeen.com.

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