Hijab is more than a veil; it’s a practice. Image from alitchick.blogspot.com.

When I was living in Montreal, I had the supreme privilege of learning about hijab – the Muslim practices of modest dress and conduct – from a group of intelligent, educated, empowered women. One, from Pakistan, had been wearing her head scarf since she was thirteen; another, from Toronto, was debating whether she was ready to take on the solemn vow. A professor of mine, whose expression of hijab was a scarf draped across her shoulders, had friendly debates with an Afghani classmate who wore a burkha and niquab. There were documentaries, there was National Pink Hijab Day, there were millions of people running around Montreal in various interpretations of what it meant to take hijab.

Styles of veiling. Image from talesoftheveils.info.
Styles of veiling. Image from talesoftheveils.info.

That was one of the most powerful messages I learned, as an outsider to Islam, about what hijab is. While many of us outsiders believe – or are taught – that hijab is an imposed practice of veiling that applies exclusively to women, the reality is that hijab is a complex series of interpretations of a Qur’anic verse (Surah 24:30-31, to be precise) that instructs, “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimār over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husband…and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.” This section follows a section dedicated to instructions for male believers, who are told to “lower their gaze and be modest” (Surah 24:30). Out of this, this narrow, vague section of text, is born the varied and differential interpretations of what Muslim men and women should wear and do to meet the requirements of modesty.

I say all this because there continues to be a global push to marginalize and misinterpret this practice, whether it be to force one version of hijab on an entire populace (thanks, Iran) or to try and ban it entirely (thanks, Quebec). In Western academia the trend has been to consider all veiling practices – including mantillas, purdah, hijab, and others – to be born of one cultural origin. Whether motivated by fear, simple ignorance, or jealousy, there is a global bad habit of minimizing the role that the individual plays – and should always be able to play – in expressions of faith and spirituality. The proposal in Quebec, for example, seeks to ban all expressions of religious faith, including crucifixes around the neck and yamulkes on the head, under the guise of equality. The reality is, however, that there is a distinct international power differential in how certain faith expressions are treated.

When I was a young adolescent, there was a very brief campaign in my middle school to protest the forced wearing of burkhas in Afghanistan. The pamphlets passed around the cafeteria described the horrible treatment that women endured – beating, rape, and imprisonment – in addition to being confined to the dark folds of their cloth cocoons. In my first year of university, I read the Vagina Monologue “Under the Burkha,” a vivid description of how dis-empowered Eve Ensler imagined women were when trapped in the suffocating garment.

And then I encountered National Pink Hijab Day, a Canadian Muslim awareness event.

Pink Hijab Day! Image from fbcdn-photos-h-a.akamaihd.net.
Pink Hijab Day! Image from fbcdn-photos-h-a.akamaihd.net.

I remember Doaa wrapping the hijab around my head and face, explaining as she did so that the goal was to understand how it feels – and how one is treated – when wearing hijab in Montreal. Discrimination against hijab wearers is alive and well, she explained as she used a straight pin to fasten the folds. (I can only imagine her reaction to the Quebec proposal now!) I walked away with my head and face swathed in a bright pink scarf, and what I remember most of all is not how others treated me that day, nor a feeling of dis-empowerment.

What I remember most of all is the sense that I was encroaching on, and co-opting, a powerful expression of faith. I felt guilty and ashamed, not because I was wrapped in cloth, but because I was not a Muslim. What my friends and professors had imparted upon me, I realized, was a deep and abiding respect for the relationship between the faithful and their deity. I doubt anyone cared whether I was Muslim or not, particularly given the point of the exercise, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was mimicking something that deserved a greater level of reverence.

From my perspective, faith is a powerfully personal experience. I have an extremely difficult time with any faith or any faith community that expects uniformity amongst its adherents, and in Canada, where hijab is an option and not a mandate from the government, I was consistently exposed to Muslim women who chose hijab because their love for their faith was the most powerful force in their lives. Women around the world aren’t always so lucky to let faith expressions be their choices. Faith, to me, is such a deeply gratifying trait to possess and profess that I find it heartbreaking when its fundamental individualism is denied to anyone.

I would advocate, on a global level, for everyone to have the opportunities that my friends in Montreal had. That women be empowered to choose a miniskirt and crop top if they want, but also that they be empowered to choose the niquab. That we stop imposing our own interpretations on whether a religion’s clothing options are inherently oppressive or negative and start focusing on enabling individuals to make that interpretation for themselves. That we fight not only to free women from religious oppression, but from religious and cultural persecution as well. That we remember that empowerment and freedom only exist so long as all have the right to define those terms for themselves.