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There is more to Muslim women than a head scarf (Hijab)

By Nadia Jamal

 

(Nadia Jamal is a  Sydney Morning  Herald   journalist)
October 19, 2006

 

I am a Muslim woman and I agree that the covering of a woman's face in the name of religion may be confronting. If I - who grew up surrounded by women who have donned the hijab - can feel confronted by the niqab, which covers not just the head but also the face, then how can I be surprised when others who have not had that experience say that they are?

Even within Muslim communities there are differences of opinion about the head coverings women wear, and there are historical and cultural reasons for this, too. Most Muslim women do not wear the full face veil.

A family friend who has travelled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, told me that he didn't see a single woman in Mecca who had her face covered. If, in the holiest place on earth for Islam, women aren't expected to cover their faces, it is hard to understand why they do it in modern cities.

The hijab is more than a piece of material. It is a way of life for many Muslim women and linked to Islamic culture and identity. Women who wear the niqab believe it is a religious obligation and they, too, have a right to practise their faith without discrimination. But there are important questions that have been overlooked.

On a practical level, the face is a particularly expressive part of our body, and if we cannot see it, then part of that means of communicating is lost to us.

From a social perspective, I cannot help but feel that some women in Australia who wear the niqab might be, deliberately or otherwise, missing out on opportunities to fully participate in community life. And I cannot help but feel that the niqab, intended or not, reinforces stereotypes that Muslim women are oppressed. That is, that Islam is about forcing their women to cover up.

This is not to attack my Muslim sisters who wear the niqab, but part of a genuine debate on our current affairs.

The fact that many Muslim women seek to dress modestly has been used by conservative politicians and commentators as a big plus about Islam. At a recent public forum, Towards a Cohesive Australia, the federal MP Tony Abbott said combating terrorism meant facing up to the ways Western societies fall short of their professed ideals. He then posed the question: "How can alienated Muslim males be expected to respect women, for instance, when this city's bookstands, billboards and TV shows proclaim that women are sex objects?"

Well, we should expect that they will respect women the same way Muslim women are expected to respect men regardless of the images they are bombarded with.

Abbott then asked: "How can devout Muslims be expected to regard Western societies as the flowering of civilisation when so much of modern music, art and writing is obsessed with the banal and the degrading?"

Well, Muslims know that in free and open societies such as Australia, choice is an important part of life. It can help us to challenge ourselves as individuals and to become better informed.

Of course, there are different dress codes for different settings. When I go to the beach, I have to expect and accept that I will see near-naked bodies of not just women but men, too. Different rules apply when I go to work.

A reader once wrote to me to say that she thought it was unfair that Muslim men frolicked on the beach in their short shorts while their female partners sat nearby covered up from head to toe. She has a point. Some Muslim men believe the beach is not a place for their wives, mothers or sisters. But if it is good enough for them, then it should be good enough for the women in their lives as well.

There are rules for attire for Muslim men, too. At a bare minimum, they are expected to cover up between the naval and the knees. They also should not wear tight clothing that reveals the lines of their body.

Much has been said lately about Muslim women's garb, but it should not be forgotten that being a Muslim woman is about so much more than what she wears.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/there-is-more-to-muslim-women-than-a-head-scarf/2006/10/18/1160850995584.html#

Abbott then asked: "How can devout Muslims be expected to regard Western societies as the flowering of civilisation when so much of modern music, art and writing is obsessed with the banal and the degrading?"

Well, Muslims know that in free and open societies such as Australia, choice is an important part of life. It can help us to challenge ourselves as individuals and to become better informed.

Of course, there are different dress codes for different settings. When I go to the beach, I have to expect and accept that I will see near-naked bodies of not just women but men, too. Different rules apply when I go to work.

A reader once wrote to me to say that she thought it was unfair that Muslim men frolicked on the beach in their short shorts while their female partners sat nearby covered up from head to toe. She has a point. Some Muslim men believe the beach is not a place for their wives, mothers or sisters. But if it is good enough for them, then it should be good enough for the women in their lives as well.

There are rules for attire for Muslim men, too. At a bare minimum, they are expected to cover up between the naval and the knees. They also should not wear tight clothing that reveals the lines of their body.

Much has been said lately about Muslim women's garb, but it should not be forgotten that being a Muslim woman is about so much more than what she wears.

Nadia Jamal is a Herald journalist.

 

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