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A matter of choice; Clothes don't define who a Muslim is, belief does


Monday, April 7, 2008


Nawaz sometimes leads the prayers at the Sudbury Mosque. Compared to ones in Toronto, Sudbury's is much more diverse with members coming from 22 countries. There are many faces of Islam. He described the mosque as a "progressive type" that tries to discourage members with "narrow views."

The Islamic Association is active in the community, raising money for various causes, serving on the police advisory panel, as well as meeting monthly with Christians for an Interfaith dialogue. Its youth group contains both Muslims and non-Muslims.

In Islam, men and women are equal; they just have different roles to play - men the breadwinner and women the nurturers of the children, he said.

We talk about modesty, the kind commanded in the Qur'an. It's all about context, he said. Are you drawing attention to yourself if you dress totally different to everyone around you? he asked. After all, modesty is about not showing off.

While I'm covered from head to foot, my first time out I feel naked. Every person's eyes flick to me and then away. They don't want to stare, they want to play it cool, but it's hard to look away.

There are a few sour looks and heads shaking, mainly by older women. In the Rainbow Centre food court, an older man says "Jesus" loudly and his companions laugh as I pass by their table. But this reaction might have been more out of not noticing me until I was right next to him.

Teenagers' eyes go wide and a group of girls kind of cling to each other as I pass on Mackenzie Street.

Only a few go the other direction. A guy gives me a thumbs up and warns me of a slippery section on the sidewalk. Another man smiles, the warmth of it reaching his eyes. I try to smile back, but I'm not sure how much he can get, but then wonder if that's an appropriate response.

It's hard being the centre of attention. I become more frazzled as the hemming job to my abaya (I ordered the wrong size), done using sticky velcro, gives way. The robe is way too long and keeps tripping up my feet and dragging in the slush.

I blame this distracted feeling for leaving my bank card in the machine. A block later, an Asian kid comes running up to me pointing at the bank. I run toward the bank where his friends are guarding the machine, but my abaya trips me and the hot-dog vendor lunges to catch me so that I don't hit the pavement.

"Oh my God. I can't believe I just did that, thank, thank you," I babble.


The kids look a little nervous.

People are kind. People are good. But I just want to get back and cut the bottom of this abaya off and relax in normal clothes.

When Maha Dabliz saw a recent convert to Islam in Sudbury, she went up to her.

"Salam Alaykum," she said.

Peace be upon you. The woman brightened at these words and returned them, but then asked Dabliz if she, too, is a Muslim.

"But you don't look like a Muslim," she said.

Dabliz wore no hijab, the scarf the hides the hair, but leaves the face uncovered.

"As Muslims, we're not suppose to judge," Dabliz told her gently.

When she grew up in the trilingual milieu of Lebanon, speaking English, French and Arabic, not many in her circle of friends and family wore the hijab. She left in the mid-1970s because of war. Eventually, Dabliz moved to Sudbury with her husband, who serves as an Imam at the Sudbury Mosque.

Returning to her former home is a bit of a shock.

"Lebanon doesn't look like the Middle East that I used to know," she said.

Head coverings and abayas are common, but so too is the division of the sexes. When visiting her sister, women eat in one room and the men in another. She respects whatever decisions people make, but she hopes for the same thing in return.

"If you are a good person, you are a good person. If you're happy with your hijab, I'm happy for you, but don't judge me," Dabliz said.

She views the head coverings as something left over from the days of the prophets. Back then, Jewish and Christian women also covered their heads. She doesn't ride on a camel, but rather flies on an airplane. Why not wear the clothes of the day, too?

Hey, let's go to Chelmsford, suggests staff photographer Gino Donato. So, we get into the logoless company truck that has garbage bags sticking out back and off we go.

But first a stop at the Tim Hortons in Azilda, where a woman serves me with hyper-politeness and speed. I return to the counter to get napkins and she offers me an extra cup, too.

Passing Chelmsford's high school, I see my sister Kari going to her car. Even though I've told her about ordering the niqab and abaya online from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she thinks I'm a teenager in a ski-mask coming after her. The next day, a student will ask her why she was talking to a "ninja" in the parking lot.

My mother, who also happens to pull up to bring my sister her dog, is likewise alarmed when I approach her window.

The woman buying milk ahead of me at the GP Confectionary, tries to act naturally, but appears a little freaked out. I get this let's-pretend-there-isn't-a-crazy-person-behind-me vibe.

We walk over to the church, but there's not many people around, so it's back to the city to do some shopping at the Southridge Mall, where Gino buys some lunchables and the cashier shoots me suspicious looks.

Later in the day I go grocery shopping with my family.

When my oldest son sees me, he worries that my sense of smell and hearing will be affected.

"You're going to change right, when we get home?" he says.

However, my youngest, enchanted by the drama of the costume, asks his friend in the store whether he likes "my mom's new Muslim dress?"

The problem with grocery stores is that you run into the same people over and over again and they become annoyed when you keep popping up and scaring them. But maybe they, too, think I'm a ninja.

The increase in women wearing the hijab can be traced back to the Iranian revolution, said Jack Laughlin, a religious studies professor who has taught courses on Islam at Laurentian University. From about 1975 into the 1980s, it was a matter of considerable debate. But now it's considered one of choice by individuals. Among students at the university, headscarves are now "no big deal."

"The change from what was understood as modesty in dress, loose covering over the body and hiding the hair to full covering, was the result of increasingly conservative interpretations of the relevant passages from the Qur'an and Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) by medieval interpreters of Islamic law," Laughlin later told me in an e-mail. "Subsequently, the most austere of dress became entrenched in certain Islamic countries."

The burqa, which the Taliban demanded of women, is a bit of a special case, he continued. In parts of Central Asia, women were, and in some places, still are expected to "observe purdah or seclusion in the home, and not to be seen by men outside the family." The burqa, which screens even the eyes, acts as "a sort of portable purdah."

"But, of course, the wearing of the niqab (veil), while not enforced, is practised in Saudi Arabia in addition to the abaya and hijab (which are obligatory for women)," he explained.

I ask him about the niqab being described as a "cultural" thing. Laughlin said when people start using the word cultural, it's often a coded term for something they believe is not properly Islamic.

Riding the bus forces people into close proximity, smelling proximity, one could say. This bus to New Sudbury fills up quickly, but the two seats beside me take a while for anyone to sit in them. No one looks at me, just quick glances. Many riders have ear buds plugged in; they're zoned into their own private musical space. I've been watching the Star Wars movies and I start humming the score before I catch myself.

Later, I run into Lana Boyuk, who was on the bus (but didn't recognize me), and she tells me that after I got off at Chapters, two teenager girls had a long debate about me. The first girl felt sorry for me forced to wear a "turban." The other explained it wasn't a turban and that it was probably my choice to wear it for faith reasons.

At Chapters, frustrated at not being able to drink coffee in public and having trouble turning pages with my gloves, I do a 360 on the whole niqab thing. While in the beginning I felt exposed, now I feel invisible. Everyone gives me wide berth and nobody wants to interact with me. It's pretty isolating. But maybe I haven't tried hard enough to get to them?

Ever since Zuhra Nawaz decided to wear the hijab about five years ago, she's made sure to always be the one who makes the first move in a social setting.

"I have become overly cautious of making the effort to talk and smile and let people know that we are all human beings; we are not here to, you know, make any negative impact here. It's all positive," she said.

If Zuhra sees a child staring at her, she will go up to them and say hello. Sometimes young mothers are cold to these efforts, but she just ignores it.

"Even when you start saying hello, some ladies have this scared look on their face. You have to overlook that," she said. "Older ladies sometimes want to know why. I say, you know how when you go to church you wear your hat? And then they say we used to wear one. But back home and in Europe, there are still ladies who do that. It's showing the modesty. Some of us just keep wearing that same hat for the rest of the day."

Zuhra works for her husband in his medical office, so it's never been an issue there. Maybe if would be different in retail. As for the niqab, she has seen some ladies wearing it walking around downtown. But it's still pretty unusual.

She grew up in the southern part of India where literacy is 100 per cent, all the girls went to school, and her grandmother ran a business. No one in her family wore the hijab in public, although they did wear a head covering at their mosque.

Since then, many women have immigrated for jobs or family. When they returned, many did so with the hijab on their heads. Now when she visits India, she wears it loosely because of the unbearable heat.

"I see more ladies wearing it than when I was a student," Zuhra said. "It's about modesty. You have the full freedom and choice to make that decision. It's a decision made by individuals. It's not a sign of oppression or suppression."

The decision was not an easy one and took much internal debating. It was her pilgrimage to Mecca in 2001 that eventually prompted her to go with her heart.

"Just the fact you don't know what will happen if you start wearing it in a non-Muslim environment. What kept me from not wearing it for this long," Zuhra said. "Nothing can stop me from wearing it now ... This is the way I've read the Qur'an and interpreted it. Arabic is much different than English; lots of things get lost in translation. People take it the way they want it."

On the fashion side, she chooses a scarf to match her outfit. There are stores in Toronto, but her brother in Kuwait also sends her some. And a headscarf doesn't mean the end of hair care. She goes to the salon on a monthly basis and get highlights done. After all, she doesn't wear it with family or when she gets together with other ladies.

No one should ever force another to make this decision. Zuhra would never dream of asking her 24-year-old daughter wear the hijab.

For the most part, she finds Sudburians accepting.

"Sudbury people are nice and they are good people," she said. "The only thing, you have to know why you wear it. You have to be content inside ... It has to be your own doing."

Article ID# 972694

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