Photo by Ayesha Barmania.
Photo by Ayesha Barmania.

The hijab, a symbol of religious commitment and modesty in Islam, has become a symbol of political conflict. Hijab wearers (hijabis) in Canada are often met with hostility and ignorance.

The Trent Muslim Student Association’s (TMSA) event Hijabi Diaries aimed to combat unawareness about the philosophy behind headscarves in Islam and to change some of the perceptions of wearers. Trent University students, Nour Salem, Samia Burhani, Sobia Riaz, and Bakhtawar Riaz, who all wear the headscarf, shared their personal experiences of the hijab and their interpretation of what it meant in a panel discussion.

The Qur’an states that all those who subscribe to the faith should strive to be modest. This includes a mandate that both men and women should embody this modesty and behave in modest ways. For women, modesty includes covering most of one’s body and one’s hair. The hijab is one such way for women to demonstrate their modesty.

First and foremost, the hijab is a choice made by women when they come into adulthood. It operates as a way of subverting the male gaze and illustrating their desire to not be sexualized in public. This does not preclude Muslim women from dressing up in other contexts, but in public the hijab shows that the woman is not interested in being sexualized.

This choice to wear the hijab works the opposite way as well. The TMSA presenters were emphatic in their respect for women who do not wear the hijab. “There’s no compulsion in Islam, you can choose to follow the religion how you want,” said Riaz.

However, many of the presenters felt that there was an expectation that they should take up the hijab by their families. Similarly, a young person in Canada may be pressured to start driving, as the hijab may be imposed upon women. There were questions asked about women being forced to wear the headscarf, to which presenters responded that this was a cultural practice and result of patriarchal values. If women are being forced to wear the hijab, the presenters felt that this was an issue separate from Islam but more representative of an individual oppressive culture or family.

There is a distinction between cultural practices and religious practices. While the Qur’an specifies that women should dress modestly to express their faith, there are many different ways of enacting this in different cultures. This is evident in cultural responses to headscarf wearers and those who do not wear it. Riaz said, “In Canada, you get looked down upon if you wear it.” Burhani added, “But in Kuwait if you don’t wear it you get looked down upon.”

There are, furthermore, many different styles of hijab that result in a beautiful array of stylistic choices, which was displayed on a small-scale in the scarves of the presenters. Certain styles show a little bit of hair, while others use more than one scarf.

The presenters shared both positive and negative experiences that they had received based on their headscarf. Riaz said, “Once a year, maybe, you get called a terrorist, but you also get called beautiful.” This larger trend toward hostility represents an ignorant attitude that is being combatted through events like this one, and the larger Islam Awareness Week that was put on by the TMSA.