Symbol of Oppression

Long weekend last week. Labour Day holiday, Maulidur Radul, Wesak Day. So we ended up with a 4-day holiday. Being the book worm that I am, I made sure I had enough reading material to survive the long weekend. Late one night, I was reading an article in Impact about the banning of hijab in schools in France. Half way through the article, I was desperate for someone to enlighten me on why some people feel so threaten by a scarf on a woman’s head.

Apparently the French decided that the hijab should be banned because it is a threat to the secularism of the French Republic, to liberalism, to national security, to the French culture. Never mind the fact that the French constitution says: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” Hmmmm… so all citizens are equal, but I guess some are more equal than others.

Before I say anything more, I would like to share my experience on what it’s like living in London as a Muslim woman who wears a scarf on her head. I was surprised by the hostility I had to face from time to time. For the first twenty three years of my life, I was blissfully ignorant of how ugly racism is, but I had since been educated on its finer points.

On a number of occasions, I was walking down the street, happily minding my own business, not obstructing anyone’s path in any way, and some jerk would start shouting obscenities or throw an object at me.

On one occasion I was spat at.

One fine day, I was in the tube station, standing on an escalator going down when a guy walked passed by me and tried to snatch my scarf away. Good for him at the time I hadn’t started my martial art training or he would’ve gone home with a twisted wrist. I must admit that at the time I felt a very, very, very strong urge to kick him down the escalator. Lucky for him I was so frozen with anger I couldn’t move my leg. Numerous times I had wondered if life would be easier if I temporarily removed the head scarf. Somehow I doubt it – I can’t change the colour of my skin.

Could someone please tell me why the supposedly more civilised, tolerant and open-minded Westerners find it so hard to accept people who do not share their belief or culture or way of life? After all, wasn’t it the West that started all the fancy talk about freedom of choice, human rights and all sorts of fancy ideas. Maybe freedom of choice and human rights are reserved only for people who share their belief, culture, lifestyle and skin colour.

How on earth can a head scarf be a threat to the Western culture? In case any of my professors happen to read this: did the presence of my scarf-clad head for 4.5 years change your culture and lifestyle in any way? Did it bring any disastrous effects to the university? I doubt it for the scarf never left my head to create such havoc. To my friends: how did my head scarf change your lifestyle? I doubt it had any impact on them.

One friend did comment that before knowing me he used to think that Muslim women were overly serious and resistant to modern ideas. After knowing me, the stereotypes were pretty much turned upside down. Apart from his more positive attitude towards Muslim women, I didn’t see any earth-shattering changes in his lifestyle.

I often hear people argue that the head scarf is oppressive because it denies a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. Really? Let’s see… People had asked me if I came from an orthodox (whatever that means) family, whether my parents forced me to wear the scarf. The first time I was asked that question, I was dumbstruck. I just stared at the person asking the question, thinking, “Why?”.

It was as if people looked at my head scarf and they automatically concluded that I wasn’t capable of thinking for myself.

Never mind the fact that I’m educated and very capable of thinking and deciding on something as trivial as what to wear and how to dress.  Never mind the fact that at the time I was thousands of miles away from Malaysia and I could easily discard the scarf if my parents had been the reason I had the “oppressive” scarf on.

I’ve had to make a few tough decisions in my life. Observing hijab was not one of it. No one ever forced me to do so. Assuming that I did it because my parents insisted couldn’t be further from the truth. My mother was the last in the family to observe hijab – after all her daughters decided to do so.

The supposedly “oppressive” head scarf has never stopped me from doing what I want. Didn’t stop me from leaving home to go to London to study. Didn’t stop me from earning two postgraduate degrees. Doesn’t stop me from pursuing a career. Never stopped me from doing all the things I love to do, including my martial art training. Someone asked me if I wear the scarf during training. Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I? The scarf doesn’t get in the way. Right now I’m contemplating taking up mountain climbing.

I am all for freedom of choice. I totally agree that a woman should be able to dress as she pleases. If for whatever reasons a woman wants to proof that she is a modern, liberal and free woman by walking naked on the street, fine by me. Doesn’t bother me one bit. Not my body she’s parading.

What I don’t understand is why when people talk about a woman’s right to dress as she pleases, it often refers to the right to bare as much skin as possible but never the right to dress modestly. Doesn’t that sound like a double standard? A woman dressed modestly is automatically an oppressed woman. Am I the only one who can’t see the logic of the argument?

Not too long ago, I was having coffee with a non-Muslim Malaysian friend when he suddenly asked, “Did you wear the scarf when you were in London?”. I nodded. He proceeded to tell me about his colleague who wore the scarf when in Malaysia, took it off when she was in Australia and put it back on when she returned home. Here’s a phenomenon I couldn’t understand. “Why?”, I asked myself.

Could it be that God only watches her when she is in Malaysia but the moment she leaves the Malaysian border God can no longer see what she does? A few of his colleagues, he said, dress “conservatively” at work but take off the scarf and dress more “liberally” when they go clubbing. Bizarre, I thought, why put on the scarf in the morning only to discard it later in the evening. Could it be that God can not see them after dark?

In case you’re wondering why I’m babbling on this way, I just had another insomnia attack. 2.17 a.m. and I can’t sleep. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on hijab. Maybe someone can give me answers to the questions that have been on my mind for quite some time.

I’m beginning to feel sleepy now. Time to go to bed.

Related links:
Why Muslim Women Wear Hijab
Lauren Booth: I’m now a Muslim. Why all the shock and horror?
Women in Islam vs. Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myths & The Reality
The Veiled Muslim Bogeygirl
I’m Tired of Hijab


6th May 2004

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