“I feel that we are in the era of the hijab. We’re in a time where the place of the hijab, the niqab and burka are being argued.” My friend Aisha’s voice is understandably tinged with concern; she is a Muslim woman living in Europe.
I’m sitting in bed, hair in a messy pony tail, sipping on a hot cup of tea and feeling little groggy from waking up early. I’m talking to Aisha at the opposite end of the earth, and of our days. We met six years ago at an Iftar (the first meal Muslims eat to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan) held by the University of Auckland Muslim Club.
I was standing in line waiting for food, feeling out of place when I turned around to find a smiling face looking at me. I was there because I had embarked on a research project for my Master’s degree; she to break her fast. We chatted a bit about my research, which was examining the representation of Islam in the media. I learnt a lot during that year, what life is like for migrants and Muslim New Zealanders. I also developed a fascination with the way Islam has, and continues to be, held up as the bogeyman by mainstream Western media.
Aisha’s observation strikes to the heart of an ever-present issue for Muslim women around the world, the ongoing argument about whether the hijab, niqab and other covering worn by Muslim women fit in Western society.
I have had many arguments with people about whether Muslim women are oppressed because they cover their heads. It usually goes like this:
‘They shouldn’t dress like that when they’re here. They should be trying to fit in.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s wrong! We don’t oppress our women like that.’
‘Really we don’t oppress women in New Zealand?’
‘No. We are free to do what we like. Not like them. And when they live in our country they should adopt our culture.’
Sometimes I stop here, shake my head and let it go. Other times, much like a rabid dog, I persist in the hope I may plant enough seeds of doubt in their ideas to inspire a change.
In my experience, many people appear to have formed their opinions based on media reports, not actual interactions with Muslims. Which is why, as a journalist, I believe it is important to consider the images and words we use when we write about minorities.
Recently a colleague of mine used an image of a woman wearing a niqab to accompany a story about the burkini ban in France. I pointed this out to her and she responded by suggesting that the difference was ‘splitting hairs’. It’s during moments like this when I wonder if I’m being overly sensitive or whether there is a section of the news media that is unaware of the impact of images and words?
One of the outcomes of my Master’s was that all of the Muslim women I interviewed identified ‘the media’ as one of the root causes behind the way Muslims and Islam are perceived. Although all of the women I met felt that New Zealand was a safe place to live and only occasionally experienced racism, there was an underlying sense they didn’t quite belong. This sense of not belonging was magnified by the way the news media portrayed Islam and especially the way Muslim women are often represented as oppressed.
I did not want to focus on the hijab for my research, but I soon learnt that head covering and modesty is central to many Muslim women’s identity. Identity, however, is not one dimensional, and when we reduce someone to one item of clothing we miss all the other components of what makes them an individual.
This idea was what prompted me to revisit my research and reconnect with the women I met.
“If the burka or hijab isn’t acceptable on the beach, in a bank, or in public where is it acceptable?”
I have no answer for Aisha when she puts this question to me. I had asked her how we can move on from being fixated by Islamic head coverings. I am acutely aware of my privilege as a white woman during this conversation. Aware of the fact I am able to wear what I like without anyone questioning if I belong or if I pose a risk to safety. And then she says something that will stay with me long after we sign off:
“Most people put the responsibility on us for how they feel, but what about everything we are going through? I think women who wear the niqab are so courageous. They are educated, they are sophisticated. They are not the obedient women media portray them to be.”
It’s something few people seem to take into consideration when arguing the place of hijab/niqab in Western society. There is so much focus on how it makes us feel but very little thought into what it is like to worry how others may react to you because of a head covering.
What is it about Islam that generates so much fear in parts of Western society? Why are we so fixated with a woman covering her head? I believe what is underneath the rhetoric is not about outsiders threatening ‘our’ way of life; it’s about the way we try to control other people. There are layers of racism and prejudice – a hangover of colonisation – that have never quite gone away.
For Aisha, living in Norway has been a difference experience to living in New Zealand.
“In Norway, when you think of the hijab or the niqab you associate it with Saudi Arabia, with the Middle East. They associate it with refugees and migrants. But I’m many things; I’m Fiji Indian, I’m Gujarati, I’m a Kiwi and I’m Muslim. Why does being Muslim have to take over all of these things?”