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Unveiled: (Mis)understanding the Hijab

She tweaks her make-up and re-applies her eyeliner, outlining her dark, piercing eyes. With her lipstick, she paints her lips light pink.

She is beautiful, with fair, porcelain skin and high cheekbones. Her blue tank top reveals her white bare arms. Long dark hair rests on her delicate shoulders.

She runs her fingers through her hair, and pulls it into a ponytail. Slowly, she unfolds her headscarf. Throwing the textured black cloth on her head, she begins fixing the edges, framing her face perfectly. Finally, she picks up her jacket, slips it on and zips it up.

She presses her lips together and takes a long look at herself in the mirror. Her lips curl into a satisfied smile.

She is ready.

For a young veiled Muslim woman, growing up in a Western country can be difficult; negative social attitudes and perceptions about Islam abound. In multicultural Toronto, the hijab is undergoing many transformations as young Muslim women embrace it as a symbol of their faith and values. 

Shoosha believes that stereotypes have lessened over the past ten years because people have become more knowledgeable about Islam and its followers. [1]

Shoosha believes that stereotypes have lessened over the past ten years because people have become more knowledgeable about Islam and its followers.

Ishraq Albohamra, known to family and friends as Shoosha, fled from Iraq to Canada with her family in 1996 when she was just 11 years old. She has grown up in Scarborough ever since.

Albohamra, 28, is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in neurology. For her, the expression of values behind her choice to wear the hijab far outweighs the challenges that come with it.

“I want people to know who I am through my mouth, my mentality, my actions, not how I look or how my hair is,” Albohamra says.

Five percent of the Greater Toronto Area population is Muslim, making the GTA the highest concentration of Muslims in any city in North America. But still, the hijab may be a barrier for some.

“I think you often are seen first as a hijabi and then a person,” says Noor Javed, City Reporter at the Toronto Star. “I think there will be a point in your life where people will start seeing you as what you want them to see you as.”


‘Dangerous misconceptions’

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Western perceptions of Muslims and Islam have been at the center of much debate, at times with stereotypical perspectives that have led to misunderstanding, confusion and even hatred.

As visible minorities at a time when the Western world is still learning about Islam, veiled Muslim women are at the forefront of the misinterpretations associated with the faith.

Some have asked Albohamra if the males in her family make her wear the hijab, or if she is a cancer patient or bald.

“In high school, I would take all the girls to the bathroom and show them my hair and say, now go and tell everyone else I have hair,” she says, laughing.

The hijab is sometimes seen as a symbol of oppression and a lack of freedom.

Others think it is a form of physical as well as mental concealment that could indicate being conservative, closed minded or extreme.

“I don’t think people understand that it’s a choice. They think it’s forced and that you need to be liberated from that force, which is the most dangerous misconception,” Albohamra adds.


Tackling stereotypes

Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star’s editorial page editor emeritus and author of “Being Muslim” believes humans have a propensity to stereotype.

“We’re all slaves and inmates of stereotypes,” Siddiqui says. “We never seem to learn from history. We are turning those same stereotypes against Muslims. Tomorrow it could be somebody else. That’s a constantly evolving human story.”

Siddiqui believes that there is anecdotal evidence that veiled Muslim women are highly discriminated against. He gives workplaces as an example of systemic racism, where many, regardless of whether they say it openly or not, will not hire a hijabi, because they believe it would negatively impact their business.

Overcoming ignorance may be the first step in eliminating stereotypes.

“First it was Jews, then it was Blacks, then Arabs and Hispanics, and God knows it could be the ones who are judging us today who are going to be judged tomorrow,” Albohamra says. “Everybody has a responsibility to be educated, everybody has a responsibility to open up and understand the world around them. What you don’t know scares you sometimes. ”


‘No longer the victims’

Wafa says that mistakenly, rigidity and one-dimensionality are concepts directly associated with the hijab, and that people should be able to see diversity within the Muslim community.  [2]

Wafa says that mistakenly, rigidity and one-dimensionality are concepts directly associated with the hijab, and that people should be able to see diversity within the Muslim community.

Wafa Fiture, 26, believes that Muslim women also have a responsibility when it comes to tackling stereotypes, by acknowledging curiosity about the hijab and welcoming debate.

“I think for the longest time we played the victims. And we’re not the victims anymore,” Fiture says.

Fiture was born in Libya and moved to Toronto when she was two. She began wearing the hijab when she started her studies at the University of Toronto.

She immersed herself fully in the Muslim community, and it wasn’t until a couple months after that she began to realize her discomfort. She recalls the difficult transition she experienced when she began personalizing her hijab.

Conflict in the Muslim community

The Muslim community is diverse, with many different backgrounds and nationalities including people from South Asian, Arab, West Indian and African decent.

Personalizing the hijab is a way to express this cultural diversity as well as individual values.

Fiture was looking for a way to escape rigidity.

After months of experimentation, including wearing it looser, showing more hair, and wearing different styles of clothing, Fiture began to feel more comfortable with the hijab.

“It was a process,” Fiture said.

The transition of going from a stricter hijabi to a somewhat more open one was difficult and challenging.

Wafa was surprised to find Muslims judged her on how she personalized the hijab.

“That I did not expect,” she said.  


Understanding the hijab

The hijab is at times seen contradictory to individualism. Many, including some veiled Muslim women, believe the hijab to be one-dimensional.

However, many women who choose to wear it personalize the hijab by wearing it in their own distinct style.

The different cultures and nationalities determine the ways some women choose to wear the headscarf. In some communities, it is based on tradition, in others, the highest fashion dictates the way a women dresses.

“Who’s to say there’s rigidity in it?” Fiture asks.

It is more common to see veiled Muslim women experiment with the way they wear the hijab today than it was a decade ago.

“You still want it to express who you are in it,” Fiture says. “A lot of girls now personalize their hijab, and express themselves through it. “


Redefining the hijab

Zahra Fathi doesn’t have to think too long or hard when asked why she wears the headscarf.

Zahra [3]

Zahra has many reasons for wearing the hijab, the main one being to symbolize her faith. “This is who I am, who I choose to be and how I choose society to see me.”

“I define my veil, it does not define me. I am not a piece of fabric; it is much more than that,” She says.

She’s sitting at a café in her hometown of Thornhill on a weekend morning, pouring over papers and texts. Despite her great sense of style, what seems to draw eyes is Fathi’s colorful and patterned headscarf.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Fathi immigrated to Canada with her family in 1998 when she was eight years old. She is planning on pursuing a Masters degree in Renaissance literature.

When it comes to finding the balance between practicing her religion and expressing her individualism, she seems to have it covered.

Fathi has been wearing the hijab since the age of 9. Although she looks more liberal than the average veiled Muslim women, and wears her hijab loosely, she believes this is a limit she feels comfortable with, as it expresses her lively and assertive personality.

Muslim women wear the headscarf for many reasons. Some wear it because of tradition. Their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers wore it and it simply feels right to follow in the footsteps of the women they admire. Some wear it out of habit. Others wear it solely based on belief.

“It is a personal choice that benefits me,” says Fathi. “I do not wear my headscarf out of habit, I wear it out of belief.”


Redefining beauty

In stark contrast to the commodified images of female beauty plastered on billboards, magazine covers and the Internet, Fathi believes wearing the hijab internalizes a woman’s beauty.

“We value, worship and get very attached to our material objects, and I have a huge problem with that,” Fathi says. “One of our biggest material objects is our physical appearance.”

Her choice to cover forces Zahra to pay attention to things that are of more importance, an experience both challenging and humbling.

“There’s a little bit of vanity in all of us,” she adds smiling.


Finding the right medium

Of Indian, German and Iranian descent, Leila Fatemi, 21, was born in Italy and has been living in Canada since the age of three. She is studying photography at Ryerson University.

Art and photography allow her to share her great passion from the perspective of women who experience it first hand.

Her photographic series “Veiled”, features 30 portraits of veiled Muslim women, accompanied by a quote they feel represents their view of the hijab. Through the creative process, Fatemi has given hijabis a voice to express their perspective and viewers a chance to become familiar with the women behind the veil.

“I’ve seen so many different painters, photographers, and new media artists, who portray the veil in an oppressive way,” Fatemi says.

She stresses the importance of creating work that balances the mainstream artistic exploration of the hijab.

“I felt like there needs to be something that counteracts that. People need to see that work, and they also need to see this work,” she explains.

Leila’s photographic work explores the hijab from the perspective of veiled women themselves, counteracting the mainstream portrayal that is prevalent in the artistic world. [4]

Leila’s photographic work explores the hijab from the perspective of veiled women themselves, counteracting the mainstream portrayal that is prevalent in the artistic world.

Fatemi’s work fully embraces the values she holds most closely to her.

“People generally don’t know much about it from somebody who wears it. They know about it from people who like to talk about it,” she said.


Embracing the hijab

Despite the difficulties that come with it, Fatemi believes embracing the hijab in the workplace to be the only way to create change.

“The more hijabis start becoming more public in all these occupations, the more people they’re going to affect. “

Mateen Rokhsefat, PhD candidate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto stresses the vital role Muslim women play in reversing stereotypical views and in tackling misconceptions that are sometimes associated with the hijab.

“I believe Muslim women themselves have a big role, if not the main role in reversing these views,” Rokhsefat says. “It is chiefly through these involvements and activities in their larger Western society that Muslim women can create understanding and acceptance, as well as expel misconceptions about themselves.”

The transformation of the hijab may be one important step in breaking down damaging stereotypes.

All photos courtesy of Hanieh Khosroshahi.