Sarah Ward Khan, London
Sometimes people stare at me in the street. I’ve come to recognise that certain look that crosses a stranger’s face of confusion and bewilderment. For I am a white woman in a headscarf – an anomaly, not fitting the mould. There is no cultural or familial pressure for me to conform, mine is entirely a matter of choice. I’m a walking oxymoron: woman from a culture of apparent freedom and advancement, dressed in the garb of supposed oppression and subjugation.
But I don’t worry about the looks of the occasional passer-by. My life is not defined by these fleeting interactions based on assumption on both sides. My life and my choices are defined by a faith rooted in a love of God, deeper than considerations of others. My dress is a deeply personal choice, selected by me and upheld by my own convictions. Yet so often commentators believe that if I wear a scarf I must lack the intellect or awareness to understand my lowly status.
Yet the truth is something much more powerful and is known only to those who understand in the deepest recesses of their soul that hijab is a spiritual affirmation, a footstep on the path to enlightenment, inner peace and acceptance. Let me explain how. Covering the hair is an instruction of the Holy Qur’an. It states;
‘Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty and embellishments except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-covers over their bosoms….’(Chapter 24, verses 31-32)
Firstly, the hijab is not simply to ward off uncontrolled men. The instruction in the Qur’an is aimed at men first, they are told to lower their gaze. There is no burden on women to shield themselves from men, the burden is placed fully and firstly on the men themselves.
Secondly, the hijab is not to hide women. Quite the opposite. The Holy Qur’an tells women they are beautiful: all women, without comparison and without exception. This single affirmation unites women in a bond of sisterhood, removes competition and increases self-confidence. Muslim women do not cover themselves in female company because they are then on an equal footing – they are all beautiful. How many anxieties and discords could be eliminated if women embraced this philosophy, stopped doubting themselves and took pride in their elevated status as beings of inherent beauty?
Thirdly, wearing the hijab acknowledges that women are more than simply what they wear. When we operate in an environment when we are covered, other people cannot judge us on our looks. We do not elevate our physique and physical appearance to be our most important asset. Instead, we invite people to judge us based on our character, our conduct, our speech and who we are as a person. In a society where illusive and fleeting values of youth and beauty are paramount, we offer an alternative. Know us as a person, the qualities that will not fade with the passage of time. Judge us by our values that will weather any storm and improve with age and experience.
For the spirit of hijab is more than a fashion trend. I have worn hijab since my youth, when modest fashion and hijabi trends were unknown to most of the Western world. My adherence to hijab is not based on force, but on choice. So I do not mind if I get the occasional stare in the street, for I am stronger than the fickle winds of change. I follow a long line of women from all cultures and religions, who knew that hijab is a positive affirmation of my intrinsic value as a woman. And if I am the last hijabi standing, then I will continue to stand with the self-belief and conviction of faith that this practice is the right one and it is enduring.