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14 Apr 2004 00:00
“Do you ever get hot?” “How long is your hair?” “Isn’t it awkward?” These are some of the questions I’m asked when people meet me for the first time.
No, actually, it’s quite comfortable.
I never have to worry about bad hair days and my hair getting wet in the rain.
“Fundamentalist”, “terrorist” and “militant” are just a few of the labels associated with Muslims worldwide after the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001. It is this spreading of Islamaphobia that has resulted in governments taking measures to restrict public displays of religious customs and symbolism.
To great protest, the hijab has been banned in France. French President Jacques Chirac passed a law recently that will prohibit the wearing of what he calls “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools. These symbols include large Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and, more importantly, Islamic headscarves.
While the other two symbols are merely accessories, the headscarf forms part of the obligatory dress code for a Muslim woman who has reached puberty.
In Surah (Chapter) Al-Nur (The Light) of the Qur’an, Allah commands that women cover their entire bodies “except that which is apparent of it”. Numerous Islamic scholars agree the word “apparent” refers to the hands and face of a woman.
Thus, all other body parts of a woman form part of what is known as the awrah (that which is to be hidden) and the dress code that she should follow is commonly known as the hijab. The uncovering of the awrah is forbidden except in the company of certain males and females. I did not always wear the hijab. At school I wore knee-length dresses. I always thought that if I should take it up, I would lose friends.
I imagined people would think I was “odd” and “unliberated”, as the stereotypes would have them. I thought I would never find work if my hair were covered or if my clothes were not fashionable enough.
Then near the end of my matric year, I was stressed about exams and turned to God. It wasn’t an earth-shattering life change as some may expect. I started searching for a special dua (prayer) or salaah (supplication) that would calm my nerves and help me study.
I realised that if I wanted Allah to help me, I would have to start helping myself by following commands and living by the rules. One of the biggest changes I made was to start wearing the hijab.
My friends were confused to see this change in me. Some even asked if I have been betrothed to someone and now needed to cover my hair. After deciding to wear the hijab, my first obstacle occurred when I applied for a job at a well-known chain store. Throughout my interview and my induction no mention was made of my headscarf. In addition, nowhere in the contract did it state that the hijab was not allowed.
Then, at the beginning of my first shift, I was told to remove my scarf before going on to the shop floor. I refused. One of the managers said: “We work with tourists and various different people. It is important for us to maintain a certain image.” I replied that “this is hard for me to understand. I’ve worn my hijab to all my interviews and training, and this was never mentioned before.”
I stood my ground and after a long discussion the manager let me on to the floor, hijab and all. I ended up working there for the entire festive season and not once did a customer look at me in a strange way.
After making some enquiries, I realised that it was my democratic right to wear my headscarf, and if anyone was opposed to that, I was entitled to stand my ground. But various other Muslim women were not wearing headscarves. Though some of them did it out of choice, others approached me asking why I was allowed to wear mine, but they could not wear theirs.
I wondered if the constitutional rights to freedom of religion and expression are only exercised if you’re bold enough to fight for them? And realised the answer is “probably”.
I’m a third-year journalism student doing my internship at a local NGO. My hijab has never been an issue. People respect me for who I am, they look at me and not at what I’m wearing. I feel good about myself because I know that when I get a job it’s not because I look sexy, but because I have what it takes to do that job.
Most South Africans are respectful of other religions and their customs. Proof of this is apparent in the number of Muslims who immigrate to this country from all over the world. Though there are the few exceptions, the world has a lot to learn, and it can start by taking a closer look at South Africa.
Nurene Jassiem is coordinator for the Media Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation
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