HIJAB TABOO – A symbol of oppression or a tool of empowerment?

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In today’s society, there are many who feel the hijab represents oppression and segregation. From an Islamic perspective, the headscarf is meant to reflect purity of intention and honesty. It is with this backdrop that Muslim women from around the world are standing up for their right to remain covered and find freedom in the hijab. They refute those perspectives and instead insist that it allows them to take control of their own bodies and receive respect from others.

Women from Gibraltar’s Muslim community, most of whom are second generation Moroccans who work, study and are integrated locally, have also taken the banner on this issue. Last month, the Rock was added to the list of countries to participate in World Hijab Day. The movement was launched three years ago by Nazma Khan from New York in a bid to build bridges of religious tolerance and understanding by inviting non-Hijabi wearers, both Muslims and non-Muslims to experience the hijab for one day. In Gibraltar, the whole day was dedicated to spread awareness of the intricacies of the headscarf by using the same technique on Main Street.

“I grew up watching my mom wrap her beautiful hijab around her hair every time we left the house,” said mother of two Khaoula, 28, the third child of Moroccan descent to be born in Gibraltar and a member of the local movement. “I thought back to the tales of princesses and princes. Instead of a crown, it was like a hijab.” She started asking questions on the headscarf when she was around four-years-old and her mother would recount tales of respect and honour associated with it, “She would say that this path was not limited to the hijab. Wearing it should make you a better person as a whole. It is like a religious symbol acting as a constant reminder to be aware of your actions.” Khaoula’s parents would try and encourage her to dress like other children in Gibraltar, but she said she would always ask for her hijab. Her father felt she was still too young, but nevertheless came to an agreement whereby she would remove it when she visited the park or went to school, “Young girls are meant to receive teaching about the hijab at around seven-years-of-age, but are not required to wear it until puberty. My father would say that I should live my childhood and leave these more mature thoughts for later life.”

World Hijab Day seeks to break the taboo

Exclusion

Khaoula described a tough introduction to life at Sacred Heart Middle School where fellow students, who saw her as different because of her hijab, unleashed a crusade of bullying towards her. Although she said she had support from her teachers, she could not escape the daily incidents that would plague her formative years, “One day, my hair came loose and dangled underneath my head scarf while lining up with the other children,” she said, pausing to reminisce over the beautiful long hair she had which was platted at the time. “The boy behind me set it on fire with a lighter. When the other children started screaming, the teachers came running over. He was punished and that was the end of it. The irony was that I ran into him shortly after while with my dad, who was his barber, and he apologised on the spot, saying that he didn’t know that I was his daughter. My dad has no enemies and brushes off any insult with a smile. He always told me to avoid confrontation, but even though I was a bit of a loner and would never bother anyone, they would still pick on me.” For Khaoula, that was the most extreme incident. The widely used derogatory word, ‘Morro’, would also sting her once she learned what it meant, but she eventually got used to the verbal abuse and tugging of her headscarf, “If a boy would see my hair, it would make me feel just as if he saw me naked. That’s how I felt then and that’s how I feel now.” Khaoula believes these people who made her life a misery would have done so with the full knowledge that they would have violated her in this way.

In her final year, on the last day of school, Khaoula was walking down Governor’s Street when chants of ‘Morra’ and ‘go back to Morocco’ were sent in her direction. As she quickened her pace to distance herself from the slurs, Khaoula felt a mighty blow strike her on the back of the head. She was taken to hospital to treat a gash caused by a stone thrown by one of a group of boys, “It was horrible and I felt quite alienated sometimes. I used to cry because the other children didn’t play with me. I think that these boys took this attitude from their parents who would also discriminate against Muslims.”

Lease of life

Khaoula endured further marginalisation in Westside School, but then moved to the College of Further Education where she was confronted with curiosity for the hijab rather than ridicule. She tended to hang around with boys now and it was the first time she had friends who were not from the Moroccan community, “I felt more welcomed in this environment and people viewed the hijab in a more mature way. We travelled to Morocco together on a college day trip and it was so liberating to express my background to the other students. I think they understood me and my hijab better. People never asked me any questions about it when I was in school. They would just bully me, so you could imagine how confident this made me feel.”

Khaoula was offered a job to work as a nurse at the Primary Care Centre, one she has grown to love, but was shocked by one of the questions to her in the interview for the position. Despite the transformation of attitudes she felt towards her and her headscarf at this point in her life, she was to be put on the spot again because of how she dressed. One of the interviewers traced her hijab with her finger and asked her if she would dress ‘like this’ for work, “I stood up and asked if they had a problem with it and they said that they were ‘just asking’. Fortunately, that was the end of it.”

Khaoula works as a nurse at the Primary Care Centre

As a nurse, Khaoula administers injections and often runs into her old bullies when they require treatment and she says they just ignore her as if nothing had happened all those years ago,” I haven’t had any of my former bullies apologise to me. I can still see the hatred in their eyes. They used to tell me that I wouldn’t achieve anything and I was trapped within the scarf. I think they resent that I am now successful and happy.”

Most Muslim women living in a western world are asked the question of whether they feel oppressed by wearing the hijab. One of the principal aims of the movement is to put an end to religious intolerance towards the headscarf, similar to what Khaoula has experienced throughout her life in Gibraltar. To her, the hijab is sacred and she hopes that the Rock will open its minds to what she and millions of other Muslim women feel about it. There is no doubt of extremist examples around the Muslim world where wearing the headscarf is not down to choice. However, this selection of Gibraltarian women of Moroccan descent would argue that they were never put in that position. Indeed, Khaoula says that she will not force her five-year-old daughter to don the hijab, but will follow her mother’s teachings using stories that present it as a symbol of purity and respect.

words | Mark Viales