Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
September 2011


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A Matter of Choice

I grew up in the multicultural and multifaith country of Fiji where the Muslim population, predominantly of Indian origin, is around 6 per cent, with Hindus 30 per cent, and 64 percent Christians - mainly indigenous Fijians.

Twenty years ago, one did not see women wearing head coverings in the streets of Fiji, except for older women wearing their dupattas (loose scarves) draped around their hair and shoulders like Benazir Bhutto. This was in the late 1980s before we migrated to Australia.

Mosques were a familiar sight in towns and cities. Only men prayed in the mosque, and on some occasions women attended (wearing scarves) to listen to a visiting dignitary or a high profile international Islamic speaker. Women generally wore hijab when they prayed at home, as they had been taught from a very young age that this is the proper attire when standing before Allah and submitting to His will. Today in Fiji some young women choose to wear hijab but they are a minority.

In Australia I have noticed that there are generally four types of hijab wearers. Firstly, those born into a family of hijab wearers bound by custom and tradition. Secondly, women who in later life for spiritual reasons decide to wear hijab. Thirdly, those women whose families impose the wearing of hijab and the women have no choice in the matter. Lastly, there are women like myself, who wear hijab on certain occasions: praying, visiting the mosque, or during prayer gatherings and special Islamic events when in the company of Muslim friends and relatives. Otherwise, in my professional life, and in normal day-to-day activities I don’t wear a head scarf.

Personally I believe that wearing the hijab in countries where Muslims are a minority draws attention to the wearer. Rather than shielding the woman from the gaze of strangers out of a sense of modesty, or for spiritual reasons, it does just the opposite of what is intended—eyes are drawn towards the woman. I believe that the most important aspect of being a Muslim, especially when living as a minority, is to project all the positive teachings of Islam as contained in the Qur’an.

Of course, today the hijab has also become translated into a proud symbol of identity for many women, especially since 9/11. Younger women especially may wear the hijab as a way of asserting their identity; it’s fashionable and a ‘cool’ accessory. Paradoxically, you stand out and belong at the same time.

Some of my friends and colleagues from different parts of the world - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Egyptian, Iran, Lebanon and South Africa - are ‘casual hijab wearers’ like myself who also believe that it does not alter in the least our allegiance to Islam. Other friends, however, are equally strong in their conviction that it is God’s directive and must be observed if you want to be a ‘good Muslim’.

My friends and I however, remain firmly convinced that you can still be ‘a good Muslim’ and not wear hijab. We wear hijab on certain occasions out of respect for others and out of respect for our traditions. The choice is ours to make.

As I sit writing this article, the words of Cherie Blair spring to mind. It’s a beautiful quote that I’d like to share with you. Ms Blair was speaking in defense of her half sister, Lauren Booth, who converted to Islam. 

“One of the things I try to do is help to explain that Islam is an open religion in which women have influence, whether they hide their hair or not.” Asked about her half-sister’s conversion, she replied: “It's her choice.” 
(London Evening News

Zubeda Raihman