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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Viewpoint: Why I decided to wear the veil

By Shaista Aziz
London

Before leaving my house every morning for work I tie my hair up and wrap a piece of material around my hair, covering every part of me from my hairline, to my neck.

The piece of cloth is much more than material to me- it's my identity.

I am a British Muslim woman, and two years ago I decided to start wearing the hijab (headscarf).

Like thousands of Muslim women across the world - the hijab has become part of me, and I wear it with confidence and pride.

I made the decision to wear the hijab after going on my own personal journey to learn more about my religion, Islam.

The journey started a year before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, but my quest for knowledge accelerated after September 11th when the Muslim community around the world and in the UK were under intense scrutiny by the politicians and the media.

Solidarity

It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a visible Muslim.

I wanted people who walked past me in the street to know that I am a Muslim and that I am proud of my religion, heritage and culture.

In many ways I saw the hijab as an act of solidarity with Muslim women all around the world.

Here I am an educated Muslim woman in the West, and even though I have no idea what it's like to be an Iraqi, Bosnian, Somalian or Palestinian woman, I know that we share an identity through Islam and through the hijab.

I have found a great deal of strength through wearing the hijab

Since September 11th there has been a huge increase in the number of women, particularly young women who started wearing the hijab. And from what the women tell me, most do so by choice.

Walking down most high streets in the UK on a Saturday morning, you are bound to come across a young Muslim woman wearing the hijab, usually in a colour to match her outfit.

On my way to work every morning I can spot a handful of sisters, with their hijabs worn in different styles and in a rainbow of colours.

I have found a great deal of strength through wearing the hijab, and now every hair day is a good hair day as far as I am concerned!

When I see another Muslim woman on the street we always smile, sometime we nod at each other and other times we exchange greetings: Asalaam e-lekum Walikum Asalaam.

Reactions

I find the strongest reaction to my hijab comes when I am outside of the UK.

Recently I was in Cairo where I had arranged to meet a friend of a friend in a coffee shop.

I called her on her mobile and we arranged to meet in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying.

When I arrived to greet her, her mouth opened and her jaws dropped.

I am not in denial; I know that there are massive problems in the Muslim world
Later in the café she plucked up the courage to ask me why I was wearing the hijab.

I thought this was quite funny; here was an Egyptian Muslim woman living in the Arab world asking a Muslim woman born in the West why she was wearing the hijab.

When I explained my reasons, she seemed to relax and then pulled out her cigarettes from her bag and started telling me about how she viewed the hijab as being restrictive, and that as a trainee TV newsreader the hijab wasn't for her.

Perception

I do think that in the West there is a pre-occupation with the hijab, the burkha and the cahdhor.

I am not in denial; I know that there are massive problems in the Muslim world with equality and rights of women.

But women face problems relating to their gender across the world, be it on different levels.

Within Islam there is a wealth of diversity, the way Muslim women dress differs from country to country, the way a Muslim women wears hijab may also differ.

Islam goes beyond the boundaries of continents, cultures, languages and creed.

Through Islam I feel empowered and have been moved by the beauty and simplicity of wearing the hijab and the direction that it has given me in my life.

If you have a similar story to tell, we'd like to hear it. You can send your experiences or make a comment using the form below.


The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

Why does Shaista want to look like Muslim? She says she was born in the West. By definition, her 'identity' and 'culture' are western. I assume it is only her religion because she is of Muslim/eastern descent. People like myself wish to break down the stereotyped view that people are 'different' just because of the colour of their skin or their religion. Unfortunately Shaista's action makes this much more difficult for the rest of us.
Abdul Malik, UK

People should be able to wear whatever they want. However, if the objective of wearing a hijab is for a woman to "free herself of lustful and perversely judgmental gazes" than by doing so in a western country achieves exactly the opposite result. Women wearing a hijab attract far more attention and are more likely to be stereotyped, objectified and frowned upon.
Aleksandar, Canada

I find it a pleasure to break the stereotype of the "oppressed" Muslim woman
Majda Al-Kalali, Saudi Arabia / USA
I am a Saudi-American Muslim woman. I want to share my experience with you because I have been on "both sides of the fence", so to speak. Growing up between both countries it was hard for me sometimes to understand why in one place I lived one lifestyle and in the next, another. It was very confusing for me. As a teenager in Saudi Arabia when society told me to cover, etc I rebelled, and would tie my scarf like a turban, go out without it completely, and do as I pleased regardless of the consequences. I just did not believe in doing something simply because I was told to. Later and after the birth of my second child I began to look deeper at my life, my spirituality, what I wanted for myself, and the values I wanted to instil in my children. I went from being a non-practicing Muslim to a practicing one, very proud of my hijab. It is liberating. I find it a pleasure to break the stereotype of the "oppressed" Muslim woman or the "patriarchal" stigma placed on my husband. I am proud of my religion. We have no place reforming beliefs to suit our whims. The purpose of Allah (God) sending us his messages was for us to reform ourselves and our societies. And I believe that most practicing Muslims, Christians, and Jews would agree.
Majda Al-Kalali, Saudi Arabia & USA

The hijab as a symbol has been invested with a new meaning by young Muslims
Kelvin Choi, USA
Liberated western women must realize that they too oppress others when they assume that women's' rights must take the same form as in western, liberal democracies. It is time for the world to realize that the hijab as a symbol has been invested with a new meaning by young Muslims. This meaning is in many ways the opposite of what we think it is, and it is directed at us. I believe in democracy and capitalism but I also believe that they do not need to take the same form in Muslim countries as they do in the US and Europe!
Kelvin Choi, USA

I am a German Muslim living in South Africa. I started to wear hijab last year. Not because I want to demonstrate to the world that I am a Muslim, not because I want to make a point, not because I want to please my husband - I am wearing hijab (and loose clothing) because I want to be modest, I do not want to be the cause of temptation. Of course, modesty is a shared responsibility - men as well as women should behave in a modest way. It takes a lot of courage to start wearing hijab in a Western society and I have been stared at not only in Germany, in South Africa, in the United States but also in Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates. But this is a small price to pay for the liberation you experience when people start judging you on your values, on your character, on your personality - no longer on your looks or your social status.
Amina Linder, South Africa

I would like to comment on Martin's thoughts. Its not the matter of proving one's identity, its the matter of being proud of one's religion and values in the face of racial discrimination. I'm really impressed by Shaista's story and hope one day all Muslims will take pride in being Muslims.
Nadia Asjad, Britain

Pride and attachment to worldly identities only serve to keep us in conflict
Steve Noble, USA
Islam, or any religion for that matter, may have much to offer in the way of spiritual development for those who choose follow its practices. However, as a source of cultural or individual identity and pride, religion becomes the source of suffering in the world. The ultimate and highest goal of the spiritual impulse in humans is union with the divine source for which there are many names. Pride and attachment to worldly identities only serve to keep us in conflict with and in separation from each other and God.
Steve Noble, USA

I can't understand why Muslim women should carry the tag of being a Muslim everywhere, whereas Muslim men can roam around freely in shorts n a t-shirt. If, as Shaista says, after 9-11 all Muslims need to become 'visible', why is that not applicable to Muslim men? I think Shaista's reaction stems out of growing up in a minority in a non Muslim country. Women growing up and living in Muslim countries don't feel the need to make themselves 'visible' all of a sudden.
Basmah Riaz, Pakistan

You have the freedom in UK "not" to wear a hijab
Rohit Sharma, US
I think the article misses a very crucial point. The point is of choice and freedom to choose. You have freedom in UK "not" to wear a hijab - the same freedom is not there in many countries which are Islamic theocracies. I would also like to point out that there are very few countries where Islam is the leading religion and where there is even rudimentary individual liberty.
Rohit Sharma, US

I applaud Shaista Aziz for her decision to wear hijab and to write about it for the BBC. I am a convert to Islam working and living in New York, USA. I wear the hijab all the time (at work and outside of work). I love to wear it and feel a great sense of freedom from sexual harassment by men. To me, the hijab is also a physical reminder of the proper etiquette I should observe when dealing with both men and women.
Abimbola, USA

I thought religion was about something more profound than what people wear. Isn't it about what people believe in anymore?
Jo Nash, UK

We can justly feel "proud" that in the UK we can live, pray and dress as we choose
Stephen, London, UK
It is wonderful that Muslims in the UK can freely choose to wear a hijab and practice their religion with none of those things being neither prohibited nor forced upon them. Perhaps some day Christians/Jews/Hindus and members of other religions can freely practice their faiths in countries like e.g. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with the same freedom and tolerance that Muslims have to practice their religion in the UK. Accordingly, we can justly feel "proud" that in the UK we can live, pray and dress as we choose; that is because we live in an open and tolerant society - and long may it remain that way.
Stephen, London, UK

The Hijab is basically to protect a women from being looked at with lust by a man .There are also codes of dress for men in Islam. I can not see why the west has a problem with this concept, it is a honourable state to be in Hijab, Christian nuns dress in much the same way and are not criticised. The portrayal of women in the West as just an object is much less honourable and gives a woman far less respect than they are worthy of
Nasser, UK

I do not object but I do question the need for any religion to push its presence in the face of others. If I tried to do the same in Saudi Arabia or in other Islamic countries there can be no doubt that life would be made extremely unpleasant for me.
Ian Aitchison, Scotland

Being a faithful disciple of religion doesn't come from wearing a 'badge'
Ray, United Kingdom
I respect anyone that has respect for their heritage. The fact that it became relevant to be more aware of your religion after one of the worst crimes in all humanity seems a bit ridiculous. The 9/11 atrocities had nothing to do with Islam but an act of pure evil. The second point is and I feel this is very important, was when she visited an Islamic country, Egypt, she was behaving in an insensitive manner. The struggle that Egyptian and Muslim women all over the world have had to endure to be recognised as fellow human beings is being undermined but this 'self-righteous squad'. Being a faithful disciple of religion doesn't come from wearing a 'badge', it comes from within.
Ray, United Kingdom

Everyone is entitled to their choice of expression. Let Shaista do as she pleases. After all, it is her life.
Kabwe, Zambia

Having worked in the Middle East, I can only say that overing up is driven by men, to stop others looking at wives. Sad really!
Ian, USA

I hope that all those women out there who are wearing the veil have open hearts and minds and are not trying to prove that they are better than anyone else. Many Muslims in Sydney enjoy every freedom available to them and are equal to anyone, but are very judgemental.
Helen Hussein, Australia

I feel that the hijab and especially the all-black burqa are political rather then religious statements
Safia, Canada
I am a Muslim woman living in the West and have never worn the hijab. I find it sad that even though I consider myself quite pious some Muslims consider me a lesser or not a very good Muslim because I choose not to dress in a certain way. I feel that the hijab and especially the all-black burqa are political rather then religious statements. Islam is basically a beautiful, simple religion that was meant to make lives easier and happier for people but for some reason it has been hijacked by people with their own political and masochistic agendas. Whenever I see a completely covered Muslim woman next to her good-looking husband who is invariably wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, and sporting a fashionable goatee, I can't help thinking that something is not right here. If there are rules then they should be applied to males as well, as Islam encourages equality.
Safia, Canada

If you think the hijab is a form of oppression, you are sadly mistaken. If by simply wearing a headscarf and dressing modestly, a woman can free herself of lustful and perversely judgmental gazes, how can you say she is oppressed? Oppression is the constant pressure of having to wear enough makeup, or having a new hairdo every two months, or wearing a skirt that's racy enough to draw attention.
Waqqas Khokhar, Montreal, Canada

It's really most unfortunate that a modern woman brought up in the West can still cling on to ideologies and beliefs of the past. It's time for all the people to give up their religious marks and unite to be one It's indeed her own personal right to wear this head-scarf but it's also my personal wish not to see so many of them wandering in the streets in Holland. Why can't we all open up? They say it's their culture so why then it's ok for the guys to wear rugged jeans and t-shirts like everyone?
Mahmud Shahrear, The Netherlands

It's all very well Muslims asserting themselves in the West - when are we going to see equality and tolerance for non-Muslims in the Islamic world instead of violence and intimidation? These double standards do my head in.
Guy, UK

Surely all jeans-wearers also need emancipating from peer pressure and fashion trends
Hilary, The Netherlands
Here there is a raging debate as to whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils in schools/colleges. I think it's ridiculous that in a 'free' country this comes into question. Why not ban Jews from wearing caps or Christians from wearing crosses? Look at the number of people 'conforming' and wearing jeans. Surely all jeans-wearers also need emancipating from peer pressure and fashion trends. Different countries have different traditional dress; in hot dusty Middle Eastern countries it's not surprising that a headscarf has become a must have - have any of you tried walking around in Cairo with long hair? It gets filled with dust in no time. But I agree it shouldn't be compulsory, and often it isn't as there are plenty of Muslim women who don't wear it.
Hilary, The Netherlands

Living in a country where everyone that fit the preconceived stereotype of Muslims (Sikhs were attacked after the events of 11 September) can be culturally held apart, I find your correspondent's actions to be individually courageous. To have considered her own heritage and culture so carefully and come to an educated conclusion on her appearance is a testament to religious freedom and expression.
Kevin Hodur, USA

My own younger sister has started wearing the hijab at the age of 16
Aamir Ahmad, UK
There are examples of Shaista's story being repeated by young Muslim women throughout the UK. It is a matter of what makes these young women feel comfortable and not what other people feel or think. My own younger sister has started wearing the hijab at the age of 16. In this appearance-obsessed society, it gives a woman the ability to be judged on her personality, character and morals rather than the way she looks. This opposes the common misconception that Islam restricts women's freedom and rights, instead Islam dignifies and honours all women!
Aamir Ahmad, UK

I can understand a Muslim woman choosing to wear the hijab but what I don't understand about the Muslim lifestyle is that the men seem to enjoy the benefits of sauntering around in loose fitting pyjamas and the women are covered up from head to foot no matter what the weather. Perhaps if the lady concerned hadn't got the choice, which may happen soon, she would then find herself rebelling against the system. Personally I see nothing to be proud of in demonstrating you belong to a religion which had some of its people dancing in the streets at the deaths of others on September 11th 2001.
Alice Walters, England

I think people should have the right to wear what they chose. If they chose to wear the Hijab, good on them. Who are we to comment? I would be annoyed and offended if someone commented on my choice of clothes or hair cut, and so obviously I should reciprocate the same respect. I think western society makes too big a deal of the clothes worn by Islamic women, and should pay more attention to health and education.
Jacey, UK

Women wear the hijab to purely satisfy a patriarchal tradition. How many Muslim women's voices are heard in their own country? Do we once hear of a female 'Tribal Leader' being involved in the reconstruction of Iraq? Is there a Muslim woman in government in Iran? Are female descendants to the throne allowed to sit in power in Saudi Arabia? I don't know whether the problem is Arab culture or Islam, but there needs to be some kind of reformation, some kind of rethinking about the old, archaic principles that govern women's rights and roles in that area of the world under that religion.
Stephen Prior, UK

Let us be aware of our differences, and enjoy them
Herbert, UK
I am very pleased when I see symbols of religion, be they crosses, turbans or headscarves, on display in Britain. I was told that even in supposedly tolerant countries such as the Netherlands, public displays of religion are frowned upon, if not banned. Let us be aware of our differences, and enjoy them.
Herbert, UK

Have you looked behind the reason why Muslim women wear headscarf? It is fine that you feel good and but there is a deeper reason for it. It's a shame that as an educated person you have decided to adopt an oppressive symbol that can be seen as sexist and outdated. This is not a symbol of Islam, but one that has been created by people.
Sunny, UK

I feel that there will be no hope for this planet, until people stop seeing their religion or beliefs as being the most important thing about them. Whether people are good or bad is what matters, and you can't (or shouldn't) blame religion for that.
Peter, UK

It is great that in the 'developed' world we are free to practise our religion. It is just a shame that people cannot accept that there are other ways of life that people are happy with. I think that 'Westerners' feel uncomfortable that a person may decide to assert their freedom of belief and therefore does not conform to their expectations. After all, democracy, a free society, or whatever label you want to apply, is as much a doctrine as any other. It includes and excludes. It also has a uniform, an identity, and it also has a problem with exclusion (1 million children in extreme poverty in the UK).
Khalid, UK

It is sad to read about the illusion of Muslim women, and their misunderstanding of their religion. 'Hijab' is not a symbol of Muslim women it is an old Arab custom before Islam. How can any modern British Muslim woman be proud of a pre-Islamic fashion which was designed for Arab women in the Arabia peninsula?
Mohamed Ahmed, UK

I wear the hijab at all times
Michelle Jamal, Saudi Arabia
I am a German Muslim married to a Lebanese living in Saudi Arabia. I wear the hijab at all times, not as some of my friends in the UK do under pressure, or like some Saudi women who remove it once they are on the airplane, but always. In Saudi Arabia I am frowned upon because I don't cover my face and in Lebanon, where many women are as free as women in Europe are, there is a surprise at a Westerner wearing the hijab. But that is my identity and more Muslim women should be proud to wear it.
Michelle Jamal, Saudi Arabia

It is heart-warming to read Shaista Aziz's story, on how she has come to the self discovery of her roots. I respect her for her being proud, and her being able to stand out as herself as she affirms her identity.
Leong Wai Kit, Singapore

The story was interesting. It also shows tolerance shown to other religions in the UK. Contrast this with Saudi Arabia.
Jim Davis, England

It is a symbol of all that is wrong with the way Muslim men expect their women to behave
Andrew Nathan, Currently in Morocco
I find it so sad that an educated woman should decide for herself that she should wear a scarf. To me it is a symbol of all that is wrong with the way Muslim men expect their women to behave. Your correspondent just adds to the repression of Muslim women worldwide, and it is a sad reflection on the world today that she is proud to wear this repressive symbol in a country where there is no real need.
Andrew Nathan, Currently in Morocco

Andrew Nathan thinks it is "repressive" to Muslim women. That is a typical western response. Don't you think the way Western women dress is repressive? The fact that they have to fit into a size 8 and they have to dress scantily in order to succeed in life?
Asma, UK

While we're on the subject of misconceptions, western women do not have to fit into a size 8 and dress scantily to be successful. Muslims have as many, if not more, misconceptions about the western world than we have about Islam.
Jacqui, size 18, successful, Kuwait

I find it amazing tale that someone can be proud to be a Muslim by wearing the head scarf, especially after 9/11. It just shows that a majority of Muslims will not be ashamed of their religion because of an act of few individuals.
Zahid, UK

It's a pity people feel the need for an 'identity
Martin, UK
I think it's a pity people feel the need for an 'identity', whether through religion, nationality or skin colour. As far as I and many others are concerned, the only identity we have is a shared one: that of a human being on planet earth. By all means wear a hijab if you need to, but like all uniforms, it probably won't be welcomed everywhere, even in Egypt it seems.
Martin, UK

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