Undoing the fear of the burkha/hijab/niqab

My recent trip to Doha was enlightening. I have lived in Dubai all my life, so the region is not new for me. But interacting with 700 people from all corners of the world and of many religions, I found it to be a learning experience. Most of my conversations was around the issue of hijab/burkha/niqab. I’ll share one question with you which will give you an idea about these conversations: “You appear to be an independent woman, so why does your dress (the burkha) contradict who you are?”

It’s been a little more than ten years since I started wearing the burkha (scarf + cloak). Initially it was against my will, mainly because it is a cultural tradition in our family. I used to think that it is a form of clothing that oppresses people and because I was a much louder person, I felt it would contradict who I am. Until, I started wearing it. After some uncomfortable months, I knew that I had to accept it instead of fighting it. When that set in, I realised that it helped me become a stronger individual. People could not judge me by my clothes or how revealing (or not) they were. The only aspect that attracted attention was my mind. My friendships were richer, my conversations were meaningful and then, I realised that freedom means nothing.

Freedom is such a hip word for us. What is freedom? It’s not tangible and it means nothing. I feel more liberated in my burkha than the woman who has to think everyday what she will wear and if it is good enough and if people will judge her on her clothes; I am more free than that woman who makes friends on the basis of how expensive her accessories look. I can wear the same clothes 20 times and nobody will know. You can be in a prison and you can be free. It’s all in your mind. Freedom is just like happiness: a state of mind.

The foreign (and sometimes Westernised) notions of those-who-arent-like-us-are-oppressed are unfair. Our cultures vary immensely and since when do we conform to a singular culture or set of values?

I had such powerful realisations about myself because of my burkha. For me, it empowered me and turned me into the confident person that I am today. I didn’t have to conform to others’ idea of what is acceptable in parties and society. I made my own rules of acceptance.

So, I am truly sick of women who cannot end the rhetoric of being a victim. When there are women who are oppressed, there is also a large number of empowered women that need the same attention. But media loves doom and gloom. People such as Mona Eltahawy do not speak for me, as a woman and as a Muslim. We don’t need someone else to tell our stories; we need to tell them ourselves. It is useless to lash yourselves in the name of religion and culture. To understand the medieval practices, we need to understand its root. Most stem from culture and NOT religion. People’s free interpretation of religion is NOT religion as it is.

Yes, we have issues but we have great stories too. Most of the backwardness is due to the illiteracy and backward cultural practices. Those need to be dealt with. Also, it’s not just Islam and the Middle East. Injustice towards women is a global phenomenon. Women are still objectified and treated as a sex object; women are still buried and burnt alive in areas outside the Middle East; women are brutally raped and murdered in Congo–the list is endless. Surely, not all of these can be contributed to one religion?

As long as we don’t change mindsets of people, the issue of empowering women will be tough to tackle. Let’s not victimise ourselves and find time in sensationalising the blame-game. If we are to open the discourse on women, it cannot be one-sided; it has to include all the stories.

I’m done with people blaming Islam on everything. I’m done with being a quiet, positive voice and I’m done with allowing the negative voices to be loud. I am done with people stereotyping the burkha without understanding it.

I am done with people being fearful of the unknown. Ask questions and learn. It’s the only way out. 

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15 comments
  1. The best thing of burkha / hijab / niqab in Pakistan is that you will be 95% safe from Dengue 🙂

  2. Fred said:

    I am so happy to have read this. I have recently come to contact with a person from Egypt and he has become a great friend. That’s the beauty of acceptance: I accept his religious belief, he accepts mine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about life, and our fears and our successes.So reading your texts and listening to him has made me think of something: I am Brazilian, a Western (and Americanized) country where women are free to wear whatever they like. But still, there are so many women who are violently hit by their husbands and oppressed by their family. And I have come to learn that in Middle Eastern countries there can be so much more love and respect in relationships.My point is: what’s the difference between having to covered up, but being respected for who you truly are; or walking around half naked, but not being at all respected for who you are. I’m really glad you’ve found people who value your thoughts and value your personality, not only your body parts. Of course, I’d like you to be able to wear whatever you want and still be respected: but I’m not sure if I, as a man, am respected myself…

  3. Ahmed said:

    Very nice! At last someone spoke for Real Women!

  4. Lacey said:

    Thank you for this, Masarat. Your have the (unfortunately rare) gift of speaking and writing with humility and resolve – a difficult but POWERFUL combination to balance.I hope you were not too frustrated by the questions about your burkha, although, I’m certain the shear number of them was frustrating. I hope you also felt a bit of hope and encouragement: People want to understand. I personally did not have the opportunity or courage to ask you about your burkha, though I admit my own Westernised upbringing made me wonder why such an independent woman would embrace wearing something so "conforming". Your post here was both educational and inspiring – in just a few hundred words you’ve changed my perspective of the burkha from an act of conformity to one of true freedom; from a garment that hides who you are to one who lets you truly be yourself.Thank you!

  5. Masarat Daud said:

    Before I reply individually, I just want to truly appreciate your comments/feedback/stories because it really helps in changing perspectives. I am very happy to answer any other questions too!@jazibsubhani: You are hilarious! Hijab as a medical tool of prevention, why not?@Fred: Thank you for your insight. You have one more person apart from your Egyptian friend who you can ask questions to. Trust me, we DO wear everything! Except not everything is meant to be flaunted. You’ll be surprised at how fashionable some of the hijabi women are but just because it’s covered, doesn’t mean it does not exist. Some women also wear stylish burkhas.@Ahmed: Appreciate!@Lacey: Love your input. How can I change this lets-not-ask-we-may-offend thing that people have in their minds? I was not bothered at all by the numerous discussions; but like you say, I found it so refreshing to have this dialogue. At TEDxSummit, Raghava said that we need to put an expiry date to crappy legacies we carry, so I am done with accepting discrimination as a way of life. I am done with allowing people like Mona talk for us. And this is my first attempt at starting that dialogue. Please feel free to ask me any questions–here or as FB msgs, I would be very happy to answer!

  6. Jinx_M said:

    I loved your stand on this issue Masarat and I can somehow relate to that as I came under the same pressure of adopting hijab for myself but I am still fighting it. I don’t know how long I can go with this fight but I don’t want to put something on me that I think would go against what I am. I have the same thoughts in my mind which you had and hence the fight that I am still putting up! your article gave me an insight into this matter and now I can think on somewhat different lines. My mother do that and she is a different person than I am, an introvert and not much confident and I always thought may be Hijab is the only reason. However I am still not sure. I would also like to add that women themselves want to objectify their bodies and they get pleasure in it, this is what I can see very commonly these days. So I would say that there is a blurred line between what you are and what you want to be and I guess we have to figure this for ourself one way or the other.Loved this: Freedom is just like Happiness: A state of Mind. Cheers.

  7. Melissa Oudshoorn said:

    I am basically totally in awe of you. Your perspective is so importaant to share with those (like me) who are unintentionally unaware. Althought I lived in several countries adn am part of a multicultural family, and therefore find that I am culturally competent, I am reminded by your story how sterotyping still affects me. I am delighted that you are considering a trip over 2-3 October! Melissa

  8. Those who focus the discussion on the burkha/hijab/niqab are clearly missing the point. It might be a visible reflection of a biased social system, the result of generations of tradition and culture or the expression of an individual choice or socially enforced preference resulting from all of the above.But the problem is not the dress code just as the solution is not the lack of a dress code.The issue is freedom. Freedom to choose, to make choices, and not having to choose between going one way or the other, but any way you choose without your choice limiting your opportunities, possibilities and rights to live fully and be accepted by others.I have met plenty of women who choose such a dress code by choice. But is it truly by choice or by social pressure and a yearning for family acceptance or out of solidarity with their mothers and our own longing for rightfulness, beyond our own personal flaws only we know about.But the same can be said about the dress code of teenagers and females (and males too of course) in so-called "Western" societies. Why else would you choose to wear low-cut jeans that show butt cleavage when you sit or bend over. Granted, some of us may choose it to indulge our daring, provocative selves or boost our egos, but a significant group "chooses" to do so to be in-fashion, part of the group, not to be left out and even to unconsciously "compete" with others. Thanks to peer pressure, advertising and the savagery of hormonal changes induced teenage behavior, it is not only a conditioned-choice, but one that feels a very personal one and that grows to be an expression of personal taste and like. When your clothing preferences are defined in the "West" during those insecure, everything-changing years of teen age, your choices and your tastes are defined as much by social pressure, media, advertising and rebel spirit as they are defined for others in the "East" by an Imam, a Mullah or centuries of tradition, culture or even renewed unjustified processes of oppression and gender discrimination. For me, it’s all about choice. At 21, I became a vegetarian in a society of carnivores, because I had wanted to be one since childhood. I traded my comfortable SUV for the heat/sun exposure joy of a bicycle in a society where owning a car is both a status symbol (for picking up girls, etc.) and a necessity for moving around due to a totally failed public transport system. After 5 years and just 2 months from completing my degree, I gave up on University, just as I gave up on having a job to work on my own projects. I did not do any of this as a desire to challenge convention or to disagree with others. I only took each of those decisions out of passion and to be true to myself. And such choices have crafted a journey for me that is very dear, intimate and personal where I have been an education consultant, a business adviser, an entrepreneur, a renowned innovator and, most important, myself.Yet people still focus in and ask you "why don’t you eat meat? isn’t it silly? aren’t vegetables living creatures as well?" and "are you not afraid of being ran over by a car? how can you stand the sweat and showing up in places in a bicycle?". Those are questions that never cross my mind, because my choices are not about any of those issues, but about following my own heart and creating my own path.You see, the problems around gender can not be stereotyped around a burkha/hijab/niqab, but run deeper than clothing and socially accepted dress codes. They extend even beyond the enforcement of norms for behavior and they are present in societies throughout the world "East" and "West". Acceptance and appreciation of any role women may choose to play and follow, providing them with the full range of options in every aspect of life and the proper individual, social and cultural support and opportunities for them to act upon those options and thrive (or fail without any stigma) in their journey.Gender violence, discrimination, salary disparity, low government participation and representation, unfavorable corporate leadership presence, job positions availability are omnipresent when it comes to women around the world. It’s not about the burkha/hijab/niqab. It never has and never will. It’s about freedom and choice. Beyond tolerance and acceptance, it is about appreciation of women as equals and of their full potential in any path they may choose to follow and action they decide to take on their own. And most important it’s about their empowerment to make those choices and take those actions without limitations, conditions from others and with the full support of all.

  9. I have worn the Hajib inside the Sheikh Zayeed mosque. I enjoyed wearing it, even if for just a short space of time. I agree with you about the feeling of independence and the joys of ridding material judgements. However – what am I supposed to do, as an atheist, Western female? I cannot just wear a Hajib – it is a religious statement. Wouldn’t it help the cause of Arab women and Islam in general, if there were similar options, or non-religious options open to every woman?Could we one day see the Hajib worn by non-religious women of any ethic descent?How do you feel as a woman of Islam about me wearing the Hajib because of the reasons you have pointed out, rather that for its religious meaning?

  10. Masarat Daud said:

    @Jinx_M:True, it is really upto you what works for you and what doesn’t. Just because your Mom wears the hijab, does not mean that it is the reason for her being an introvert. That’s a completely different issue. I have learnt that resisting something without trying it is not the best option. Give it a try and try to accept it; if it doesn’t work, then it is not for you. But not fight the idea of it.@Melissa:I appreciate it. Stereotyping is a human curse. I fight it everyday :)@Carlos:Interesting perspective. I think that the hijab discussion is multi-faceted. This is one facet and what you say is on a slightly different level. I think that to boil it down to a choice is so simplistic. We live in a place, seeped in culture and traditions; our communities are impacted by it. Many times, religion and culture overlap or intertwine in a way that we cannot distinguish. In such places, it’s quite difficult to make a choice purely for the sake of a choice. We have many strings attached. This is just how we are.You mention that it is about the right to live fully but we can do so irrespective of the choice we make to wear. Just because an influence emerges from a social/cultural/community source, doesn’t mean it cannot or should not be adopted. Eventually we have to see what works for us. And I agree when you say that eventually it is the right to live a full life with everyone’s support but if wearing the burqa is my choice, what’s the harm?@Philippa: You know what? Hijab seems to have a religious connotation but in fact, it is born out of cultural practices–not religious and not Islam in particular. You find Jews and Christians covering their heads; you find Hindus and Sikhs doing the same when in prayer. Islam asks you to dress modestly and Hijab spun out of a cultural interpretation of that. So you don’t have to be a Muslim to wear it! A friend told me that there is a growing group of Jewish women in Jerusalem who are beginning to wear a Burqa. You are free to wear it but of course, because how things are, you will be taken to be a Muslim. But nobody can stop you from wearing it. As for how I feel if you wear it? It’s your life and I am nobody to judge! It changes nothing for me–except we might have to create a Hijabi Sisterhood!

  11. Nabila Usman said:

    An interesting read. I look forward seeing you when you visit Dubai next. All the best for the incredible work that you do.

  12. Thank you, Masarat. This powerfully articulates several of the conversations I had last week. We in the West have such a narrow understanding of Islam, and an even narrower understanding of the women who choose to wear any form of Islamic dress.

  13. Sadaf V said:

    I like that you talk about Freedom. I think understanding freedom is the key to Women’s Lib. Not acting like men, or trying to be like men. Most of us live in prison, very few of us are truly free. Free to think and decide unbiasedly what we want for ourselves. Cultural and societal pressures take away freedom too. The freedom to accept or reject values based on what we understand and believe. The freedom to look the way we want to. The freedom to accept the way we look without trying to conform to some ideal created by the media. I feel like the fact that there is a Women’s lib movement marginalizes women. It should be a people’s lib movement. Every person man or woman deserves freedom. Perhaps women talk about the lack of freedom more because they allow their minds to be controlled more easily than men do.

  14. Yolanthe Smit said:

    Hi Masarat. Like many brought up in the Western world I was struck by the Traditional Dress. See my slide show here: http://youtu.be/KNvPkddwtps I particularly do not understand how to interpret your writing: After some uncomfortable months, I knew that I had to accept it instead of fighting it. Why did you HAVE to accept it? You don’t talk about that. To me, the Burkha makes women invisible. They are not really there. Oftentimes visually when you see them they seem like a black hole. while I can understand the advantages of being invisible, I, as an older woman, can sometimes be invisible as well. I can calibrate my ‘visibility’ by the clothes I wear and by my voice if I decide to speak up. Anyway it is an interesting discussing and you Masarat where definitely not invisible during TEDxSummit.

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