For most young Australian Muslim women who wear the hijab, a train ride is never simply a means of transport to university or work. It is often a place where politics, prejudice and human curiosity converge.
“Does the Koran promote the beating of women?” I’ve been asked.
“Are you always wearing your hijab?”
“I’ll bet you’re very traditional, aren’t you?”
“Are you getting an arranged marriage?”
And my favourite comment: “Girls like you need respect.”
Why girls like me? Was there something about me that screamed out for sympathy? Apparently, yes. The material I weave around my hair ever morning is not an icon of defiance as has been suggested in the past, nor is it a fashion statement. The hijab shapes my identity but does not define my personality.
To many Australians, my hijab represents patriarchal oppression, conservative traditionalism as well as religious dissent.
For decades, indeed since colonialism, representations of veiled Muslim women have permeated western feminist, racial, gendered, orientalist and religious discourses. These discourses shape non-Muslim perspectives of the hijab and impact on the relations between women who bear this religious symbol and people who know little about its significance.
On a more local level, Australian Muslim women who wear the hijab have habitually been thrust in as a side dish to political and social debates on multiculturalism, immigration, terrorism, feminism, “race” and “Australian values”.
What has emerged as a result of this fascination with the hijab is a struggle for young Muslim women’s identities and beliefs. At the same time young Aussie Muslim women enjoy the challenge of breaking down years of Orientalist ideas about the hijab.
It’s always a delight to see people’s faces change when they realise the hijab does not restrict you from articulating and debating in proper English. It’s disappointing when after speaking to people for 30 minutes, their views remain set in concrete.
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