A scarf is a flimsy piece of material and yet the simple act of wearing one has become a weighty issue. A headscarf worn as a religious symbol is something which many people find confronting. People are so suspicious of the headscarf that there have been calls for Australia to follow France, which banned Muslim girls from wearing the traditional hijab or headscarf from schools in 2004.
Why do we find a scarf, tied around the head to hide the hair, so threatening?
In the past, I too have been guilty of staring if I saw a woman wearing a headscarf. I would look at her with a mixture of curiosity and fear, uncertain of why she was covered like that. I had very little contact with Muslims and no knowledge at all of Islam. It didn’t matter if they had lived here their entire lives and were more Australian than I was - women wearing headscarves were foreigners to me.
All this changed last year when I was given the chance to do a project on the Muslim community in Sydney. Before I started doing this project, I found the headscarf intimidating. I assumed that Muslim women were forced to wear it and I had the notion that these women would be submissive, meek and yes, oppressed.
But the reality was that most of the girls I spoke to during my research were university students who were extremely independent and career-driven. Many of them were studying science or engineering and they were outspoken young women who had very clear ideas about who they were, what they wanted and where they were going in life.
Time and time again I was struck by how much more confident and mature they were than I was at their age. But then again, at their age, I hadn’t had to make such difficult decisions about how I wanted to express my identity.
All the girls I spoke with told me that wearing the headscarf was a personal choice. One girl had decided to wear the headscarf in high school, despite the protests of her parents. Her parents were afraid for her, afraid of the bullying the headscarf would encourage, and begged her to at least wait until she went to university. But she told me that wearing the headscarf was an important step towards accepting who she was. She didn’t want to have to hide the fact that she was Muslim, and she wore the headscarf with pride.
Eventually, I myself wore the headscarf several times in the course of my research, as a sign of respect to the people I was with.
The first time I wore the scarf I was surprised by how scared I was to be out in public. I remember walking late at night from a religious lecture to the train station, feeling like a moving target.
At the station I crossed tracks with two teenage boys who were carrying a football. “Catch,” said one of the boys, pretending to throw the football at me. Ordinarily, I would have laughed at the joke and put my hands up for the ball. But that evening, I was scared of him. I wasn’t sure if he really would throw the ball at me, I wasn’t sure why he was really speaking to me. I put my head down and shrank away, hoping they would let me pass without any trouble.
It’s strange that we are becoming less comfortable with people covering themselves up in public, even as we are increasingly comfortable turning to the anonymity of the internet in order to find love and form intimate relationships.
In 2005 a shopping mall in Britain made headlines when it banned its shoppers from wearing hoodie tops. Hoodies were identified as the “uniform of the troublemaker” and were seen as threatening because they obscured people’s faces, making them harder to be identified.
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