Faith In Feminism

“The hijab is an expression of my feminism”

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In this interview I chat with Mira, a convert to Islam. For her own privacy, we will only use her first name.

We explore the topic of modesty, the hijab and what this means to her. She has faced criticism for wearing a veil; people have perceived it as a symbol of oppression that she needs to be freed from. Yet for her personally, it represents freedom – her own expression of feminism.

[Standard disclaimer for all posts on this site:  The aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply airing them.]

Vicky: Hi Mira, thanks for making the time to talk to us here at The Faith In Feminism Project.

Mira: No problem. It’s great for women to share their stories on the site.

Vicky:  Tell me about your personal journey towards Muslim faith…

Mira: Well, I haven’t always been a Muslim. I was raised in Europe and was a Western party girl! I wore mini-skirts and experienced that kind of life. Then at twenty-five I began to explore Islam. I was previously a Lutheran Christian. I had a very negative perspective on Islam actually…mainly fuelled by the media as the representation can be so negative in the news. To my surprise I converted and now consider myself a committed Muslim. It was meeting my husband that was the catalyst; as I got to know him, I learned about Islam.

Vicky: You’re wearing a veil today – is that something you usually wear?

Mira: Yes. I wear the hijab whenever I’m out of the house. It doesn’t cover my whole face – that’s the niqab – it just covers my hair and neck. My clothes are very Western apart from that; I usually wear jeans and some kind of long top, but I always wear a top or a dress that covers my back, down to my thighs. So, only longer tee-shirts or tops. But my clothes are modern and Western apart from the veil.

Vicky: Is wearing the veil something you’ve chosen personally, or were you encouraged to wear it by friends or relatives?

Mira: People often assume that it’s my husband who’s telling me to wear a veil, but it’s genuinely my free choice. Many of my female friends feel the same way – they want to wear it, of their own free choice. My female friends’ husbands often don’t really want them to wear the hijab as they worry it’ll reflect badly on them; that people out in public will think they are oppressive husbands! So frequently it’s actually the women saying to the men that they want to wear it, rather than vice versa which is often assumed about Muslim couples.

Vicky: So people assume you & your female friends’ husbands are the ones making you wear it, when actually you and your female friends are the ones telling your husbands that it’s something you want to do?

Mira: Yes!

Vicky: What is it about the veil that means so much to you?

Mira: For me it’s all about the Islamic call to modesty. The term “hijab”, often used to describe the veil we wear, actually refers to a whole approach to life – being modest in your attitude, conduct, interactions. The clothing is part of it, but only part. To only wear the veil and not act modestly in your behaviour makes it pointless – it just becomes a piece of cloth.

Vicky: Does this call to modesty in Islam only apply to women?

Mira: No, it’s for both sexes, and in the Koran it’s actually given as an instruction to men first. So men also are equally called to the same careful conduct. Often people think it’s just a practice for women, which can make Islam seem oppressive to women, when in fact the teachings on modesty are equally for both men and women.

Vicky: As you grew up a Western Christian and experienced life without the veil, how does it feel now that you wear it?

Mira: Yes… it’s interesting to have the perspective of having not worn it until I was in my late twenties. Honestly, I feel more liberated as a result of wearing a veil. For me it’s a symbol of my freedom of expression.. The the veil gives me a way to say that I follow Islam. I want people to know that, from seeing me visually, as my faith means so much to me.

Vicky: What about cultures that force women to wear veils; what do you think of those?

Mira: I am against that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to wear a veil – or anything – against their will. Wearing a piece of cloth and not signing up to the life that it represents is meaningless anyway. So forcing women to wear the veil doesn’t create a certain attitude in a woman’s heart – it is just a piece of cloth. Every woman must be free to dress as she chooses, as the expression of her own beliefs.

Vicky: Some would say wearing veils is about making women take responsibility for men’s ‘lust problems’?

Mira: That’s not why I wear the veil. For me it’s about my own choice – my expression on faith. I do believe we should exercise care around people of the opposite sex, but that’s an equal responsibility on men and women, not a burden to put on women.

Vicky: Do you think that current society has lost respect for modesty?

Mira: Yes… The principle of ‘hijab’ is about being appropriate and respectful in your interactions with the opposite sex. We are familiar with having to act in certain appropriate ways, for example behaviour in the workplace is usually expected to be different to the way people might behave at a party. In a similar way, hijab to me means behaving in certain, boundaried ways when I am around men, different to how I behave when I’m with women.

Vicky: Playing devil’s advocate here – some might say that means you are not free to be yourself?

Mira: They might… But for me, I look at Western culture and I see flirtation has become such an ingrained part of the way everyone interacts. Hijab is a reminder to me that there are better ways of relating to one another and that it does not need to be based on sex or flirtation. It’s more respectful to other humans to treat them with spiritual respect, rather than flirting as a way of life.

Vicky: What do you think of the ways modesty has potentially been lost in Western dress?

Mira: I look at women wearing barely anything, and I feel like that represents more of a shackle than a veil. When you wear mini-skirts and skin-tight clothes (and I did so for my teens and early twenties!) there is so much pressure to be skinny, to lose weight, to work out. Personally I take care of my health and get plenty of exercise, but it’s just for health reasons, as my body is not on show all the time. To me that’s a relief. I’m free from having to dress, or diet, for men’s attention.

Vicky: You’re a mother now – how do you approach the hijab with your daughters? Do you ask them to wear it?

Mira: We don’t…we give them free choice on it. Sometimes they like to wear a veil, other times they don’t. But they see me wearing mine, so I think that plays a part. But they know they are free to make up their own mind, which is very important to me.

Vicky: Have you been treated badly as a result of wearing a veil in public?

Mira: Yes..People often do stare; sometimes in a nice way, but also sometimes in a negative way. Especially if there have been incidents in the news about Muslims…then often I get looked up and down in a really judgemental way which is difficult. Also – when people see my hijab they often assume I can’t speak English! So when I open my mouth and am articulate, they are usually surprised. It’s amazing and shocking that they make this assumption! I’m a bubbly person who chats to people and cracks jokes, so hopefully their assumptions are quickly swept away.

Vicky: Finally – would you call yourself a feminist?

Mira: Yes, I would. Although for many Muslims that is a loaded and controversial word. Many think it means rebelliousness. But for me it simply means that women should look after each other and stand up for each other’s rights – especially the rights of minorities. To me it means making sure no woman or her rights get trampled on, and thinking about the structures that need to be changed for the better. Fighting for women’s equality is deeply compatible with Islam, for me. As a religion it gets a bad press, but it actually has a lot of teachings that protect women and are quite radical in a good way. One of those is the principle of hijab – for me to be covered is more liberating than to be exposed. The veil a sign of my own passionate feminism.

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.