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The Veil Unveiled
Diaa Hadid

"I was on the train. Since I began to wear the hijab, I've realized some people assume you can't speak English. This woman comes up to me, I was wearing a red hijab. She points to her head and goes, "Nice color! Nice color!" She pulls her shirt towards her head, "Nice color, nice!" I was thinking, "What the hell are you going on about?" and I was going to say something very sophisticated, but I thought she was trying to be nice, so I said, "thank you", gave her a smile and went off."

Dana, 20, student (Sydney), wore the hijab several months ago. "The hijab is a gift from Allah. By wearing the hijab, we are able to gain emancipation, and be regarded as intellectual beings. Women in Islam are emancipated."

In most understandings of Islam, Muslim women are commanded from puberty to cover themselves in front of strangers in loose clothing, showing only their face and hands. The hijab, veiling of the hair, is the world's most controversial garment. A challenging Islamic symbol globally, often considered a sign of submissiveness, or oppression.

Yet Australian Muslim women are challenging these conceptions. Young, educated, and articulate, they argue the hijab is the key to liberation and empowerment. Belonging to a greater global trend, from France, Iran, America and Indonesia, they are adopting the hijab for religious and modern reasons, a sense of duty, a desire for identity, and a refusal to be sexually objectified.

This article is the result of e-mail discussions with Muslims and non-Muslims, globally.

Nancy, 23, social worker (Melbourne), wore the hijab one year ago. " it has been the most positive experience in my life. I'm judged for me, not for my clothes, my appearance."

Amina, 19, student (Melbourne) compares her life before and after the hijab, "Your outlook on life changes completely. Somebody doesn't want to be your friend? You don't care. ...Guys don't look at you? I don't need these guys to feel confident about myself! I am much more confident now."

From a different angle, Christa, 36, anthropologist (London), commented on a similar phenomenon in Syria, "While doing fieldwork I could not help but notice the pressure on young women to wear the latest often figure revealing clothing. It seemed women had two culturally sanctioned choices - to adopt the hijab, or participate in the dressing up game. The hijab seemed a dignified way of protesting against and opting out of a materially oriented consumer culture, which increasingly objectifies women."

Hatoon, a PhD student of ancient Arabian history (London) notes, "Apparently hijab, or veil was the norm in most of the ancient world, east and west. Hijab is not specific to Islam...I find that hijab has different significance according to the place and time at which it is worn. I don't find it a form of identity in a Muslim country, whereas in the West it is."

Asma, 19, student (Sydney) perhaps represents the identity-politics of the hijab. She writes, "I know that it has given me my identity as a Muslim"

Yet Suzanne, 23, PhD student (London) perceives the hijab's identity politics as self-defeating. "I think in the West wearing the hijab," she writes, "tends to draw more attention to oneself thus defeating its purpose!"

Adeeba, 27, Software professional (Melbourne) disagrees, "This is an old argument. The reason why we wear hijab is not to avoid attention, but to avoid attention that judges our appearance."

Regarding face veils, Suzanne was adamant. "when I see women covering their face I think they have gone too far - they have misinterpreted religion."

Maimounah, 20, student (Melbourne), argues otherwise. Wearing the niqab (face veil) at 19, she writes, "In hijab, I felt I could be identified as a Muslim. In niqab I feel totally invincible I don't think niqab is an extreme measure I've never had any problems with hearing, seeing or speaking I wore it during the hottest months of the year and it doesn't get hot." She adds, "What disappoints me is when Muslims themselves tell me what I am doing is wrong. My grandparents, aunties and cousins are not Muslim (my dad is a convert), yet they respected my decision."

There are other perspectives towards the hijab. Dr. Nawal Sadawi, the acclaimed Egyptian feminist, author of "The Hidden Face of Eve" in the late seventies, implicated the hijab in women's subjugation, "...An increasing number of women are taking to wearing the veil. Once again the bodies of women must be covered because they are profane and dangerously seductive."

Yet unveiled women are not liberated either. Like many Muslims, Sadawi sees women following 'Western' fashions are oppressed and exploited.

She writes, "Society does everything it can to drum into her head...she is only a body. it is others who decide for her what she should look like, those who own the industries catering for women in the West. The modern woman puts on what a capitalist fashion king in Paris or NY considers suitable."

Seventeen years later, in 1997, Sadawi was as forthright. "Make-up is a post-modern veil," she tells an interviewer, "Look at this face! Why should I hide my pretty brown color or my wrinkles?"

Beyond Sadawi, others have doubts. The hijab, Muslim women argue, liberates from objectification - is this measure too drastic? Dany, 24, student (Sydney),

"I think any sense of liberation felt by women who wear hijab is a blight on society. It is the trading of one freedom for another. Both freedoms are a right, and neither should be compromised.

He asks, "Can you see that the illness lies with society? And can you also see that from the very root of society this battle for equality should be fought? To wear the hijab is to acquiesce to the ills of society."

Adeeba disagrees. "To dress as one pleases is like the argument of freedom of speech. The rights stop when hindrance starts." There is no "illness" - "It is not an illness, but a nature trying to fight the "ill" will result in failure."

The final word should go to Rokaya, 50, Cross-cultural educator (Melbourne). "I do not see that both genders have to dress in the same way to gain equality within the Muslim or the non-Muslim community. Equality is more than just a dress code."

The hijab ultimately, is a cloth. It oppresses, liberates, empowers, according to society, tradition, and the woman who places it over her hair, giving society one of the most challenging symbols of rejection, identity and pride it faces. And what of the men? That's for another article.