Look beyond veils to discover women of substance

Rehana Bibi deep in contemplation

Rehana Bibi, editor-in-chief of Australian Muslim Times and co-conspirator in an interesting experiment on World Hijab Day with Trina McLellan. Picture: Facebook

What is it like to wear a hijab, the veil covering so widely worn by devout Muslim women?

I’ve asked a friend this question on more than one occasion, along with: Isn’t it hot in warm weather? Doesn’t it constrict your movement? How do you keep it in place, especially in the wind? What’s its purpose? Do you feel obvious in it if you are in an unfamiliar place? Do you wear it day and night? How do you react to accusations of oppression or to media or publicly aired suspicions, speculation or insults about women who wear the hijab?

You know, the sort of sticky beak inquisition that journalists are apt to launch into with little hesitation.

My friend is a modern, working, well-educated mum with three youngsters who also happens to be the editor-in-chief of a successful community newspaper which once was state-based but recently has been relaunched, in print and online, to serve a national audience … plus she squeezes in time to contribute administrative management skills to her husband’s flourishing veterinary practice. (And they say to give urgent tasks to busy women.)

I’ve come to learn that, regardless of how much she has on her plate, Rehana Bibi, above, always finds the time to dress stylishly yet modestly.

We’ve known each other for a few years now and my admiration for her dedication and accomplishments have only grown over that time. Over that time she’s won national accolades for her work, most recently in the form of Australian Muslim Media Outlet of the year at the recent 2013 AMMA awards and, since then, an Australia Day appreciation certificate for her community work awarded by her local federal member, Graham Perrett MP.

Having been educated in the Catholic school system, where covered nuns would always encourage us to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” before jumping to conclusions I was quite interested when she told me about World Hijab Day

To be honest, Rehana’s hijab has pretty much faded into the background for me as a result of getting to know her better. For example, if you asked me afterwards I’d probably be pushed to remember which of her beautiful hijabs she’d been wearing on the last occasion we’d met. It’s no longer a “thing”.

Don’t get me wrong. Rehana has always answered my naïve hijab questions gently, politely and honestly, explaining that, for her, the choice to cover was made in her early 20s, prompted by a desire to express her devotion to God. She was wearing it before she even met her husband and says it makes her more conscious of her actions and words.

Having been educated in the Catholic school system, where covered nuns would always encourage us to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” before jumping to conclusions, I was quite interested when she told me about World Hijab Day.

I was fascinated to learn that non-Muslim sisters around the world were being invited to find out the answers for themselves by wearing the hijab on February 1. I also wondered whether I could even securely wrap a hijab.

… why, you might wonder, would an ostensibly sensible Christian woman in her 50s want to take part in such an experiment? Is she looking to convert?

Having decided to participate and then to write about it, I then had to do some dry runs to see if I could pull this off. Not having anywhere near the fashion chops that my young friend has, my first impression had me a little perturbed as my long hair, ears and neck disappeared rather awkwardly under one of my many pashminas (I mostly wear them as wraps in cooler months).

Firstly, I realised, I’d have to come to terms with the fact that these features were a very real part of my projected identity and that covering them would focus attention on my facial features alone. But there was the bonus that it could hide my surplus chins.

A quick trip via Uncle Google and Aunty YouTube’s places to see how the sisters manage to make these cloths work for them – plus a few tips via Facebook from Rehana – and I was set to give it a go. I was mightily relieved when she said that I could still wear makeup.

But why, you might wonder, would an ostensibly sensible Christian woman in her 50s want to take part in such an experiment? Is she looking to convert?

And, before you think otherwise, I’m not remotely contemplating my own religious beliefs, let alone converting to someone else’s.

Well, over my life, I’ve found that the strange and unfamiliar only remained so when I stood back and watched from afar; an open mind and the acquisition of knowledge from reputable, unbiased sources are the best antidotes to ignorance and fear.

Plus, having a heightened awareness of news and current affairs here and abroad, I was aware that too many Australians were too ready to describe Muslim women in unthinking, derogatory terms because, by wearing their hijab or other coverings, these females were seen to deliberately “stand out” in public places.

It seems almost as if critics have been accusing Muslim women of covering in defiance of others who prefer to uncover more of their bodies.

In print and in private, the broader motives of those who cover are sometimes called into question, further relegating them to the status of “other”, an unhealthy situation for social cohesiveness and inclusiveness.

And, before you think otherwise, I’m not remotely contemplating my own religious beliefs, let alone converting to someone else’s.

But, equally, I am innately curious and, while respecting their choice, I want to understand why women of substance and intelligence might choose to cover.

The reasons, I am discovering, are as many as there are Muslim women of differing backgrounds and countries of origin now living in our country. Some Muslim women cover any time they are in public, some do it only on special occasions and others not at all. The debate, even in their own community, goes on.

Perhaps it might help non-Muslims understand my choice to participate in World Hijab Day if I explained that, in our small household – a journalist/educator, a photographer and a university student – it’s far from unusual for us to encounter, and engage with, people from all corners of the globe and religious beliefs, to discuss the humanity, achievements and struggles of many different nationalities, to be enjoying a variety of cuisines from far-flung places or making friends with people who were born overseas and attempting to understand their personal journey as fellow human beings. It’s very much live and let live and our lives are all the richer for these discussions, friendships and insights.

I drew added incentive after watching a YouTube clip about a tragedy in a Californian community a few years ago that prompted similar action by women from all backgrounds and another about a group of University of Florida students who joined in last year on campus.

So, here I was, a year on from that, on Saturday, February 1, 2014, taking my own tiny public journey into the unknown with the aid of a kind Muslim friend.

You see, I wanted to go out in public on World Hijab Day, but I wasn’t quite ready to do so on my own just yet, especially because, unlike more than 100 other countries, it’s not yet widely known about here in Australia.

We live on Brisbane’s northside, which while not monocultural, sadly, is somewhat less multicultural than the southside of our city.

I also wanted to test what it was like firstly in places where women being seen wearing the hijab wasn’t too uncommon. So we agreed it should be in her neighbourhood.

As I prepared to leave home for my small “social experiment”, my supportive, unquestioning husband even took some work-in-progress shots on my new iPhone 5S as I made a few clumsy attempts to position my hijab.

Trina McLellan with her long hair pulled back

Hair pulled back securely, Trina McLellan is ready to don a hijab for World Hijab Day. Picture: Peter Bull, iPhone 5S

Layer one was a silky black scarf

Layer one was a silky black scarf with which to cover Trina McLellan’s hairline. Picture: Peter Bull, iPhone 5S

Trina McLellan in her hijab before leaving home

Home-grown hijab: this was Trina McLellan’s final look before she left home. Picture: Peter Bull, iPhone 5S

I thought my first encounter with outsiders might have been as I went to my car, but all our neighbours were either out or busy inside their homes. Then, when I stopped at the first set of traffic lights and glanced in my mirror to see part of my hijab had loosened, I took a moment to adjust it, but then looked up in mild panic to see that the light had turned green and the cars beside me had already turned through the intersection.

Possibly it’s all that Catholic guilt drummed into me at school, but my first thought was that other drivers might be thinking badly of the distracted woman wearing a veil. I did not wish to bring Muslim women any negativity because of my actions. Thankfully, there was no road rage, so my delayed reaction mustn’t have been too objectionable. But, clearly, I felt a heightened sense of responsibility to be a good driver.

Arriving at Rehana’s home 40 minutes later, I encountered her immediate and extended family members without incident. In fact, her mother-in-law later told Rehana she hadn’t realised that I wasn’t a Muslim. Clearly my external confidence completely belied the internal uncertainty I felt about how comfortable I looked to others.

I knew it was polite to acknowledge her, but I had no idea what to say … I just mutely nodded my head, thinking: Does she think me bad-mannered? Ignorant? Rude?

As arranged, Rehana accompanied me to one of her favourite spice shops, so I could top up on some pantry essentials. First stop, no worries.

Then we went to a larger shopping centre to do a little window-shopping (OK, I might have bought a couple of things), have a meal and grab some groceries. We even said hello to some of Rehana’s covered friends who were out doing their weekly shopping.

It was when we entered the Woolworths supermarket that Rehana decided the training wheels should come off. As she shopped, she sent me to roam around the aisles, ask staff some questions and see how I felt on my own.

I was up for it, so up and down the aisles I went with growing confidence, searching for a particular item … until I encountered another covered woman shopping with her husband.

You see, I knew it was polite to acknowledge her, but I had no idea what to say to this stranger. I simply smiled and, as she passed me, she softly spoke something to me. I just mutely nodded my head, thinking: Does she think me bad-mannered? Ignorant? Rude? Oh, why hadn’t I asked Rehana this important thing?

When I rejoined my friend at the checkout and expressed my concerns, she told me to relax, that I could just have said “Salam” (short for the usual greeting, Asalam Aleykum).

While in the store, I did approach a staff member with a question about where to find an item, asked in my incongruously broad Australian accent. The young woman of South-East Asian heritage was most helpful and polite, even coming out from behind her checkout a few minutes later when I was still having trouble finding the item on the shelf.

I wondered to myself whether the reception would be equally as warm on my side of town where we rarely see covered women, although that is slowly changing in a few locations.

Perhaps I’ll find out for myself next year, as Rehana has agreed to venture out with me to some of my regular northside haunts, where I may even be recognised. (Confession time: I did wimp out on calling into a family member’s house without warning on the way home.)

Rehana Bibi and Trina McLellan

Rehana Bibi and Trina McLellan after their expedition. Selfie: iPhone 5S

So, what was my verdict after my first run?

Yes, it’s warmer with a hijab on (it’s a pity the day wasn’t in any other season than the southern hemisphere summer). Yes, the hijab is a bit tricky to master and to keep in place for a novice and I’ve made Rehana promise me to teach me the method she used when my effort finally failed in a shop and reduced us both to peals of hearty laughter. But there are plenty of YouTube tutorials if you want to give it a go.

Did I feel obvious in an unfamiliar place? Not at all, but then I did opt to try this in a place that was already accustomed to covered women. It remains to be seen whether I feel the same next year.

I certainly was warmly received by other Muslim women we met after Rehana explained to them I was joining in World Hijab Day.

Women of different religions wearing veils

Women of many different religious cover their heads. When Trina McLellan started school, the Catholic nuns wore the veil shown here. It has since given way to more modern versions and to no veil at all. Picture: Source unknown

Did I feel a fake? No, not when there had been a global invitation to try it for a day. Undertaking this experiment was in no way brave for me, but it also didn’t feel anywhere near as odd as I thought it might. And, ultimately, my motives for doing so were more inquisitive and journalistic than religious.

But – just like the free speech motto, “I might not agree with what you say, but I will always defend to the death your right to say it” – while I do not wish to wear the hijab every day (and it certainly is not an outward sign of my personal belief system), I will defend to my last breath the right of a woman to wear what she pleases, regardless of her religious, or fashion, beliefs.

To do so one day a year to underscore that sentiment – and to encourage others to look beyond the veils to see women of substance, achievement and genuine humour – seems something small I can do to help our society build more solid and lasting multicultural bridges.


Words: Trina McLellan
Pictures: Peter Bull, Trina McLellan, Rehana Bibi & Facebook

2 responses to “Look beyond veils to discover women of substance

  1. Pingback: Look behind the veils to see women of substance | Australian Muslim Times·

  2. Reblogged this on Pepperline and commented:
    What a beautiful read, with the 1st of February dually noted in my 2016 planner I will be honoured to partake in the global invite and shall keep everyone updated with photos.

    Stay Beautiful


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