The Truth Behind the Veil: Distinguishing Between Religion and Culture
The only time Orit Adose felt out of place wearing her cultural veil was in Toronto’s Transit Commission. She remembers fearing riding the subway due to cold stares of rejection as if her choice to wear her hijab was a personal attack on those judging her; and she remembers under-breath mumbling of her intense need of rescue even though she felt liberated under her veil. It was because of the TTC that Orit made the conscious choice to only wear her hijab when she is praying.
It is common in Western society to look at a woman in a veil and wonder whether she is forced to wear that veil or if she made the conscious decision, out of her own free will. “The hijab is a representation of a woman’s faith and devotion to her culture,” says Hilda Osman, a member of the Sister’s Committee at the Pickering Islamic Center. So why is the hijab often associated with the Muslim religion in itself?
In order to understand Islam one must first separate the religion from the cultural norms and practices of certain societies. The hijab is a deliberate, personal choice that is only religiously required to worn during prayer; as such, it is not required to be worn at all times.
Hinda differentiates between the four different dressing attires practiced and the countries they are mostly practiced in. The hijab is a veil that covers a woman’s hair and shows her face entirely. It is common throughout the world. The burqa is a form of body cover that extends from head to feet with a mesh over the woman’s face, which allows her to see and breathe. This body cover is most common in Afghanistan. The chador is a Persian term for a body covering that sits on the head and covers the entire body. Lastly, the niqab is a veil that covers the head and face, leaving a space for the eyes; common in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Pennisula.
“The first step to ending stereotyping against Muslim women is to understand that just like Christian and Jewish women, Mulsim women practice their faith in different countries of the world,” explains Hinda. “It is often easy to forget that we are not all one large group of homogenous clones of each other.” She goes on to explain that Muslim women can be found in countries throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia as well as Northern Africa.
In many countries, however, Muslim women do not chose to wear any of the above dress forms. In Europe, many countries practice Islam. These countries include Albania, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Poland. In all of the above countries it is not legally mandatory to be covered in any Islamic dressing form. This leads to the question: why is it that certain Islamic countries impose a hijab, chador, niqab or burqa upon their women?
“Islamic extremists in many countries chose to use their power to belittle women in the name of religion,” says Orit. A perfect example of this is the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, completely degrading the rules Muslims live by.
Under the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001 women were unable to work, unable to be educated past the age of eight and even unable to visit male doctors without a male companion; which led to many illnesses remaining untreated. The women were forced to wear a burqa at all times and remain in their home taking care of their household chores.
Saudi Arabia is another example of an extremist Islamic country where there is no differentiation between culture and religion. Although 70% of the university students are women, only 5% of the workforce is composed of females. Women in Saudi Arabia are not as much as allowed to drive a car. This obscure law was passed in 1990 when fourty-seven women were “caught” driving. However, many females break the law and chose drive despite potential consequences.
“A woman forbidden from driving in Riyadh will get behind a wheel with enthusiasm, as she has knowledge that this injustice has nothing to do with the religion she believes in,” says Hinda. “The same applies to cultural dress forms. It is easy to confuse practice and culture withreligion,” she specifies.
Islam is potentially one of the most misinterpreted religions of the world. Cultural practices and unjust laws that are sadly imposed due to extremist rules are often interpreted as religious practices, especially in the Western world where stereotypes towards Islamic people are extremist. In order to truly end discrimination and stereotyping toward Islamic women it is essential to understand that Islam is practiced in many parts of the world with different laws and different cultural norms.