When you see a woman wearing a hijab, what is your first impression of her? Do you have an ethnocentric view that forces you to believe that because of her religion, she has no free will? Is her head scarf an indicator that she is involved in terrorist activities? Or do you assume that she is suffering from the inequalities of a male dominated religion?

Since 9/11, there have been many misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. The media has failed at accurately portraying the Islamic religion and way of life. Islam is presented as a barbaric, vile, and oppressive religion. Furthermore, due to crude generalizations, Muslim women who wear hijabs are stigmatized as subdued and in need of liberation. The hijab is viewed as a restriction to a Muslim woman’s freedom to express her views and opinions, freedom to education, and freedom to drive. For a vast majority of Muslim women, this is the furthest thing from the truth. The hijab does not symbolize oppression or suppression. To contrary beliefs, the hijab is not worn only to keep the illicit desires of men in check. The hijab is not simply a scarf or a head covering. Wearing the hijab is a symbol of modesty and dedication. It is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment.

I am privileged to have very close friends who are Muslim and are willingly to educate me about the religion. Although I have gained some knowledge regarding this subject matter, I do not have personal experience. Instead of writing a post solely based on my opinions, I wanted to provide my friends with a medium to dispel the different misconceptions and generalizations regarding the hijab. I asked them a few questions and here is what they had to say…

Rise Africa: What is the meaning behind the hijab?

Zeitun Tifow: I’ll speak personally. There are two aspects to my hijab, the physical aspect and the character aspect. The physical aspect is the hijab itself. My hijab is my identification in a sense. When people see my hijab they identify me as a Muslim woman. Aside from the physical aspect, my hijab is more than just a scarf I put on every day. My hijab is who I am as an individual, which is where the character aspect comes in. For me, my hijab represents modesty. As women, our appearance is what gets the attention and not our intelligence or who we are as human beings. The focus is all about our assets and what we carry physically. People may try to deny this, but it is true. I wear my hijab to protect myself from that. I want people to look beyond my physical appearance and focus on who I am as an individual. I want people to see Zeitun and not her assets.

Ahmad Abdullah: To my understanding, the hijab is a symbol, manifestation, and display of humility, self-respect, and service to the most high.

Rise Africa: What is the biggest misconception about women who wear the Hijab?

Zeitun: I would say the oppression aspect. It seems as though we are judged by the way we dress. That way of thinking is heavily influenced by the media. What’s often heard in the media is that women who wear the hijab have no freedom in their choices. Muslim women are viewed as being in an oppressive religion. When we see Islam, we think of countries such as Saudi Arabia where women are forced to be covered head-to-toe. This becomes the standard understanding of all Muslim women. We must separate culture from religion. What you see in Saudi Arabia cannot be used to generalize a population of over 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The fact that these laws are limited to Saudi Arabia speaks volume that it is more culture than religion. My biggest disappointment is that the media promotes these different stereotypes and misconceptions and people feed into it.

Ahmad: There are a ton of misconceptions about hijabs, but I think the worst of the misconceptions surround those who WEAR hijabs versus the hijabs themselves. And the worst of those is always the same; “I can’t believe her husband doesn’t let her wear make-up, She must be miserable! She must be uncomfortable!” Overall, the theme is an overall assumption of oppression, and that the woman wearing it has to be oppressed.

Rise Africa: As a Muslim man, do you view Muslim women any differently if they choose to not wear a Hijab?

Ahmad: I do not view Muslim women who choose not to wear hijabs in any different light than I would an identical woman who chooses to wear one. Being born and raised Muslim, I’ve spent most of my life in close proximity to all different parts of all different communities of Muslims within the global Muslim community. I’ve interacted with Muslims from Baltimore, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland, and Philadelphia. I’ve interacted with Muslims from the continent (Africa), Asia, The Caribbean, conservative, liberal, and all types of other kinds. Through my years I’ve learned and reaffirmed the valuable lesson that as different as people can be, we’re all just that much more similar. No matter which label people choose to identify with as far as nationality, ethnic group, life path, or belief system – as a collective we encounter the same challenges and life lessons whoever we are or claim to be. I say that to say I look for the basic human commonalities in people when gauging character. When interacting with Muslim women, just as with anyone else – I would look more closely to her honesty, integrity, humility, and patience than I would a piece of cloth and whether she chooses to wear it or not. As far as I’m concerned, what good is wearing the symbol of good character if you neglect the substance it’s supposed to represent?

Rise Africa: One last question, what is the current state of Muslim women in Kenya?

Zeitun Tifow: Let me first say that the state of a woman does not depend on her religion. Christian women, Muslim women and Jewish women all have the same issues…we are all women. To answer your question, I have no idea what the current state of women in Kenya is. The fact that I cannot answer this question says a lot. When an impact is made somewhere, it’s heard. There’s nothing more exciting to the media than a group of Muslim women branching out and doing something. That news is not coming out of Kenya. There are female politicians who are Muslim in parliament, but there’s still that question of whether they’re there because of their own credentials or because they have been planted there for political reasons.

The image the mass media has created of Muslim women is so powerful, that it is nearly impossible for some to see a different perspective. The key to gaining a different perspective on this issue is to resist stereotypes, distinguish between culture and religion, and to examine each situation based on Islamic teaching and not the actions of individual Muslims. I hope that this post has given you a new insight into the significance of a hijab and Islam in general. Do not seek knowledge in a remote control. Turn off your TV and educate yourself!

-Bilphena Yahwon

No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions
They’re going to blow you away

- Mohja Kahf

  • consalg

    The girl on the left gets to dress whichever way she wants. How about the
    girl on the right? Would anybody report her conduct if she decided to
    dress differently in Canada? Would she suffer any consequences upon her
    return home? Would her family suffer any consequences while she’s gone? Sometimes being politically correct verges on being hypocritical. And trust me, I don’t
    think much about the current state of western civilization either.

  • Fabio Castellucci

    Freedom of choice…
    But real freedom is cencerned with a total access to all what is non present in Your “birth-culture”. Direct access, not a biased and un-direct one.

    You can criticize everythinh, even in the strongest way…. but PLEASE… before criticising…
    BE SURE TYHAT yOU KNOW SOMETHING IN A REALIABLE WAY ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO CRITICIZE!

    The same situation, under reversed circumstances, can reveal unsuspectable bad attitudes that we have.

    2 “case histories”…

    1) Women wearing a burka in Kabul. She can go abroad and live in Canada. She can study e live there. After 3 year there… is she still voluntarily wearing the burka?

    2) Same condition. And after 3 years she decides that VOLUNTARILY she prefers to wear the burka. Is, local population and law…. REALLY accepting that choice?

    I have no opinion, but I think that freedom is an interior attitude… and it has just a little to sher with nationalistic culture or local power…

  • Hafiz Aina

    I absolutely love this article. This is definitely a big issue that the general public often overlooks. Thanks for shedding some light on this matter!

  • Miriam Harris

    Very, VERY good piece! I absolutely agree with the writer, Bilphena here. The hijab is subject to such negative perception, but it really has nothing to do with oppression. I think this has a lot to do with the way the Western world views Islamic culture. Another thing to consider is Catholic nuns – they cover up, but are never told that they are oppressed. Hm.

    Anyway, wonderful article, wonderful writing, wonderful site.

  • Aabirah

    I loved this piece. It’s interesting how nuns are admired and respected for covering their bodies but muslim women are pitied and ridiculed. And the people who tend to apply these stereotypical misconceptions to muslim women are often the ones who actually think they’re helping us. Well, you’re not!

    Thanks for the piece Bilphena, Zeitun, and Ahmad!

  • shakespeare

    Very bad color choices on web site, so annoying that I could not finish reading it.

    • admin

      Hello William,

      If you have any suggestions for improvement, then feel free to share them. Otherwise we appreciate your attempt at constructive criticism.

      Thanks!