In September 1994, 13-year-old Emilie Ouimet was sent home from Montreal (Quebec, Canada)'s Louis Riel High School because her Hijab did not conform to the school's dress code.
Two months later, a second Quebec girl, 15-year-old Dania Baali, was told she would have to transfer to another school from College Regina Assumpta if she wanted to observe Hijab.
It is incredible to know nothing strikes fear in the hearts of Western man like a piece of cloth on a woman's head.
The Hijab is perceived as a radical statement
To some, she is making a radical statement about her violent political ideas.
To others, she is the symbol of absolute subjugation and is in dire need of rescue.
For them, having such women as part of the North American landscape is frightening.
She is “the veiled woman,” belonging in a foreign place, an actor on an exotic stage.
We are seen as poisoning this “free and democratic” culture with our “weak and submissive ways.”
Thus, various school boards in Quebec have decided that rooting out the unwanted influence at the earliest point possible is the best way to avoid contaminating their haute culture.
The fear of Hijab is legitimate
I have often wondered why a woman in Hijab participating freely in this society is perceived as so threatening.
I have always thought that fear of such women was unfounded. After all, her wearing Hijab has nothing to do with anyone else-it only has to do with her commitment to Allah.
But now I realize the fear is legitimate.
Muslim women are a threat.
Hijab sends a message of acceptance and rejection
A woman who covers herself out of the love of Allah is not just stating something about what she accepts but she is also saying something about what she rejects.
Any woman who refuses to play the gender games that are so basic to all societies is going to be pushed out.
Women have always been expected to play some kind of role in every society.
In North America, a great part of this role revolves around sex and the aura of sexuality. Any relationship involving men and women has some kind of sexual undertone.
When a woman covers herself she is rejecting that role, she is saying sex will have nothing to do with her public life. It is the fact that she has taken out of the discussion her physical self that people find so upsetting.
A woman in Hijab: more than "just a woman"
A female doctor, writer, electrician or plumber may be appreciated in the work environment for her skill, but is still basically seen as “just a woman.”
But put her in Hijab so that what makes her a woman cannot be appraised and all of a sudden you are dealing with a person.
It is a radical idea not liked by many.
She is rejecting the politics of gender
This person is not only rejecting preset gender roles but also the associated politics of gender.
She is therefore rejecting the basic social structure which also means she is seen to be rejecting the political system and its tied economic setup.
So educators in Quebec should feel threatened.
Emilie and Dania are more than just two girls whose headgear does not conform to school dress code. They are representatives of something bigger, of a different way of life and of living.
It took me some time to come to this conclusion.
Hijab: an act of faith
I had always seen Hijab as a private matter between myself and Allah.
I chose to wear Hijab because I felt my Iman (faith) had to be translated into action and if Allah asks me to cover, then I should.
If I could not act out my faith then what was the point of saying I had any faith?
But, unfortunately, those around me did not see my wearing Hijab as a personal act of worship.
Rather, they saw it as a personal attack on them. I wore Hijab and that automatically meant I disapproved of everything they did.
I found the hostility difficult to understand. Just because my head was covered, people were unable to relate to me.
I had a newfound freedom and a greater sense of confidence in myself as a Muslim but most others saw me as a throwback.
Women's progress still tied to appearance
Progressiveness for women is unfortunately still defined by how much they are willing to reveal.
The more power women seem to gain, the more compelled they are to take off their clothes.
This paradox is at the root of the confusion faced by North American women.
They are supposed to be strong, independent and assertive yet, at the same time, they are made slaves to an ideal physical image which cannot be achieved by the vast majority of women.
This duality is a marketable commodity.
Take the fashion industry for example; the latest from Paris says “glamor” is the hottest look of the season with its glossy lipsticks, slip dresses, and spiked heels.
Women object saying that fashion designers are expecting them to dress like prostitutes at the office.
They loathe the fact that the female body is used for selling everything from cosmetics to clothing to cars.
Yet when Muslim women cover themselves up and protest the very same thing, they are conversely regarded as being oppressed.
Terminal confusion about women's freedom
The confusion is terminal. While some fight against what they see as objectifying women, others feel the ideal way to ultimate freedom for women is the right to got barechested in public.
The rationale seems to be that once our bodies are desexualized then it will be safer for us to go out on the streets.
We just have to give up our dignity, our modesty and our privacy.
And it is in the midst of all this confusion that women in Hijab have arrived. Their unwillingness to play into the hands of either side has earned them scorn.
Hijab has become a political statement
Hijab is fundamentally part of worship but, right or wrong, it has become a political statement as well.
We may only be expressing our commitment to our Deen (religion) but Hijab is seen to symbolize a rejection of the West.
The mistake of the secularists
This perceived rejection has affected liberal secularists so profoundly that they are willing to push aside their own basic principle of individual freedom to stave of the “oppressive” influences of Islam.
It would be a wise person indeed who would realize that it is the very culture secularists are trying to preserve that has led people to search for something else.
And for those who are truthful to themselves, they will see that Emilie and Dania have it figured out.
This article was originally published in The Message-Canada in January 1995 and has been reprinted with the permission of the author.