Veiled Observations

By Jen McLean | 25 Jan 16

Speaking to a couple of Hijab-wearing friends recently I was told a story by one of them who works on Sydney’s North Shore. One day, a friendly client mentioned to her that there was a Cuban man in his running squad and remarked, “It’s great that we have so much ethnic diversity here, where are you from?” She replied, laconically, “Tasmania”.

It’s remarkable how the most extreme assumptions can be made from a simple piece of fabric wrapped around one’s face. These assumptions were what I experienced last year when I chose to wear the Burqa as part of an “experiential veiling project” for a university subject, Transnational Muslim Women and Veiling.

For the last 12 weeks, the class had been examining the myriad social, political and religious meanings embodied in the veil and for one day we were asked to try it on ourselves. While the assignment asked us to wear Hijab (typically, a headscarf leaving the face uncovered) I decided that to go incognito and donned a full face and head covering in order to discover how the Burqa-wearing minority is treated on Sydney’s streets.

Leaving home in the morning I was acquainted with a strange paradox embodied in the veiled experience, the feeling of being both anonymous and excessively pronounced. With my eyes covered behind a thin black cloth, my face (and with it, my identity) was completely concealed from the world around me. I proceeded up Newtown’s King Street and quickly fell into the folds of veiled life. I felt strangely empowered, omniscient, partitioned from the outside world. But glaring eyes from all directions reminded me that I had become a strange and daunting anomaly and not invisible at all.

“Lamisse reminded me of a grim reality: thousands of young girls across the world are being held accountable for people they’ve never met, ideologies they may never have heard of, in places they’ve never been too, all because of the simple decision to wear a scarf.”

This realisation hit home in a chilling confrontation that occurred as I was about to enter a pharmacy just before South King becomes it’s busier, northern end. Turning into the store I heard a loud, male voice slur “terrorist” from a moving car. I stopped, in a state of disbelief, and turned to see a ute roaring down the road. There it was in all its glory an icon of Australia speeding off, down what is considered one of inner-Sydney’s most diverse and colourful streets, leaving jarred ears in its wake.

Back home in the evening I chatted to a flat-mate who mentioned that her mum had at times envied veiled women for the lack of self-consciousness she assumed they might enjoy. I mulled over this for a minute and realised it was a very valid observation. While not too concerned with my appearance on the average day, the veil had given me a complete disregard for how my body was perceived. It didn’t matter that my bust fit awkwardly in the long black dress my petit Palestinian friend had lent me, nor that my hair was overdue for a wash.

These “unattractive” qualities were all covered up and I was liberated from many of the never-ending demands on female aesthetics in our “liberal” society today. For the first time in a long time my body, that is, the one underneath the veil, had truly been mine all day long. What was not mine, however, were the profiles that had been cast on me as a result of my attire, be them “lady”, “sister”, “alien” or “criminal”.

No doubt social profiling is a phenomenon to which everyone is subject to. Given the complexity of the world around us, it’s in our nature as humans to compartmentalise what we see, hear, smell and touch in order to make sense of it all. But problems start to emerge when we become complacent with our stereotypes and forget about trying to understand one another on an individual level. Of course, this becomes even stickier when politics and the media get involved.

Take Lamisse, for example, a Muslim classmate of mine, who first wore the Hijab at the age of 12 in June 2001. What she describes as “an innocent choice to follow [her] faith and make [her] parents happy” quickly transformed into a political statement in September of that same year. When we spoke about this, Lamisse reminded me of a grim reality: thousands of young girls across the world are being held accountable for people they’ve never met, ideologies they may never have heard of, in places they’ve never been too, all because of the simple decision to wear a scarf.

Particularly in the post-9/11 world, many Muslim women are finding themselves increasingly required to define themselves by what they are not – “not a terrorist”, “not oppressed” – in order to break free from the assumptions cast around them. And while it may be impossible to overcome our assumptions completely, perhaps this should first be the focus of our energies before we engage in attempts to “free” veiled women from their so-called lived oppression.

Finally, since we’re on the topic of assumptions, I’ve got a quote for the “terrorist”-slurring ute driver, one from a Hijab-wearing hero of mine that I hope will strike some fear into his heart:

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.

Jen McLean is an Arabic language and Middle Eastern Studies major at the University of Sydney. She can’t quite work out why the mainstream media is so caught up in fear-mongering but is happy there’s enough people who still care about the truth.

Feature image: Guido Camici / Flickr