There is a misunderstanding, a disconnect, a distance, a barrier, separating the Islam painted in our minds and the reality. Constructed with particles of news, wisps of public opinion and lacking our own experience with people of Islamic faith, the women behind the veil remain just that, veiled. A curtain pulled tight that shades their daily life, the unfamiliar exercising a careful distance, as they are feared as what we don’t understand.
To peak behind the veil is an enlightening experience, often assumed as a symbol of oppression, to the women wearing it it is a celebration of their Islamic identity as a Christian woman would wear a cross, a Hindu the bindi.
However the covering of female flesh for Islamic faith seem to bring with it a mass hysteria, spurring security concerns, igniting debates over freedom and nurturing a culture of fear. The hijab instead of a religious symbol acts as a cloak of invisibility draping each wearer with a certain unwelcomeness to society.
A vibrant red ribbed turtleneck, high waisted denim jeans that flare wide and a luminescent yellow head scarf wound tightly around her face. A beaming vision in modest clothing without losing the woman underneath it; colour and texture employed in every look ensures an overflow of personality. Wiwid Howat, an Indonesian Muslim fashion blogger challenges the understanding of Muslim faith in her outfits everyday. Wiwid as a woman of Islamic faith chooses to wear modest clothing unconventionally.
Without a black billow of fabric in sight.
“Fabric doesn’t have a religion; a garment doesn’t believe in a god. I can wear the same thing as you, your jeans, your jumper, your scarf. But I will wear it differently”, she says. Covering her sacred region, everywhere but the face and hands for an Islamic woman, has not restricted her dress sense or restrained her creativity. A scroll through Wiwid’s blog The Girl Beneath the Head Scarf reveals sumptuous silks and loud prints; a stark contrast to the assumed loose bask of black cloth.
Muslim women act empowered by their coverage, without the stress of being glared at, jeered at, protecting themselves from the wolf whistles.
These choices are met with criticism from others within the Muslim community, women of Indonesian heritage support her print laden fashion, but Arabic Muslim women dress to a different tone. The letter to which women of Muslim faith abide, the Qur’an, speaks of dressing unadorned. With each interpretation the adornment is redefined, each culture drawing their own line.
Wiwid notes in Indonesia she is just another fashion blogger, the majority of our northern neighbours are Muslim and dress as vividly as her. She points out, “I’m no different there! But that’s why I have a larger audience here than the bloggers who stay at home (in Indonesia). People are curious, what I wear is totally unexpected here!”.
Wiwid seems unfettered by the controversy, instead she turns her gaze outwards, aiming her social media to people outside the Muslim world. She see’s herself as an entry level encounter, a first point of call to those intrigued about Muslim women. She boasts fans the world over, from Peru to the UK, titillated by her unique style. From her carefully curated Instagram to the photoshoots conducted by her Instagram husband, Wiwid Howat exists as any other fashion blogger.
Tapping away on her phone as we meet for brunch, delicately manicured fingers poised to take the perfect snap of breakfast. “I don’t dress conventionally Muslim; I got criticised as well as complimented from other Muslim’s. They ask What kind of Muslim woman are you dressing up like that?”. Wiwid asserts she is her own Muslim woman and uses her profession as a fashion blogger to be creative; unrestrained by the headscarf, instead emboldened by it.
The femininity of Islamic women lies outside the constraints of Western gender roles. Muslim women act empowered by their coverage, without the stress of being glared at, jeered at, protecting themselves from the wolf whistles. The objectification of women and the commodification of the female body is their sexist, and to the wild wild Western world covering up is sexism in action.
Forcing women to behave in either way is where the real sexism lies, imposing a sense of cultural refinement, a colonial behaviour of sorts. “In the West we have grown so used to the marketing of feminine identity that perhaps the many downsides of Western gender norms now escape us, and especially how acutely jarring these norms are to a cultural stranger,” notes cultural theorist Gavin Lewis.
As outsiders in Australia, Muslim woman assert their identity and proudly proclaim their faith through their dress. Privatizing a women’s experience, her body in particular, is intimidating. It shakes the social structures we know as well founded, covering the body is not denying its existence but controlling its interpretation to the outside world.
The hijab is misconstrued as an oppressive enclosure, for the empowered women beneath the veil it represents their faith.
The level of hate speech directed at Muslims is three times that of the average Australian. The Muslim community has acted to close ranks, internalizing their support structures as they weather the storm of abuse. Modest clothing boutiques are a place of refuge, a place where women can shop unfazed by attention or unwanted looks. I approached many Muslim women in the shops of Auburn and spoke with only a handful. I was the outsider here. “When the media do pick out pictures of people on the street it’s always of someone in the burqa, I feel completely misrepresented,” said Sahar*, a local resident, avid shopper and wearer of the hijab.
The impact on identity of incorrect media depictions had reduced the vast community of Islamic women in Australia, to eyes peeking beneath a full body covering.
Najma Wang of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Association located in Lakemba, Sydney, works to provide support for Muslim women in the community. “We participate in the wider community with our own identity and values intact.” Najima adds. The association operates a bustling program of events at their community centre, Qur’an teachings for all ages, playgroup for the kids and Arabic lessons on offer. Nestled between two quaint residential blocks, faced with red bricks and a certain homeliness, the Lakemba centre is a comfort zone for the newly arrived and the well integrated; a meeting place for Islamic women of any nationality.
Across the road familiar shops for foreigners, family run restaurants and an air of spice laden halal cooking spills into the open. Four separate grocery stores supplying specific national delicacies operate on the main street of Lakemba, a one stop destination for the creature comforts of distant homes. Lakemba’s community reads like a long recipe, a whole host of minorities existing vibrantly in an enclave all of their own. A suburb that is over 50% Muslim plays host to an eclectic mix of nationalities, residents from Bangladesh, Lebanon, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, China, Greece, Indonesia and Iraq. Lakemba is often relegated as a community of outsiders, yet Australian born citizens still hold a majority third in these cultured streets.
The hijab is misconstrued as an oppressive enclosure, for the empowered women beneath the veil it represents their faith. This misconception is one of many Islamic women face, often confronted by those who see the hijab as an invitation to offer an opinion. “Are you bald? Do you wear that all the time, even at home? Does your husband or father force you to wear that scarf?”, Najma laughs.
These questions are hurled, whispered or unasked by strangers, Najma and other Islamic women are sadly used to these assumptions, the nosy questions and the offensive tidbits. As Najma asserts it is her decision to wear the headscarf, it is an offering to Allah of her commitment to her Islamic faith.
The mosque is an ornate wonder, gold licks of Arabic text verse the walls, every piece of the mosaic puzzle a true celebration of Islam.
“The diamond requires some form guarding and the hijab is a perfect guard for all women,” writes Yasmin Abu Bakr in a blogpost for her mosque, boasting a congregation of 5,000. She writes of the identity it provides her, asserting her womanly duties of crucially raising the next generation with pride. In this excerpt of the Qur’an “that so they may be recognised and not annoyed“ Al-Qur’an 33:59, Yasmin explains that the hijab is a mark of freedom, distinguishing the covered women as liberated and the uncovered as slaves or women of the night. The hijab provides the women wearing it relief, liberation and purpose; certainly nothing in my wardrobe can provide such values. Australian women express identity with our clothing, we advertise our personality but by removing these billboards, Islamic women are able to access a deeper self.
A visit to the Auburn Mosque confirms Islam as a religion truly of peace, correcting the errors of violence widely accepted by society. My feet brush upon the imported carpet, an Ottoman piece from Turkey, rich red with gilded gold edges. The foreign fibres brush against my toes as I kneel and take a moment in the haunting space. Sunlight peers into the grand room, between prayer times a stillness takes the room with the occasional echo of a payback prayer uttered. Chandeliers hang close enough to touch, a single gold laced cord from the domed epicenter holds each light fixture firm, unwavering, the whole atmosphere is serene. Reflections of shaded glass bounce along the pearl white veneered walls, and the immense curvature is surfaced with an army of colourful Turkish tiles. The mosque is an ornate wonder, gold licks of Arabic text verse the walls, every piece of the mosaic puzzle a true celebration of Islam.
The calm of the prayer room is immersive; our tour guide, Ergern speaks with hushed tones about the misconceptions of Islam. Uninjured by the callous media coverage of his beloved religion, his beliefs unchallenged. “It is god’s instruction to dress like this, unadorned, for their (the women’s) own protection, for their future husband, for their own integrity.” Ergern courses his hand along the floor, brushing it back and forth. “This is also why men and women are segregated so as to protect the family unit. In Islam the family unit is sacred”.
Wiwid is a walking contradiction, her marriage to her English-Australian Muslim husband reads like many other love stories. They met on exchange in Arizona, USA and fell swiftly in love. Despite this immediate connection their relationship is met with apprehension by outsiders. “I didn’t make him Muslim!” Wiwid boasts. “People assume I stole him away and converted him, that is just not the case.” There is a designated perception of Muslim and he is distinctly not white. Instead he is foreign, most likely Middle Eastern and looks a certain way as stereotypes do. Wiwid and her husband, a family unit in itself, laugh off these expectations; but they represent a narrative of those of Islamic faith being overwhelmingly non-white.
Islam is a globally expansive faith, uniting people the world over in the simpler, peaceful life.
There is an entrenched discontent for the foreign. Whipped up in a flurry of public outrage is the outbreak of Islam, as if spreading rapidly from host to host taking over our everyday lives, infecting our very way of living. Census data contradicts these assumptions, as of 2011 only 476, 291 Muslims resided in Australia, making up a mere 2% of the Australian population.
A worldly religion, Islam is a passport stamped by visitors the globe over. Marked by the pilgrimages the footsteps of the faithful as they traipse to better lands. The connective tissue for these worshippers is Arabic, the holy language, providing a link to Muhammad (may peace be upon him), Allah and their Muslim brothers and sisters no matter their nationality. Islam is a globally expansive faith, uniting people the world over in the simpler, peaceful life.
Wiwid decided while at Islamic boarding school in Indonesia that she wanted to wear the hijab, after what she calls a few rebellious teenage years. The rebellion included trips to the local mall outside assigned boarding school visits, but Wiwid has since reformed her escapist ways.
The headscarf is misunderstood, presumed as a forceful wrapping of fabric, an enclosure or restriction to the woman trapped in it. A Muslim woman’s family situation, (whether she is married or not) can often indicate what sort of covering she shall wear but ultimately it is her decision. “My father didn’t want me or my mother to wear it (the hijab), he said it looked, now this will sound bad…” Wiwid giggles, peering nervously around the café before offering this information, cautious of who might hear. “Ugly! We had to convince him. Now he says ok, I see how it can look good.”
To see Wiwid’s work head to http://www.wiwidhowat.com or follow @thegirlbeneatheadscarf
* name has been changed
Image: Wiwid Howat