Combating misconceptions about Islam and the hijab through dialogue and discussion

Representing and practising Islam can, sometimes, be difficult for Muslims immigrating to the West and adapting to a completely different culture and lifestyle, such as Muslim women who have chosen to wear the ‘hijab’ (veil).

Although it can be a challenge, the several Islamic organizations in Vancouver and around British Columbia, such as the B.C. Muslim Association, the Woman’s Chapters, and the Muslim Students Associations at UBC are working towards providing their people with the support system to practice their own religious beliefs while integrating into Canadian society.

“My veil is my freedom,” is the message Saba Sajid, a Muslim woman studying at SFU, would like to share with those who question the role and function of the veil.

Muslim student wears the hijab while reading a book.

Muslim student wears the hijab while reading a book. Photo by Joe Faisal, Flickr

Her veil has been compared to a Halloween costume, in addition she has been called derogatory names such as ‘ninja.’

Contrary to popular belief and what the media conveys, she explains that the veil is not a form of oppression by the male figures in her life. In addition, she states that women who choose to wear the veil are not illiterate, backwards, or forced to stay at home.

“That’s what people see when they see my veils,” says Sajid.

On the other hand, she states that her brother, husband, and father have all encouraged her to pursue an education which she has excelled in, allowing her to obtain a scholarship at SFU.

She recalls an incident in her previous school in Montreal where a teacher attempted but failed to stop her from taking a communications class simply because she believed the veil would hinder her ability to truthfully represent herself to her classmates.

Aasim Rashid, director of religion and Islamic education at the BC Muslim association has pointed out that a lot of people do not know the significance of the veil. He blames it on a lack of education.

“Some of them have misgivings on what the veil represents,” says Rashid.

However, he believes that Muslim women are doing a fine job discussing this issue with those who are not too eager to pass judgment, but are willing to learn and understand.
Sajid admits that wearing the veil brings her unnecessary attention wherever she goes, but at university platforms she is able to discuss her religion and beliefs with other students. This has fostered a greater dialogue, respect, and understanding and it has allowed her to become friends with the people she interacts with.

“Dialogue is important, it goes beyond superficial talks,” says Rashid. He believes that Muslim women should be approached and asked in order to understand the reasons behind the choices that they make.

He says lectures like the one the B.C. Muslim Association recently held on the issue of the hijab, lead to an intense and engaging discussion with many walking away with a lot of gained knowledge on the issue.

In addition, Rashid mentions that UBC had organized an Islam awareness week held by the Muslims Student Association, where Muslim women gave very detailed accounts on the issue of the hijab and their modest clothing.

Sajid admits to being marginalized in the work force due to the fact that she wears a veil. Although she admits that most are keen on granting her an interview based on her impressive CV, once they meet her they are shocked and disappointed at what they see, “I’ve applied for a position where they’ve been impressed with my CV until they see my face.”

Rashid admits that given the vast needs of the Muslim community integrating into Western society, it is an “…ongoing challenge.” On the issue of hate crimes, Rashid mentions that there could be isolated case every now and then.

“Hate crimes [are] a very serious thing, over the time [they take] place. [They have] serious repercussion[s] in our community,” says Rashid. On occasion mosques and schools get vandalized, however, he states that Vancouverites are open and welcoming and more interested in learning about Islam as “…opposed to being averse towards the idea and concepts of Islam.”