– by Lizzie Fewster
Image – ‘White Girl’ by Sarah Maple

A few years ago, Forbes Magazine posted an article online titled “Seven Seconds To Make a First Impression” which provided tips on how to make the right first impression when you meet someone. The article claims that our brains are hard wired to make a judgment of someone as soon as we see them, as a prehistoric survival mechanism. These impressions, it says, are four times more influenced by non-verbal cues than verbal cues.

When I meet someone for the first time, I can only guess what their initial impressions are. Do they first notice what I’m wearing, or perhaps my face? I’m not sure, but whether their impressions are good or bad, I know they will, at least partially, reflect who I am. After all, it was me who decided it wasn’t necessary to brush my hair that morning, and that, yes, it would be fine to wear the same jeans two days in a row. For women today, who seem unable to win regardless of how they dress – either too prudish for covering up, but whorish and ‘asking for it’ when we reveal the coveted goods – how can we ensure our first impression is the one we want to give? If only there was a way to be judged not by our outfit, our makeup, or our hair, but by the words we say and the way we act. For Tasnim, this is exactly why she wears a hijab. Despite this, it’s not uncommon for someone to remark, upon seeing a woman wearing a hijab what ‘a shame it is that women should be forced into dressing like that’, or something along those lines.

The root of this common attitude of sympathy for Muslim women is traceable. I recently watched a film titled Wadja, which tells the story of a young Muslim girl’s childhood under the tight constraints placed on her by school, family, and broader society, all of which are very heavily influenced by Islamic traditions and beliefs. Wadja, the main character, dreams of riding a bicycle, but is not allowed to do so because she is a girl, and a number of characters, including females, try to prevent her from having what most of us would consider a normal childhood experience, because of her gender. In the end, Wadja gets to ride her bike, and the film ends on a happy note, but it is impossible to come away from it without feeling a sense of sadness for all the other girls in her position. This sadness, for what many people see as a tragic oppression of women, is unfortunately often translated into hostility towards women wearing hijabs.

This hostility and judgment is something Tasnim knows all too well, saying that, in her opinion “there is a negative attitude towards women who wear the hijab”. She tells me of a friend of hers who had admitted that, because Tasnim wore a hijab, his first impression of her was that she was “a bitch” and “kind of standoffish”.

“I’ve had other people express surprise, bordering on shock, when I tell that I was never coerced into wearing the hijab or that I am not going to be forced into a marriage or that I identify as a feminist. This kind of stereotyping and assumption-making is all too common and tends to fly under the radar, the casual dismissal of a young Muslim woman’s agency merely because of what she chooses to wear on her head. I don’t blame people for these views, many don’t know any better, but it does get old after a while.” Tasnim adds.

I must admit that I am also guilty of feeling a tinge of sympathy when I see young women who are covered up, because I think that they are not afforded the same freedom of choice that I am. Ignorantly, I assumed these women did not enjoy this practice, that they saw no benefits, and were to be pitied. However, hearing first hand from Tasnim about her views, my perspective on the Islamic custom of women’s modesty underwent a serious readjustment.

For Tasnim, wearing the hijab has been “ a conscious decision” and she says that instead of restricting her, as many people assume it would, it provides her with more freedom.

“I find it helps focus attention on who I am rather than how attractive I am. The hijab is a pretty desexualising piece of clothing, which is arguably its most important function, and I love the freedom that gives me from the near-constant refrain of women having to be attractive and sexualised all the time. Even though sometimes it may elicit feelings of hostility in some, it demands respect and consideration in others. It is a very clear outward show of the fact that I refuse to play that game and gives me a good reason not to have to.”

For many people, the hijab is seen as a symbol of the oppression of women within Islamic culture. It is clear from Tasnim’s story, though, that such generalisations cannot be made. It perhaps a tad ironic that women complain about the sexualisation of their bodies, but take pity on those who willingly choose to hide theirs, in turn forcing those around them to draw their first impressions from something more substantial than their appearance. The sad irony, however, remains that these women are then judged more harshly, and assumed to be either submissive and worthy of pity, or hostile and unapproachable, or all. Until humans realise that it is not just the pressure that women face to fulfil society’s expectations of beauty that’s the problem; and that it is equally as problematic to expect all women to deal with the issue of sexualisation the same way, then a “woman’s right to choose” is not being fully respected.

photo Lizzie Fewster is Scissors Paper Pen’s current Writer in Residence. She is a seventeen-year-old year twelve student, who despite being an atheist, is passionate about religion, philosophy, and ethical studies. Book worm by day (and usually night), she spends her free time dreaming of her soon-to-be freedom from her current educational institution, and keenly awaits university life in Melbourne.

One thought on “Fully Respected: the hijab, freedom, & assumption

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