As a Western woman living in Indonesia, I make new observations every day. In actual fact, I am an Australian woman, of Indian decent, born in a Hindu family, with no religious conviction myself, so I guess my perspective is more than merely a “Westerner’s”.
There are many misperceptions of Islam in the West. Some of those misperceptions, I believe, come about because we are often too afraid to even broach the subject of Islam.
For me, when I see something new, religious or not, I quickly become curious. I’m very curious about women’s Islamic dress — the hijab (headscarf), jilbab (leaves only face and hands exposed), niqab (leaves only eyes exposed) and burqa (fully covers the body) — because it’s not a part of my everyday life back home.
There are plenty of women who wear hijab in Sydney, where I am from. When I got to Jakarta, there were plenty more. I became used to it quickly. I don’t even see a hijab anymore when I’m speaking to someone.
But recently, there have been a number of Middle Eastern visitors in Jakarta, and they do catch my eye. The men walk around in jeans and T-shirts, while the women are generally covered head to toe in a niqab or burqa.
The sight makes me ask a million questions. Does she choose to wear one? Does she have to wear one by law? Does her husband force her to wear one?
The truth is, I have no idea. I know there are plenty of women who are deeply religious and believe wearing the niqab is the right thing to do. But I wonder about the women in Saudi Arabia and Iran who have to by law at least wear the hijab, if not the full niqab or burqa. The Taliban says women’s faces corrupt men, and any woman who shows her face can be punished with death.
Al Jazeera interviewed women in Egypt who wear hijab, niqab and one woman who chooses not wear either. Actually, it reaffirmed for me that women wear them for so many different reasons. Some are brought up to wear them and it’s just natural for them, while others want to fend of sexual stares. Some believe it is simply a rule of Islam and others wear them to try and hide their “anti-Muslim” activities, so no one suspects a thing.
In Australia, and in many Western countries, Islamic clothing has caused a stir. I think this is purely from a lack of education. We don’t understand the reasons women wear Islamic clothing. We don’t learn about it in school and there’s a good possibility that your average Australian has never even spoken to someone who wears any kind of headdress.
No one kicks up a fuss when a nun covers herself up, or the symbolism of a white dress and veil for a supposed “virginal” bride.
In Egypt, although there are probably enormous pressures to wear Islamic headdress, at least women have a legal choice not to.
I wonder what it’s like for women in Saudi Arabia and Iran. What do yo think?