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Muslim girls can play cultural chameleons, researcher says

Katie Rook and Amy Smithers, National Post Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Aqsa Parvez was a well-liked Muslim girl who, classmates say, had been experimenting for months with the arrangement of her hijab.

She finally decided to go without the Islamic head scarf, which is worn by some Muslim women, in September. It was a gradual change classmates say they were indifferent toward, but one which some members of her family had difficulty accepting.

Following Aqsa's death late Monday, her father, Muhammad Parvez, was charged with murder. Her 26-year-old brother, Waqas Parvez, has been charged with obstructing police in their investigation.

The Mississauga community where Aqsa lived and went to school is shocked by an attack in the middle-class subdivision, but those closest to Aqsa recalled tension at the family's home after the Grade 11 student decided to remove her hijab.

A classmate from Applewood Heights Tuesday noted that Aqsa, 16, had on a recent occasion returned home from school with trepidation; she was worried about what reaction her decision would elicit among relatives.

Dressing in one manner at home and another at school is one way young Muslim girls in Canada are negotiating competing cultural demands, says Jasmin Zine, a sociology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

In her research with Muslim girls, Ms. Zine said, she has rarely encountered youth who are being coerced into wearing a hijab by their parents. However, many Muslim girls in Canada are struggling to reconcile Muslim traditions with more secular Western behaviour.

"For some youth, what they do is develop a double persona. At home they're the good Muslim kid, they pray and they fast and go to mosque," she said.

"When they go to school they become a different person. They create a persona to fit with the competing cultural demands of home and school."

In addition to removing the hijab, some Muslim youth may also anglicize their name and wear makeup, Ms. Zine said. When it is time to go home, they don the hijab.

"It is about fitting in. I don't think it's about shame. I don't think they dis-identify with being Muslim, they just remove the markers of that identity so that they are better able to fit in with the cultural code at school. Now the codes are very, very tough," Ms. Zine said.

The hijab is a cloth meant to cover the hair which Muslim girls may choose to begin wearing around the age of puberty. The hijab is a way to identify oneself as Muslim, Ms. Zine said.

There is disagreement among scholars about whether the hijab is mandatory, she added.

"So for those who choose not to wear it -- they are then sometimes seen as being less pious, that they are leaving Islam, although it has nothing to do with that. Religion is not a piece of cloth," Ms. Zine said.

"Your faith and your belief are not wrapped up in a piece of cloth, but it's a very loaded [signal] from the perspective of people viewing you."

Aqsa's classmates believe the identity she was carving out for herself was being challenged at home.

"She just chose to remove the hijab because she wanted to be like everyone else and her parents were pushing her, I guess," said Nadine Abrahim, 16.

"Last year [Aqsa] wore it. Maybe at the end she started removing it a bit. Like, showing a bit of her hair. And then this year she just completely removed it. She would take it off when she came to school, even change her clothes."

The decision to wear a hijab is not necessarily a difficult one for every Muslim girl, says Ausma Khan, a human-rights lawyer and the editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl magazine.

But, she acknowledges, the hijab has become a flashpoint.

"It can so easily be taken for a signal of difference and otherness and alienation, but it doesn't have to be read like that," she said.

Ms. Khan, 38, is now based in Los Angeles, but grew up in Canada and observes an evolution of Canadian-Islamic identity as immigrant communities become more established in North America.

"There is definitely an American-Islam or a Canadian-Islam that has imbibed the reality of growing up in a pluralistic society that accommodates difference, that respects difference.

"I think we see that in the practice of this generation of young women. They are accommodating. Just as they want to put their own viewpoint forward, have their religious freedom and be protected, they are equally willing to recognize and respect the rights of others."

Friends gathered outside Applewood Heights Tuesday said Aqsa was no different than any teenager gaining a better sense of identity.

"She wanted to live her life the way she wanted to, not the way her parents wanted her to," Krista Garbhet told the Post.

"She just wanted to be herself, honestly she just wanted to show her beauty, and not be pushed around by her parents telling her what she has to be like, what she has to do. Nobody would want to do that."

National Post




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