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The Hijab is a Choice


By  Ezrinal Azis

Published: December 13, 2007


Queen Rania of Jordan. (Photo by Rolf Vennenbernd via Newscom)


We must all reach out:

As a Muslim who loves Islam, I certainly feel sad knowing that my religion is misunderstood, feared, and even hated by many in the West. I feel the frustration of a child who sees his or her parent falsely charged as an adulterer or a thief. While he or she knows the labels are not true, there is little the child can do about it.

However, in an episode of the Oprah Show last year, I gained some insight on resolving this dilemma in an interview with Queen Rania of Jordan.

Oprah Winfrey asked Queen Rania honest, straight-forward questions, ones that were on the minds of millions of Westerners who are full of curiosity about Islam.

"Do you pray? How many times a day? For how long?"

Queen Rania answered that as a faithful Muslim, she conducted all Islamic rituals completely.

The audience in the studio looked surprised that the beautiful, smart, and modern queen is a pious woman. It certainly shocked them, because in the West a modern attitude or appearance is usually considered incongruous with someone who observes religious rituals, especially Islamic ones, which to the Westerner are often associated with closed-mindedness, tribal customs, and terrorism.

Oprah's next question was also probing: "Why don't you wear the hijab (headscarf), while other Muslim women wear it?"

Queen Rania answered sympathetically, "The hijab is a choice - a woman wears hijab because she believes in it and she has the right to wear it, not because she is forced to."

She further explained that many in the West see the hijab as a symbol of conservatism and suppression of Muslim women. Queen Rania's appearance, with her hair hanging down freely like that of a Hollywood actress, demonstrated that Islam is not synonymous with the hijab, yet her defense of women who wear hijab showed that Islam cannot be reduced to the issue of attire.

She expressed her longing for the discussion to be elevated to what is inside Muslim women's heads rather than what's on them. She talked about her hope for continuous dialog between the West and the Muslim world to continue in order to dispel misunderstandings. The Queen suggested that such open discussion should be part of every school curriculum so that children around the world develop global perspectives and respect for different nations and beliefs.

At one point in my life, I was exposed to similar reactions of surprise. When I worked in Japan, many of my Japanese colleagues were amazed that an educated person like me still took part in religious rituals. One day, some of them asked to watch the Friday prayers held by our Muslim group in the office, a request that can be viewed as an attempt to further understand Islam and Islamic culture. Through this simple action, something that was previously regarded with curiosity and suspicion became a shared human experience, making the unfamiliar familiar.

These examples demonstrate how societal assumptions and projections can shape the perception of the other without any real understanding or exchange, and also how some unique individuals are able to breach the divide, opening themselves to questions and dispelling the mystery that sometimes surrounds the unknown.

The blind fear and misunderstanding that exist between Western and Muslim societies must be countered by stories of those individuals who live in harmony, side-by-side, despite the stereotypes and labels.

For example, earlier this year, I read an article in an Indonesian newspaper about a love story between a Muslim man, Usama, and a Jewish woman, Jasmin, in Israel. Though their families supported the relationship, Israel was building a 750-kilometer wall separating them and those of their respective faiths, which motivated them to get married immediately. Their marriage was conducted according to Islamic tradition, but in a Jewish home.

Now, they live happily in an apartment in Berlin, sharing a union that extends across the divide that exists in their homeland.

I am not an expert of Muslim-Western relations, but I agree with Queen Rania that the only way to eliminate distrust is through global education and continuous interfaith and inter-civilizational dialog. This is essential especially among younger generations, and it must be conducted in a sincere spirit. Forums that broach religious, cultural, or civilizational dialog in a constructive and balanced way - such as television talk shows and facilitated workshops and camps - are integral to this process.

It may take time, perhaps even several generations, but the seeds must be planted now in order to reap the benefits of the harvest in the future.


Ezrinal Azis is the author of Heart Stories, (Cerita Hati, 2006), and is chairman of the East Borneo Fertilizer Company's Employees Corps (Korps Karyawan Pupuk Kaltim–KKPKT). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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