The Auntie who Dropped the "H" Word

My co-worker and I were presenting together on the topic of "cultural perspectives". We were defining culture as more than the superficial "dress, diet, dialect and dance" aspects that we see. To us, culture is our worldview, it's how we define our values and beliefs, and may or may not include a guiding religion. This definition is a departure from what the typical view of culture is (i.e. you look different, therefore you must not be from here), and especially when religion and heritage work together to define how we each view the world and live our lives.

So I took this presentation as a chance to speak about cultural stereotypes and how the media mistakingly mixes up culture with religion. With regards to Islam, there's too many people who overlay the religion with cultural (i.e. Arab) stereotypes that exist. Furthermore, too many people use unreliable sources to learn about Islam rather than going back to the source (i.e. Quran) and having someone with the proper knowledge explain what the faith is all about. I went further by saying that a person's religious views or practices may change over time, and that religious practices fall into the general way or "culture" of how we live our lives. I used myself as an example and that even though I have stopped wearing the hijab that Islam remains the central viewpoint for how I live my life...the general "culture" of my life. I wasn't defining culture as me being a Pakistani-Iranian-Canadian at this point. I was trying to make the point that culture is more than where we come's a complicated amalgamation of how we live our lives with an assortment of intersecting factors including religion, experiences, family upbringing, etc.

And then, the hijab-wearing Auntie in the front row just had to raise her hand and tell me how I'm wrong because religion is a set of rules and how chapter 5 clearly states that hijab must be worn, which is why she wears it, and thus religion must be followed and a person's views about the religion cannot change, etc. She then went on about how she's been in Canada for 7 years and her kids celebrate Halloween and Christmas but how that's not her culture...etc etc. I didn't respond to her directly about the hijab but I said that I was purposely intersecting religion and culture to make the point that media's stereotypes about Islam are wrongly based on Arab culture and not on Islam itself. Which is why we have so much negative media attention around Islam. And she went on a little more on a religious tyrade (reinforcing another stereotype of Muslims, that we are intolerant of those who are different from us) and I just politely suggested we move on due to time, and passed it onto my co-presenter since my part was thankfully done. I sat down facing the audience of 150 faces and was ever so thankful for a coworker way in the back of the gym who caught my eye and gave a smile and thumb's up.

In fact, after our presentation was over, I had so many fellow employees come up and give positive feedback about the presentation, about demystifying the stereotypes, and reassured me that I had diverted the negative attention in a good way. Meanwhile, the 3 hijabis in the room ignored my attempts at eye contact and walked out, passing me without a word. I wondered if I had embarrassed and misrepresented them? I wondered if they looked down upon my western attire and attempts at using bold humour and provoking images to get to the root of why we hold stereotypes against Islam. I shouldn't have worn coloured pants, I thought to myself. I shouldn't have done my hair, I further thought. But then, who am I living for? What am I standing for? Why should I change myself to appease people?

The reason I wanted to address the stereotypes around Islam is because far too many Muslims are NOT standing up for what the truth is, far too many shy away from engaging discussion at an intellectual level, and far too many just don't want to give themselves the unwanted attention or face competing views. It's cool enough for them to receive positive attention from being different, celebrating Eid, wearing blingy traditional clothing, and traveling back to the "exotic" homeland. Ah yes, the accepted and cool superficial tip-of-the-iceberg qualities of cultures. It's as if they are allowing these "cool" aspects of culture to draw people into accepting them, but they go nowhere near talking about the religious stereotypes that many hold. Perhaps it's because they can't address these erroneous views in a diplomatic and polite way without sounding like they're about to declare "jihad" on those who don't accept what they're saying. And if someone else tries to clear the air about misunderstandings, then they too need to be shut down, especially if they don't fit the mould of what a Muslim should be.
The comparison of hijabi girl and a lollilop (non-hijabi) 
greatly disturbs me. Please define what "this one" means!
And then I thought, the more I work within the sexual health and Islam realm, I wonder what type of backlash I'll be receiving then?! This hijab comment was nothing compared to what could be said in the future. " You pre-marital sex supporter, you!!!"...I can just imagine the insults rolling off people's tongues.

And so, I'm not scarred by this latest incident, since it's not the first time I've been told off. Just never in front of that many people and not when I was at work. Something that does tug at my heart though is how so many non-Muslims I know are so gracious, appreciative and understanding of my views and my attempts to bridge and understanding of Islam...yet how many Muslims are not, especially those who hold more conservative views of what a Muslim woman should be doing/saying. My non-Muslims friends have cheered me on when I wore the hijab and cheered me on when I stopped wearing it. Why? Because they see that who I am inside hasn't changed just because my appearance has. And they understand that humans are not static, that we evolve as we experience life, and that it's normal as humans to try this and that until we find something that fits who we are. 

Why are hijab-extremes only portrayed and why the emphasis on making judgments based on appearance? Only Allah knows what's inside the hearts of these two girls.
I'm actually glad that this Auntie spoke up and challenged me yesterday. It made me realize that the more I openly speak about Islam, the more this is bound to happen. I could do what some Muslim female speakers do and wear hijab when they're giving presentations. But this doesn't seem right to me, nor does it fit my understanding of what the hijab is. I cannot treat hijab as a garment worn to fit the mould of what a Muslim women should look like. The hijab should be worn solely for Allah alone. Not as a fashion accessory to gain acceptance from disapproving Aunties in the audience.

And so, as I've worked with this community going into my sixth year now, you may understand why I've become tired of working with "our people". While most of the families we work with are gracious and understanding, there are many who are not, and many who go out of their way to remind you of what's wrong with who you are and what you're doing. While this community is changing, it will taken well beyond my generation to change, and I fear for our future children and the lack of love and acceptance they'll receive from other Muslims around them. There have been many times where Asif and I consider packing our bags and moving away from this conservative community to somewhere that accepts people from all walks of life. But this dream is not easily carried out in reality. 

We have a lot of work to do as a community and as individuals. We can't expect to be accepted as Muslims in the West if we are not at the point of accepting our own fellow Muslims for who they are. It's hypocritical to think that the latter can happen before the former. It's further hypocritical when hijabi women walk around stating "judge me for what's in my head and not by what's on my head" yet THEY turn around and call non-hijabi women all sorts of names. I feel as though I need to start an ad campaign with the slogan "Muslims come in different shapes, sizes, and appearances," because it seems that this is where we are at.

I know for sure that this hijab debate will be never-ending...we're so consumed by 50 inches of fabric that we can't see past this to who a woman really is on the inside. We can't give someone one excuse or a small benefit of the doubt, let alone 60 reasons, before we become suspicious of them. We have to jump to advising someone who doesn't do what YOU think they should do and because they have a Canadian accent and call themselves Muslims, they must not have any real roots to the "Muslim world." Psht, she's a Muslim wanna-be. And because someone dares to engage the public on addressing stereotypes around Muslims, this makes people uncomfortable and squeamish since we're drawing more attention to an already visible minority. What are people afraid of, that we may actually change people's perceptions around Islam by engaging them in intellectual discourse? Or that it's worrisome that this discourse is being led by someone who doesn't look "Muslim" at all?

I could go on forever, but I feel as though I'm preaching to the converted, since those who read my blog are those who see where I'm coming from. It's people such as Auntie-Hijab-Advisor who need to read this with an open mind. I think that Muslims have a harder time understanding this concept. It goes back to Muslims being great at criticizing people who attempt to speak up and do something about an issue, yet they themselves do nothing about it but backlash and put down those attempts. The same holds true for those of us organizing in-person marriage events for Muslims. Haram, haramharam! they chant, without understanding what our event consists of and what's even written in the Quran about how we are allowed to go about, in an appropriate manner, finding a spouse. We've become nit-picky and apprehensive about too many things, yet quick to pass judgment and label fellow Muslims as "good" or "bad".

And so, while our fellow Muslims are in the process of *InshAllah* changing, I'll just keep plugging away at saying what needs to be said and not giving a darn about what others think about me. Because Allah knows best, and I sometimes have to remind myself that this is all that matters.


  1. Made me think of ijtihad, what Abdolkarim Soroush calls Essential vs Accidential aspects of religion aka Religion or Culture (Mis)taken as religion, Quranic verses 25:63, 53:32, and 4:49 “Be humble and do not ascribed purity to yourself," and what I call the tomato, tomahto verses of the Quran 49:11 “O you who believe, let not people laugh at people, perchance they may be better than they… Neither find fault with your own people, nor call one another by nick names. Evil is a bad name after faith; and whoso turns not, these it is that are in iniquitous.”


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