What’s in a Piece of Cloth?

I remember, as a sensitive child and self-conscious adolescent, I never liked the idea of looking “funny.” I shrunk from wearing any type of attire that might attract negative attention to myself—real or imagined. As a young adult, I no longer spent as much time worrying about “puffy” hair or bulgy outfits, yet I still found it a challenge to put on the Islamic hijab, a cloth worn by Muslim women to cover their hair and necks. This attire certainly did attract attention—and much of it negative.

So what’s in a piece of cloth? Why did I choose to put it on my head? What did—and now does–it mean to me? And what does it mean to others? Growing up as a white, middle class kid in an American university town, I never expected to become a practising Muslim woman. But early on my life’s path, I started to look for something that I wasn’t finding in my environment, despite its privileged access to education and culture. I became interested in spirituality and mysticism, first in the context of academic study, and later in real life experiences with teachers and spiritual seekers from diverse traditions and cultures. In the midst of this journey, I encountered that “something” that opened the door to a rich spiritual reality. But this spiritual gift came in a context of a religious tradition with specific rules and regulations. I accepted these obligations as part of the package, but never as ends in themselves.

What it meant to me

So why did I put on this piece of cloth? My first reaction was not to. Although I respected the spiritual principle of modesty, I reasoned that I would attract far less attention to myself if I dressed simply–without donning the hijab. After all, people in the western world were used to seeing hair—I highly doubted that my locks were seductive—and I really didn’t want to stick out as “different.” Yet I was not comfortable ignoring clear obligations of a faith that I valued, ultimately because I was intimidated by the negative reactions of others. I realized that I would be allowing people who didn’t know me and who chose to misjudge me to define the meaning of my appearance. In this setting, wearing the hijab can be an act of courage and solidarity, to affirm my own value even when the dominant society has defined me as somehow less valuable, and to stand with those whose visible difference cannot be removed and hidden in a pocket whenever it is convenient to blend in, to look just like other “normal” Canadians. It also can be an act of empowerment, especially for those of us who have been raised in social contexts (no matter how progressive or privileged) in which women’s worth is linked to their sexual allure.  Many female converts to Islam have stressed the positive aspect of wearing hijab, that they are defying exploitative western cultural norms, and that they are expressing the idea that their sexuality is important but not property of the public domain. So putting a piece of cloth on my head has meant my respect for the value of modesty, my solidarity with other non-privileged populations, and my power to define myself.

What it has meant to others: Closing and opening doors

Within the religious community: Among Muslims, this piece of cloth can close and open doors. Unfortunately, within some groups, it can convey the meaning that I have acquiesced to an ethno-cultural definition of authority, so now I can be expected to fit into their hierarchical cultural system and allow the corresponding authority figures (usually male) to define my needs and control my choices. Ironically, in some aristocratic Muslim circles–whose members are simultaneously enamored with conservative religious ideas and Western political and financial influence–white women who look and dress “Western” may be treated with more importance than white women wearing hijab. There may be lip service about respecting Muslim women, but it becomes easier to disregard the voices of women in hijab and shuttle them into windowless basement rooms or behind thick screens, much like the treatment of “foreign domestic workers.”

Yet wearing hijab has also opened doors and eased relationships. Having experienced the genuine warmth and hospitality shown by most Muslims, I have found that my Muslim “brothers and sisters” associate this piece of cloth with trustworthiness, and they extend their homes and support to me without hesitation. Among “hijabi sisters,” we immediately spot one another in the mall, in the library, on the street. We usually make eye contact, nod, and exchange greetings, even if we have never seen each other before. So this piece of cloth represents a type of membership, the entrance ticket into a fascinating and rich subculture often hidden from public view.

Outside the religious community: Deciding to put a piece of cloth on my head definitely has aroused reactions and lead to consequences in the wider society, for myself and my family. Some of these reactions have been blatantly negative. My Muslim family and I have frequently “just happened” to be “randomly selected” for extra searches at airports and border crossings. My basically “white” children have been told “Paki go home” or “You rag-headed bitches” primarily because of their distinctive head wear. At a college awards dinner, a guest actually refused to share the dinner rolls with my family members who, despite having a large percentage of ethnically white features and cultural habits, had something on their heads that made them look “different.” Having this cloth on my head can mean being viewed with suspicion any time a terrorist event happens anywhere in the world, and being concerned about setting down my big black purse on the library floor, in case someone might think that I was planting a bomb. Wearing this cloth can mean having to deal with negative initial reactions from hospital patients and counselling clients who are just not expecting to see a pastoral care worker or counsellor dressed like this. Or it can mean wondering if someone will rent my family a home—once they move past my “normal” English name and see how we’re dressed.  Other doors have closed more subtly—for example, questioning if I would be able to relate to non-Muslim clients in the counselling world. I wasn’t expecting to hear a trained professional from another agency express her “deep” reluctance to allow me the chance to counsel clients of mainstream backgrounds. But to her, maybe the meaning of this cloth was so powerful that it eclipsed my professional training and references and signified that I might try to indoctrinate vulnerable clients or treat them judgmentally. In front of other educated elites, this piece of cloth on my head may arouse awkward and patronizing sympathy—was I allowing myself to be subjugated? Was I a victim of indoctrination? Should they try to “help empower me” to take off this symbol of oppression?

Yet more importantly, among my many non-Muslim colleagues and fellow citizens (I like to think that this is the vast majority of Canadians), this piece of cloth on my head often elicits genuine and respectful curiosity. And after this initial curiosity, those who have shared in my world and watched me raise my children see me as another member of our collective community—as a neighbour, as a friend. Once we can all deal with the “difference” of this piece of cloth, I don’t think they even notice what’s on my head anymore.

What’s the point?

In the end—what’s in a piece of cloth? Sometimes a lot, depending on where you put it and who’s looking at it. So what’s the point, what does this have to do with SASS? As an organization that strives to empower women to define themselves, the hijab conveys contradictory implications. Should we be concerned with a system of male privilege that associates this symbol with women’s acquiescence to male entitlement? Absolutely. But we also should be concerned about the tendency in the dominant culture, and perhaps in ourselves, to assume that we are in a position to know what this symbol—this piece of cloth–means to all the women who wear it, and hence fail to hear the voices and the experiences of these women themselves.


Barbara is a volunteer at SASS for Women.  She is in a couple days each week, counselling and facilitating a peer support group for survivors of sexual violence.  She has a Masters of Counselling Psychology from Athabasca University, a M.A. in Islamic Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Religion from McGill.  Barb is the mother of 7 wonderful children.  She is also an advocate for the Muslim community of the Cornwall area.


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