Covered not Confined for ALT HAUS Magazine

It was shortly after my 20th birthday when I decided to join my family in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Traveling and exploring other cultures is a great passion of mine, and I excitedly shared the news with my friends. They were taken aback, asking me “You know it’s a Muslim country, right?” I had little knowledge of the culture, and had heard that Islam is a religion of peace; however, I cannot remember a time it was ever portrayed as such through western media. I must admit, I was uneasy about moving to the Middle East, as I didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, and after spending some time here, I can honestly say that I have never felt more welcome in a country that is not my own. The Muslim men and women have extended an incredible amount of hospitality and grace. They’ve patiently answered all kinds of questions I have about their lifestyle and beliefs, and my experience here has been both humbling and eye-opening. Coming from a background of fashion and portrait photography, the intricacy and beauty of the abayas and hijabs here immediately caught my eye. I was very curious and decided to try and understand how they felt about their dress and culture. I posted on social media, asking for volunteers to be photographed and interviewed. After photographing these women and speaking with them about why they cover, I realized that many of them feel liberated and empowered.  Women all throughout the world express themselves through their personal style, and Muslim women are no different. The prevailing western belief is that Muslim women are covered because they are oppressed; what most don’t see is the beauty beneath the veil. This has been a very rewarding project, and an overwhelming number of women came forward to tell their story. I want to respect their time and candor and will be sharing more responses and photographs in future issues. I would like to thank them all for taking the time to be a part of this project, and I am proud to call these women my friends.

Many are not familiar with the traditional Islamic dress, I asked Yashmeela, a Branch Manager of a Malaysian Construction Company, to explain the differences...

“The word hijab describes the act of covering up generally but is often used to describe the headscarves or shawl worn by Muslim women. 
The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.
The burqa is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
The abaya is a simple, loose over garment, essentially a robe like dress. Has been modernized with colors and design which is suits with new era.”

As I was compiling questions, I spoke with some of my friends in the US, asking them if there were any questions they had for Muslim women. Many of them asked if covering is a requirement or an option. Yashmeela had an interesting take on the subject:

“A simple thought, why a nun can be covered from head to toe and she’s respected for dedicating herself to God, but when a Muslim woman covers, she’s viewed as ‘oppressed?’ Sounds contradicting. The key to understanding Islam and Muslims is to resist stereotypes and examine each situation according to Islamic teachings, and NOT some Muslims’ actions. There is nothing in hijab that restricts a Muslim woman’s freedom to express her views and opinion, to own property, to have an education and a career. It is all about an act of honor and dignity, an empowerment, and a guarantee that a woman will be judged according to her inner spiritual beauty rather than her outer superficial appearance. No doubt, there are Muslim women not given their rights, but it is not the fault of Islam. It happens when the culture and tradition are shadowing the teachings of Islam, either through ignorance or unhealthy cultural practices.”

Mashal, a journalist in Dubai, gave us an look into her story regarding her hijab:

“My covering started off as a requirement, as my family background is extremely conservative. However, over time through trial and error, along with experience and maturity, it has become a part of me, a very important aspect of my identity. It was when I realized I had a choice when I felt most empowered. When I realized that I wanted to cover myself. I felt like I had taken a step in the right direction with regards to the teachings of Islam. That I was following my religion wholeheartedly, rather than simply abiding by familial pressures. There is great empowerment in being able to make your own decisions, to be able to choose how you want to appear in front of the world.”
 By Jacob Smutko of Smutko Compositions

By Jacob Smutko of Smutko Compositions

I often find that the way I dress gives me a sense of empowerment, I spoke with Farah, a Makeup Artist from Sharjah, to see if she experienced the same through her Abaya.

“Of course I feel empowered and confident. I would like to share a verse from the Quran, Surah 33, Al Ahzab, verse 59 ‘O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw cloaks all over their bodies. That will be better as they shall be known (as free respectable women) and will not be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most-Merciful.’ Hijab says who we are. You can identify as a Muslim woman. Let’s suppose I walk into a room where people are talking bad about others or telling dirty jokes. As soon as I walk in they stop, because they know that I cannot tolerate it. They know that I am a religious woman, I know my values. It is also a warning that you cannot mess with a Muslim woman, and you take this her seriously. I am much more respected, I feel confident and empowered. That’s my Islamic attitude.” 

I explained to Parisa, a counselor in Abu Dhabi, that throughout western
culture, many people consider covering to be synonymous with oppression. I often wondered where this misconception came from, she explained the following:

“This is not only a misconception, but also wrong understanding of Islam. The reasons could be many. One reason is that people who hold this wrong conception have no knowledge or very little knowledge of Islam. Other reason could be that we as Muslims have failed on our part to portray our religion properly in front of the world. Another reason could be that some unidentified elements, having vested interests, are always on a spree to spread false propaganda about such aspects of Islam, knowing very well that the masses do not have proper knowledge about this matter, and they exploit it to their benefit.”

Farah gave her opinion on the matter as well:

“When we see frequent pictures of the Virgin Mary, she is covering her hair out of modesty. Therefore, Muslim women are doing the exact same thing as righteous Christian women. I am a very proud Muslimah and hijab is not enforced on me. It’s my choice. Sometimes, people see covered Muslim women and they think oppression. This is wrong. A Muslim woman is not
oppressed, but she is liberated. This is because she is no longer valued for something material, like her good looks or the shape of her body. She compels others to judge her for her intelligence, kindness, honesty and personality”

Speaking with each of these women has been an incredible experience. They are all so passionate about their beliefs, and what it means for them to cover. I will continue to fight for these women, and continue spreading the truth. Hijab is not oppressive, it is a choice. Hijab is beauty, grace, liberation and empowerment. I cannot wait to lift the veil on these women, and share their inner beauty with the world. Just because they are covered, it does not mean they are confined.

Written for ALT HAUS Magazine in Collaboration with Smutko Compositions
Henna by Henna by Rabiya