Sometimes, I give classes to adult students at a professional institute in a small town of Lombardia. I am, quite literally, the outsider, bringing conversations on identity, diversity and the value of dialogue into their classrooms. In this remote neighbourhood, we try to broaden our horizons while enclosed within walls and begin the process by sharing our own vulnerabilities and life stories that have impacted us.
Of the hundred students I engage with in any given week, two of them wear the headscarf. One is a migrant from Nigeria and the other, like me, is from Pakistan.
The fact that they wear the headscarf is the only thing they have in common with each other. In almost every other way, they have had very different experiences of wearing the veil. While my Nigerian student shares stories of isolation and hostility from others, my Pakistani student is deeply rooted as an intimate part of her group. Her journey from a shy and unsure new migrant at the beginning of high school to the confident young lady that she has now become has a lot to do with her friends’ support and constant encouragement.
Usually, institutions that open their doors to the wider community, function like a microcosm of the dynamics that play out outside on the streets and bars of local neighbourhoods. And time and time again, they remind us that the stereotypes that we encounter in newspaper articles or at dinner table discussions among people who never step out of their inner circle, exist for a reason. They are devoid of personal experience of diversity. Those who live in the real world and interact with people from other cultures and religions usually have a different story to tell. Even when that story is one about the visibly different looking woman who wears her identity out proud, as a veil.
To many Italians, the head covering represents an oppressive dictate of religion passed down to a woman through a patriarchal bearer of her religion. This may be true in many cases. There may be coercion by family, state, society, or just a rigid reading of religion. But the hijab, veil, purdah cannot be explained away so simply. There are diverse forms of the veil and the reasons for wearing them vary. It all depends on the interpretation of Islam from country to country, and how each person interprets her context, culture, identity and comfort level. This is why when we speak about the veil, we must be clear - are we speaking about the veil by choice or veil by obligation? We cannot speak of both, together.
Most Muslim women who wear the hijab, especially outside their home country, do so because they take pride in their Muslim identity and heritage. It is a chosen path and the path is sometimes proudly displayed to the public, as if to declare one’s values openly.
There are other reasons too. According to Teen Vogue that asked young American women why they wear the hijab, one said that she donned the hijab to practise humility in the face of her growing vanity. Another girl said that her hijab was to reclaim her identity from the terrorist narrative and make a statement against islamophobia. My Pakistani student began wearing the hijab after arriving to Italy, more as a statement of sisterhood with a new friend she made here. Now, she keeps it on in school, but not when she’s out about town.
One of my cousins in the US began wearing the headscarf after September 11 to deeply accentuate her Muslim identity and its cultural marginalisation. And just like that, two years ago, she decided to take it off and swish her flowing hair from side to side for Instagram reels.
Usually, when we see a woman with a headscarf, our eyes see this: donna-velo-religiosa-strana-straniera. We choose to simplify what is complicated and nuanced. We choose lazy stereotyping over discomforting ourselves to understand how people live in different contexts.
The veil is such a layered topic, and full of so much diversity and fluidity that when we speak about it as a generic term, in a way, it is as if speaking about nothing. The veil can be a choice, freedom, individuality, identity or it can be an oppression, force or coercion.
When Iranian women burn their headscarves, they are protesting against the state control of their bodies, they are not protesting against their religion. Women who wear headscarves by choice stand in protest with women against the veil by coercion.
Women always have to carry the weight of the ideological debate of their countries. Whether it is the Shah of Iran banning the veil from public life in Iran or the Islamic state making it compulsory. Or when it is white, male politicians voting to ban abortion in one of the world’s super powers.
The question then is to ourselves: Can we see the difference between the veil as a choice, and the veil as an obligation? And then, can we see the woman beyond the veil without getting stuck with what she wears on her head?