The ban of the head scarf in France in late 2003 caused waves of fury among Muslim communities throughout Europe and the world and widened the gap between governments and societies of western countries and the Muslim communities living there.
The 7/7/2005 attacks in London dealt yet another blow to the image of Europe's biggest Muslim community. There are over 2 million Muslims living in the UK and there's a wide sentiment of discomfort, to put it mildly, among the majority of them in the way they're being portrayed by the media and being viewed by the society (two faces to one coin really) .
The unwanted and mostly negative attention being cast on Muslims in the UK makes it harder for women who choose to wear the headscarf and the veil to go unnoticed. Hijab and niqab went from being religious practices to political statements; a representation of a community under immense media attention of all the wrong reasons.
Being a Muslim woman in the west has become increasingly difficult. Yet in the midst of all the labels and connotations and misconceptions, Muslim women in the UK have stuck to wearing the headscarf and even the face cover regardless of unwanted attention.
I spoke to Taslima,a student at the University of Westminster, who told me that she's very proud of her religion and hijab. "I'm doing this for Allah" she said. "I'm proud of it and don't care what other people think. If they think ' oh this is extremist or this is oppression' then that is just ignorance."
Taslima also said that the media doesn't do them any favors. " The media is always putting us in a negative way. It's always about terrorism or extremism which is not true." She said. " I think people are ok with it, really, some are ignorant but mostly I have no problems."
Taslima's courage is refreshing. She's convinced that hijab or the headscarf won't separate her from society and that she's entirely capable to interact with her non-Muslim friends and colleagues with no problem whatsoever. She also said it depends on your character. " If you are a good Muslim and treat people well, with respect then that's how they're going to treat you.
Hijab may be an issue, but for me niqab is a tougher one. Covering your face in public specially in a society that views covering your hair as a big deal takes conviction and a lot of courage.
I met Tahura Khatun, in a lecture in East London Mosque, and couldn't help but notice that despite the fact that she is covered from head to toe, she was one of the most active and most cheerful people in the room.
Tahura told me that she's been wearing niqab or the face cover for over eight years and that she'd gotten so used to it she feels strange without it. " I feel comfortable and protected when I wear Niqab." She said.
She added," I get a lot of people coming to me and asking genuinely and out of interest and they say ' why are you wearing it?' and I say 'I'm practicing my religion."
However, she told me not all people ask out of interest. " Some would say,' Oh! Don't you feel hot under that?' or 'How can you breathe with that thing on your face?' "
Well, I put those questions to her. Not in any hostile manner but I really wanted to know; doesn't she feel hot under the niqab? She said " You know, I've been wearing it for eight years and I'm so used to it now. This is part of my religion."
Ok, so that is how she sees it but what about how other people see her. I wanted to know if she felt a change of attitude towards her in the past few years. " I definitely felt that after 9/11.People would give me odd, shocked looks and I'd hear someone saying 'take it off , why are you wearing that thing?' " She said.
I asked her if she ever felt scared or anxious about the way people look at her. She said, " I remember once after 9/11, I was walking down the street and there was a group of men looking at me and I remember thinking 'what if they attack me? But they meant no harm."
This kind of continuous scrutiny can prove extremely difficult, so how does she handle all of this; the looks and the comments? To my surprise she said she doesn't notice them at all.
"My friend and I were at a shopping mall and we passed a few people and she said' did you see how they were looking at you?' and I said no. I'm so used to this now I hardly notice it."
Given all this Tahura said that she feels safe. May be I couldn't see Tahura's face and may be Taslima was covering her hair but form talking to them I knew these two women were comfortable in their own skin.
(This article was written on August 2007 for Woman Today a Qatari magazine in English.)