Aside from all the obvious factors (learning a new language, eating all the delicious food, having a second family), one of the best things to come from my year as a high school exchange student was being put in a situation where I was able to become friends with so many contemporaries from different countries around the world.
Being forced out of my comfort zone and made to take up the role of cultural outsider at such a young and impressionable age, combined with the confrontation of so many people just like me in some ways yet so different in others had a huge impact on the way I reflect on cultural differences as an adult. Living in a place like London now where cultures from the far reaches of the globe co-exist in largely such a positive way has further developed a love for rich cultural differences, however this is not always the case in so many places.
Recently I read about World Hijab Day; an initiative started in 2013 by Bangladesh-born American Nazma Khan as a way to ‘build bridges of understanding, awareness, and education about the hijab.’ In particular, the organisation invites people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths to wear the hijab for a day, to stand in solidarity with Muslim women, to debunk the false and unfair stereotypes often associated with women who chose to cover their hair, and acknowledge that at the end of the day, we’re all the same.
The idea really interested me, as hijabs in western culture are often regarded in a somewhat negative way. While it may be true that sometimes this is down to a disapproval of the culture behind the hijab, often I think it is down to a lack of understanding, and of course the majority of people don't feel comfortable asking someone they don't know well questions about it. I thought World Hijab Day - which fell on 1st February - presented a wonderful opportunity to try and revoke some of misconceptions and ambiguity, and understand more about the women who wear them. So, I reached out to one of the many amazing fellow exchange students I met as a teen in Italy.
While it makes me feel a tad under-accomplished to introduce a peer of mine as such, this is Dr Kira Zaghlol, a medical practitioner in Kuala Lumpur, in her native Malaysia, graciously answering some questions I had about her experience of wearing a hijab
As teens in Italy you didn’t use to wear a hijab. Can you tell me what age you started wearing it, and why?
My hijab story began when I was 16 or 17. I started observing the hijab progressively with a few trials and errors. The hijab is an obligation in Islam where it forms an act of worship. But it is also in my belief that whatever “rules” there are in this religion, there is a reason behind it and it can be beyond our comprehension. So I gave myself a few years of “probation” where I wore it only when I felt 100% comfortable in it, while finding my answers. And I did.
World Hijab Day has only been around since 2013. It aims to fight discrimination against Muslim women through awareness and education, and encourages women of all cultures to adopt the hijab for a day. What do you think of this initiative?
This is the first time I’ve heard of it, to be honest. I think it’s a very friendly and interesting way of answering the questions people often have about the hijab. It seems fun & I applaud Nazma Khan for it!
Would you ever take offence at people adopting it for non-religious reasons? For example, fashion campaigns?
Not at all! But of course yes, if the hijab is being coupled with misdemeanours that could bring Islam a bad name.
Some people consider the hijab oppressive or restrictive to women’s rights. Have you ever struggled with this personally? In short, do you find it to be a positive or negative experience?
I absolutely struggled with adapting at first, especially during my self-proclaimed probation period, but my struggles were mainly with myself. Once I fully understood and got the hang of it, it’s been purposeful & often served as a guide and even protection. I am lucky to be in Malaysia, a multi-racial nation of different religions; respecting each other’s beliefs is second nature for us. I also feel that the hijab allows me to connect with people better, as I leave no room for them to judge on superficial things. I could even say that I’m able to block out some unwanted company, such as those who are only friends with people for their looks. As I am observing the hijab, I’m being characterised by my personality and conduct rather than how I look on a daily basis.
Have you ever faced criticism for your hijab, and if so, how have you tackled that?
Only sometimes, here and there. A friend of the same roots once told me I was too young for it. She even commented ‘what a disappointment, she would have been hot without it’. Haha, thanks for the compliment though buddy. Often when I encounter people of different faiths, particularly overseas, they would ask questions more than making remarks and I would usually just be happy to share my views. Unfortunately, sometimes our discussions were short-lived due to language barrier. One of the cute ones I remember being asked is ‘why would you ever cover your beauty when we are all born to share them with the world?’ Once I was spat at by a homeless person in Brussels, and the other negative encounter was at an airport where an immigration officer told me to take off my hijab in order for him to see my whole head to recognise my face from my passport photo. I just stood my ground and said no with a smile & after a few minutes of goofing around with his colleagues he agreed to let me pass through his hate, I mean gate. All in all, I’ve been lucky they were all harmless criticisms.
If you had one message you wished to convey to people about the hijab, what would it be?
That we all have different principles in life mate, and if I can respect yours, why can’t you respect mine?