This is a piece I wrote a while ago, in my Freshman year at University for a creative writing class. I recently read an article that talked about how there are not enough positive images of veiled women in Western society, so I decided this was worth publishing. This in honour of one of the most inspiring and beautiful women I know, and in honour of the strength veiled women show every day in the face of so much racism. The name in this piece is fictitious and has been altered in order to protect the privacy of those involved.
Her veil spoke for her before she ever said a word. In my prejudiced mind it told me she was conservative, religious, naïve and timid. I had always prided myself in having an open mind, in not judging books by their cover, in paying no heed to things as superficial as race and religion. I always told myself that the international lifestyle I had been brought up in had taught me better. Yet here I found myself in an international school, in a classroom where around 40% of the students were either Muslim or devout in their own religion, and I found myself judging them, before we even had one conversation. I had never realized the strength of the influence Western culture had on me until I left the Americas.
Suddenly the world I had known and everything I had unwittingly taken as gospel was was not the same. As if I had fallen into a Lewis Carrol novel, where right was wrong, up was down and my mind had to rearrange itself in order to understand this new world I was in. This was not a case of adapting to life in a developing country; this was a case of adapting to an entirely new set of ideals, priorities, beliefs and lifestyles. And Malika, the girl with the veil, opened my eyes to it all.
I would be lying if I had said that Malika and I instantly became friends. It took me almost a year to even have a proper conversation with her, which only actually happened thanks to a mutual friend. I still remember when I first heard her point out that she thought Johnny Depp was attractive, or “hot” in her own words. My first thought was that she should not be saying, or even thinking those things. Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined it was against her religion to do so. A few minutes later I realized the absurdity of that thought and it was only then that the true scope of my prejudice occurred to me. If I had to guess, I would say that this was precisely the moment when I began to look at Malika, and everyone else I had met thus far in Tanzania, as a girl like any other. This was the moment I began to understand that her veil did not silence her mouth, or her thoughts, that it didn’t make her any different from me. Not in any significant way at least. It was like putting on a brand new pair of glasses after you first learn you need them, when you realize the world you’ve been looking at has so much mroe beautiful detail that you’ve been missing all along.
I recall a school field trip where she was one of my roommates. She would wake up every morning to pray, just before sunrise. I would watch her with my eyes only half open, entranced by the repetition of movements and phrases and the concentration and devotion with which they were performed. I asked her about her religion, her personal beliefs, her family’s views and her culture, and each time I was met with an honest and uninhibited response. She would never speak as if this was the only solution, the only way of thinking; she would simply state her belief without any imposition, you were free to disagree. She told me why she prayed, and why she fasted during Ramadan. She explained her views on dating, and how she would never marry someone who was not Muslim, simply for the lack of connection she felt she would have. She would tell me all this unabashedly, understanding and feeding my every curiosity.
Of course Malika was not the only close Muslim friend I had in Tanzania. She was not even my only deeply religious friend, of which I encountered more in that high school than I had ever before. I quickly discovered different sects of the Muslim religion, and the differences between them. There was even a significant difference between the personal beliefs of those within the same sect, just as there are between those of the Catholic sect of Christianity, or any other sect of any other religion.
To me she remained the symbol of a broken barrier; a shattered prejudice. Her veil taught me that no matter how open minded I imagined myself to be, there would always be a few preconceptions left to tear down. She showed me that a veil can give women just as much strength and independence as its absence. That veiled and muslim women are not passive. That they are not victims. And perhaps most importantly; that they want the same things as the rest of us; freedom, respect, and understanding.