What it means to be a hijabi in Trinity

An inside look at the experiences of hijabis in Trinity, and how to engage a meaningful, constructive discussion on Islamic feminism

The hijab, or “headscarf”, is one of the most misunderstood and contested pieces of clothing today. Veiling is a badge of faith and identity for people across many different religions and cultures. However, it is most commonly recognised as a custom amongst Muslim women. Lack of awareness and a resistance to gaining an understanding of veiling has led to ignorance around hijab culture. The result is a manifestation of prejudice, violence, and discriminatory legislation. Within European countries such as France and Belgium, authorities have banned full-face veils. The hijab has been a continuous source of media deliberation and disdain, which often feeds into a generalised misconception of Islam as a radical, fundamentalist religion. This tendency to stereotype has given rise to a popularised view of Muslim woman as oppressed and deprived of identity and expression.

The hijabi community in Trinity is diverse, with women from Dubai to Sudan, Kuwait to Bosnia, all proudly expressing their faith. Sarah Babiker, a first year studying History and Politics shares her experience as a hijabi in Trinity: “I don’t even realise, I don’t feel like I am different.”

Babiker is a member of the Muslim Students Association which provides a space for Muslim students to worship, interact, and share their faith. “We have meet and greets, hikes and Friday prayer,” says Babiker. “Every Thursday, we meet up and listen to a lecture and discuss it.”

“Despite the Arts Block being understood as a liberal, ‘artsy’, hub of acceptance, Al-Khabouri nevertheless feels that ‘the closer you get to the Arts Block, the more resistance you get, or stares’.”

Jana Al-Khabouri, a second year international student from Oman studying Medicine, believes that there is a strong sense of community amongst hijabis on campus. “The prayer room in Trinity holds a room for men and a room for women, and most of them are hijabis. We get to know each other.” Al-Khabouri is the Treasurer for the Arabesque Society, which organises events on Arab culture. For Al-Khabouri, “it is a much more comfortable place to be than in the rest of campus, with people who aren’t familiar with the hijabi culture or the Muslim culture in general”.

Many of the major events across campus are centered around alcohol and going out, which majorly excludes hijabis and practicing Muslims from participating in the full scope of Trinity’s social life. “Meeting people could be more difficult as a lot of friends at university are made during nights out and mixers”, adds Ghalya Farahat, a fourth year student studying  PPES.

One of the ways Al-Khabouri would like Trinity to adapt to the growing hijab community is for societies to show in some way that they are hijabi friendly, and inclusive to all people that are not interested in participating in drinking culture. She attests her experience in Trinity and in Ireland as being a predominantly positive one. However, being an international student sheds light on the difficulties of integration on campus. “There are different societies that I want to get involved with but I feel because I am a hijabi and because I’m not Irish I wouldn’t integrate as well”, she explains.

Babiker affirms that she has never felt prejudice against her hijab within lectures, but has felt a kind of animosity, or insensitivity against religion within her department, which has on occasion made her feel uncomfortable and excluded. She recounts an incident her friend experienced in a Biology lecture when, in discussion about how the world originated, the lecturer blatantly crossed out the word God from the board saying, “Don’t tell me God”.

“In the Arts Block, there is barely any hijabis”, says Babiker. Despite the Arts Block being understood as a liberal, “artsy” hub of acceptance, Al-Khabouri nevertheless feels that “the closer you get to the Arts Block, the more resistance you get”.

Al-Khabouri remembers her shock when she came across the Phil’s motion at the start of the year, “This House Believes that Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism”. “I was shocked at white people. What is your issue? Your way isn’t the right way?” The motion sparked outrage among students and was soon cancelled. The debate provoked a much-needed consideration for an intersectional approach to the discussion of Islamic feminism. “To many students, it’s easier to make assumptions and get angry when a debate like the Phil’s gets cancelled than to actually educate themselves on topics foreign to them”, says Farhat.

“A common misconception surrounding the understanding of the hijab outside hijabi culture is that it acts as is a source of injustice for all Muslim women.”

Moving forward from this, we must ask ourselves how we can respectfully educate ourselves on hijabi culture and how we can positively bring about a constructive discussion on Islamic feminism. Dr Roja Fazaeli, Assistant Professor of Islamic Civilisation in Trinity, and Chairperson of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says: “A discussion on Islamic feminism should be nuanced and context-specific and not reduced to questions around the headscarf alone.” A common misconception surrounding the understanding of the hijab outside hijabi culture is that it acts as a source of injustice for all Muslim women. “The hijab is a symbol of oppression for some women and to overlook these stories would be to deny the women of these experiences, but for many people, it is not”, says Al-Khabouri. In discourse on the issue of feminism in Muslim countries, many solely discuss the hijab, which limits the debate and puts constraints on authentic discourse. “These debates are part of a bigger conversation that must also attend to rereading the relevant texts, by which I mean the Qur’an and Hadith literature”, says Fazaeli.

Farhat also brings up another issue that arises when interacting with a hijabi, she explains  that “the hijab becomes a central, if not the only, identity that is associated with that student which makes people jump into conclusions about what their character is like”. Al-Khabouri encourages people to look beyond her hijab, to draw away attention so that wearing a hijab  can become “a norm”. However, she recognises that discussion is essential to reach a place of acceptance.

Farhat suggests bringing speakers into College “to talk about and clarify misconceptions about Islam”. Dr Fazaeli invites the members of the Trinity community who are interested in this subject “to join in the conversation”. Plans for talks on the matter are intended to fill the  void on campus that was created by the stigmatising the Phil debate at the start of the year.

Al-Khabouri encourages people to express curiosities about their faith and culture. “It’s only when we’re out when someone comes up to you drunk and asks what your religion is, and then they come up and apologise to you the next day”, says Al-Khabouri. She encourages people to “befriend a hijabi” and ensures that they would not be offended by people attempting to respectfully demystify their confusions about Islam and hijabs. This type of interaction is a necessary step toward preventing the crystallisation of outdated stereotypes of Muslim women on our campus.

For Babiker, her hijab is about her relationship with God and “prioritising her love of God over everything else”. When asked what she would say when faced with an ignorant or prejudicial assumption about her hijab, she urges people to read history, “to look at things in isolation doesn’t make sense”, explains Babiker. She believes that we should approach understanding hijab culture by applying Eastern feminism to knowledge of Middle Eastern history.

If discussion of the hijab is approached with a stronger insight into Muslim culture, custom, and history, with compassion and an open mind, our campus would be able to engage in a more powerful and meaningful cultural exchange. We, as members of an institution, should make an effort to integrate the multi-faceted dimensions of our campus into our awareness. By doing so, an even more welcoming environment for hijabis and other marginalised communities is created. In the words of Nawal El Saadawi, the famous Egyptian feminist: “She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it.”

An earlier version of this article outlined an incident witnessed by the author in a Sociology lecture when, in fact, the incident was witnessed by her friend in a Biology lecture. The article was amended to correct this error at 7:30pm, 18 March, 2018.

Milena Barnes

Milena Barnes is a former Features Editor of Trinity News.