A woman’s beauty, from the inside and out, is something highly treasured and celebrated in every culture. Still more, it is something within her power to choose how to experience her special qualities, without taking on the risk of being abused on the sexual front lines - the place where feminine beauty leads.
As a woman, you can believe your freedom lies in the ability and right to act, dress, express and carry yourself in whichever way you want without censure; and, if you needed to, you could use your sexual guiles to get what you want. Or, you could feel and think in a different way - that your beauty must be veiled, made exclusive and reserved for your husband, father, brother or son to protect you from harm or being objectified as a plaything.
Taken to the extreme, neither is good. There is no art form when young girls publicly bare their bodies and swing their naked hips in a desperate attempt to sell a film or music video. Nor is it to be tolerated when a woman is forced by her society to hide and cover without it being her decision. Both ways, you lose yourself and identity as an empowered woman.
I interviewed Anouar Swed, an independent 28-year-old Arab British girl living in London who chose to wear the hijab for four years but then decided - again of her free will - to take it off.
When we meet at Costa Coffee on the Edgware Road, I notice her sparkly brown eyes, long chestnut curls left loose without a pin, her slim figure, colourful trendy outfit and charming feminine presence.
She tells me her story:
“The hijab came about in an extraordinarily random way. About five years ago, a friend confided in me about a serious moral dilemma that she needed urgent religious advice for. As we didn’t know where to turn, we simply picked up the Yellow Pages to search for a confidential Muslim telephone line for an answer.
“After some research, we got through to a Saudi sheik and spent almost an hour talking with him. His advice to my friend was clear. He said: ‘You cannot rectify a mistake by making an even bigger one. You alone will have to live with it’. And that was that for her.
“But, for me, I was curious to ask more questions. He seemed intelligent, reasonable and non-judgmental. So I put it to him: ‘Do we as Muslim girls need to wear the hijab?’ To which he referred me to a verse in the Koran that is usually quoted on the issue – Surat Nur, 30.
“He seemed to glorify it by saying: ‘When a woman wears the hijab, she is truly like an ayahor a poetic verse. It is there to protect her beauty as opposed to being indifferent about it. Beauty is something important to be treasured and not taken for granted’.
“This hit a cord with me and it started the inward questioning. I ran home to read the verse:‘Say to the believing women that. . . they should not display their beauty and ornaments. . . except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons. .”
“I kept thinking about it and wondered, what is it that I can show to all these men but cannot reveal to anyone else? Hair! It is what makes women feel feminine. Reading it, I realised that this is a fard and something demanded by the Koran and Allah.
“I was scared from the start. I was raised as a Muslim yes, but my conscience was troubled. Was I doing enough to live by what I believed in? Or, was I going with the flow? I began to challenge the very core of me: Who am I? Where am I going? Do I just want to be a leaf in the wind? Wouldn’t I rather make my own choices and decisions? And, as I believe in Allah, our creator and our prophet –mustn’t I act by this?
“So, I cannot say, but I felt the best way to start would be to wear the hijab. It was one evening in May 2005, while chatting to a friend online, the words just came out: ‘I am going to do it - starting tomorrow!’ Coincidentally, this friend, four years younger than me, also pledged the same and her moral support and promise to each other really helped.
“But it is ironic how I felt things will change forever. Only a few months before, I was sunbathing on a beach in Marbella, Spain and having the time of my life. I even have photos to prove it. But there, on the outside, you couldn’t tell me apart from the Spanish and European girls.
The First Day
“On the first day, I went to the supermarket and was aware and conscious of something being different. I felt apprehensive and excited because, at last, I was being proactive and doing what I believed in. That week, also, I wasn’t working and this allowed me some time to adjust; unlike my friend who had to go into an office and was bombarded with questions.
“It is true you almost wish people wouldn’t notice the change, as everyone felt they had to comment. But it is visible and people react differently to it. For example, my mother, was over the moon about it; whereas my six brothers were indifferent, seeing it as my personal decision. Some friends also were surprised but they all congratulated me.”
“It is hard work. When you wear the hijab it is not just about covering the hair. You need to wear looser clothes with long sleeves to compliment outfits. It is the contours or silhouette of the body that must not show. And, of course, you cannot wear anything see-through.
“There are odd practicalities and bizarre experiences too. Once at a hip-hop concert of the ‘Roots’ at the Royal Festival Hall, I was aware I was the only hijabi attending and people must have wondered. But I was having great fun and didn’t care. Though I didn’t feel comfortable enough dancing with everyone, I was happy to sing along and even went up to the group for an autograph.
“But during another event, a VIP Fashion party at work, sadly I felt like an outsider. Also, I had to find ways to do my exercise. As I love swimming and dance classes, I had to look for ‘Ladies only’ groups which were fortunately available in London’s gyms.
“The only negative or alienating reactions I received in the four years of being a hijabihappened when I was on the tube and an unstable old man began to shout at me. He said: ‘You Muslims, you are all terrorists. You murderers!’ And in Italy, where I lived and worked for eight months, I was unhappy that some Arab men were pestering me to talk to them and wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe because in Rome, the hijab is rare to see except for the odd tourist.
“But I want to tell you something that has bothered me for a while. The fact I went to live in Rome and worked for the eight months as an English teacher brought me a bad reputation with some people within my culture. In particular, there was a Libyan guy who described my stay there as a scandal.
“My issue with these unforgiving busy bodies is to ask them, what is so wrong about a Muslim Arab woman being alone and independent? Why is there a presumption of sexual guilt? What do they want to say? I have no regrets about Rome and would do it again. In fact, I can’t wait to travel somewhere new because only god can judge me.
Taking Off the Hijab
“After some time of wearing the hijab, I realised I wasn’t doing my prayers right and it was upsetting me. I would miss a time or two and then group them together at night when I got home. Even I tried to get my five primary duties as a Muslim correct, I felt something was wrong.
“I felt a struggle with the clothes. I would have good and bad days like everyone else. But for me, a bad day would be grabbing an old jumper with a pair of old tight jeans and still cover my hair - knowing the hijab has to be more than that. It is about the way you carry yourself.
“Plus, I never wanted to be a public representative of Islam, as happens when you are ahijabi. People do judge you. And I, from the inside, was beginning to feel like a fraud and hypocrite for not fulfilling my spiritual obligations. So I decided to start again.
“It was no light realization. It took me eight months coming to terms with the fact I wanted to take it off and the day I left the house without my hijab was a horrible one. I felt upset, exposed and disconnected with my hair especially. I feared it was all going to fall off. I was angry with me and I saw it as a failure and a weakness.
“A couple of friends also didn’t help. They told me horror stories about reverting. They said: ‘If you die tomorrow, how will you face God? You should keep it on no matter what’. And so, for weeks, I felt awful and knew I had disappointed some people.
“But then others at work oddly congratulated me and were curious as to why I had it on in the first place. Was I any happier? No. For what I want people to understand is that I am the same person from the inside as before and believe the same.
“Importantly, Islam is about serving others. We are all created by Allah to love and respect everyone. The Koran is gives you hope when there is none. Like for a child, it is a confidential phone number to dial and call when needed. I would be lost without it as it answers so many of my questions.
“My top goal is to always be faithful to my beliefs and never do something just to appear in a certain way. Ultimately, I want to sleep in peace and have an unshakeable inner calm. And so, I don’t necessarily dream for money or for a man. I just want to be the best version of me - which is the hardest aim.
“No matter I have taken off the hijab, I have learnt many lessons. Especially, I continue to believe in modesty and will try to keep to it even in the hot Summer time. Obviously, I won’t be sunbathing in public again, but perhaps on a private beach on a honeymoon in the Seychelles one day. Also, it is never late to achieve one’s dreams. I still want to write a novel and go back to university to study Theology.
Finally, I asked Anouar for her advice to other girls who are thinking of donning the hijab. She said: “To wear it with conviction and to always be true to yourself.”