A scarf is a flimsy piece of material and yet the simple act of wearing one has become a weighty issue. A headscarf, worn as a religious symbol, is something which many people find confronting. Some people are so suspicious of the headscarf that there have been calls for Australia to follow France, which banned Muslim girls from wearing the traditional hijab, or headscarf, from schools in 2004. Why do we find a scarf, tied around the head to hide the hair, so threatening? In the past, I too have been guilty of staring if I saw a woman wearing a headscarf. I would look at her with a mixture of curiosity and fear, uncertain of why she was covered like that. I had very little contact with Muslims and no knowledge at all of Islam. It didn’t matter if they had lived here their entire lives and were more Australian than I was—women wearing headscarves were foreigners to me.







All this changed last year when I was given the chance to do a project on the Muslim community in Sydney. Before I started doing this project, I found the headscarf intimidating. I assumed that Muslim women were forced to wear it and I had the notion that these women would be submissive, meek and yes, oppressed. But the reality was that most of the girls I spoke to during my research were university students who were extremely independent and career-driven. Many of them were studying science or engineering and they were outspoken young women who had very clear ideas about who they were, what they wanted and where they were going in life. Time and time again I was struck by how much more confident and mature they were than I was at their age. But then again, at their age, I hadn’t had to make such difficult decisions about how I wanted to express my identity.








Eventually, I myself wore the headscarf several times in the course of my research, as a sign of respect to the people I was with. The first time I wore the scarf I was surprised by how scared I was to be out in public. I remember walking late at night from a religious lecture to the train station, feeling like a moving target. At the station I crossed tracks with two teenage boys who were carrying a football. “Catch,” said one of the boys, pretending to throw the football at me. Ordinarily, I would have laughed at the joke and put my hands up for the ball. But that evening, I was scared of him. I wasn’t sure if he really would throw the ball at me, I wasn’t sure why he was really speaking to me. I put my head down and shrank away, hoping they would let me pass without any trouble.

Wearing a headscarf in today’s political climate isn’t an easy decision for young women to make. One girl, a first year at university, told me that it was difficult for her to make friends. She noticed people giving her strange looks all the time and no one wanted to sit next to her in lectures. She didn’t understand the animosity towards her headscarf. “If I decide to dress more modestly and cover my hair, why is that a problem? If I ask people to judge me, not by how I look, but how I am, why is that so bad?” Scarves are made of flimsy material, yes, but try to rip them apart and you’ll find that they’re stronger than you’d think.



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