In Islam, wearing a hijab is a choice. But in Spain, this choice comes at a price

Photo: dcangelito Flickr

Wearing a hijab is not a matter of religion, but of culture, despite what Western media might have us believe.

Kamel Mekhelef, President of the Muslim Association of Córdoba, says that some females in Spain choose to cover their hair, and some choose not to. However, those who do wear headscarves seem to be more vulnerable to criticism and unwanted attention than those who do not.

“I don’t wear a hijab because I don’t have to wear it to be a better Muslim. For me, it is like another piece of clothing,” says Fatima Fatihi from Morocco, who moved to Spain ten years ago and is currently studying Arabic and Islamic Studies in Granada.

Mariem Ouchene from the Canary Islands possesses the same perspective. She interprets the Qur’an to say that a woman must dress modestly. To her, modesty does not mean that she must cover her hair.

“It is something symbolic and an option. If a woman uses the veil it is because it is her decision, and she has interpreted the Qur’an that way,” she says. “For me, each religious practice can be given more or less importance by each Muslim.”

An option for some, but not for all

But as Kamel explains, this is not the same everywhere. Some Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran obligate their women to wear hijabs or burkas, but this is a case of culture, and not religion.

“When you go directly to the Qur’an and read about the role of women in traditional Islamic society, she participates in everything in the same way as a man,” Kamel explains. However, these states, as well as the media, he explains, give Islam an image that isn’t necessarily correct.

“But this is not genuine Islam,” Kamel insists. “It is tradition. It does not have any relation with Islam. Whether or not a Muslim woman covers up is cultural.”

He goes on to explain that nobody has the right to obligate any Muslim to wear traditional Islamic clothing.

“I have two daughters. One chooses to wear a hijab, and the other chooses not to,” he says, while laughing. “In everything in life, we have a priority, and wearing a hijab is not as important as pride.”

The daughter of Kamel’s who does not wear a hijab prays five times a day, and with pride, which he insists is the most important thing.

For both Mariem and Fatima, other pillars of Islam are more important to their faith, like Ramadan, the annual month of fasting for Muslims.

“It is a very special month in which respect among people is much greater,” Mariem says.

“At the time of eating in the cities, the wealthy people set tables in the mosques where the poor can eat. It is generally the month in which you become more aware of the needs of other disadvantaged people.”

The Mosque used by Muslims in Córdoba. Photo: Amina McCauley

But in Spain, women who do not wear hijabs suffer less discrimination than women who do.

Batul Al-Husein Raie, who was born in Granada and whose parents are Syrian, has worn a hijab since she was ten, due to her interpretation of the Qur’an.

“I knew that the Qur’an says women have to wear a headscarf, but I was young, so I put it on because I liked how it looked on me,” Batul says. “Little by little, you realise that it has another meaning, and to wear it you have to be prepared to answer to many people’s criticisms.”

Batul explains she has received comments such as “You’d be happier without it”, or “I’m sure that you’d have a boyfriend if you didn’t wear it.”

Fatima, who doesn’t wear a hijab, believes that wearing one in a society that is not Muslim causes the opposite effect to its primary purpose.

“The hijab for a Muslim woman is a way to be more modest, as hair is a beauty symbol that attracts men,” she says. “But when a woman is wearing one, people look at her subconsciously.”

Mariem, who doesn’t wear a headscarf, says her mum, who does wear one, has suffered discrimination.

The Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba: Within a cathedral lies the arches of Moorish architecture (left). Photo: Amina McCauley

Media causes discrimination

Kamel insists that in Spain, it is the duty of Muslims to represent the real image of Islam, as the media has depicted the religion as one of controversy and extremism.

“Islam has very good values, but our acts in day-to-day life can be very contrary to these values. This is a big problem.”

Fatima explains that the most important part of her religion to her is corrupted by the media.

“In my day-to-day life, what I like the most and what makes me feel good is the message they have transmitted to me of Islam as a peaceful religion,” she says. “But now, with all these wars, the image that is being spread is totally different to the one Muslims defend and what is taught to us.

“Peace is the major value of Islam, but unfortunately there are some that make this not known by other people.”

The Qur’an is subjective, but peace is paramount. Finding a way to stabilise the image of Muslims in European societies like Spain so that discrimination doesn’t occur, and so that women feel liberated in the way they should, is a difficult task, says Kamel.