02 June 2008

My mother on the niqab

To celebrate the first anniversary of Notes on Religion, I asked several people to contribute articles on religion-related issues that they find important.

To start off the series, here's an article by my mother, Maria Tchooudkhouri (Chowdhury), who lives in Toronto, where she works as a pharmacy technician. She was born near Čavusy, Belarus, and has lived in Ukraine, Bangladesh and Kuwait. She has an MSc in geography from the Belarusian State University in Minsk. My mother runs a Russian-language blog on life in Toronto, called "Toronto through My Eyes".

When Culture Is Mistaken for Religion

By Maria Tchooudkhouri

When I walk to work, sometimes I meet a woman dressed fully in black, her face fully covered, not even her eyes showing. Her hands in black gloves hold her young child.

Another picture is from TV. A church somewhere in North America. Colourfully dressed people singing, then starting to dance, to clap, some of them jumping, twisting and screaming.

What is common between these two cases, besides people being religious?

The people in them are following the cultural, ethnic traditions of their respective ancestors, mistaking cultural elements with religious norms. Thinking that those elements are the norms.

In the deserts of the pre-Islamic Middle East, women had to carefully cover themselves from the burning sun, harsh wind, sand and dust to preserve their beauty. When Islam was introduced, the teaching of modesty in clothing was interpreted according to local cultural tradition.

With the spread of the religion, cultural elements from the Middle East were adapted far beyond the region. Covering the face became a symbol of religiousness for some people. Some Muslims and non-Muslims alike think that, if a woman is fully covered, she is a more "real" Muslim than those with open faces, not to mention those who wear non-traditional chlothes.

But let's not forget -- religion teaches us modesty, and not a rejection of our identity. Our face is our identity, given to us by God. We have the right, and probably even the obligation, not to hide it.

Editor's note: Notes on Religion does not necessarily agree with the views expressed by guest authors.

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