Interviewee: Aisha Meshreghi
Editor: Tara Mahoney
I met Aisha at university a few years ago. She is one of the funniest people I’ve met in my life. What inspired me the most about her was that she was so active and engaged in university life, a real independent woman! Always turning up with a great smile even during the worst of times.
Aisha also wears the hijab, but it seems never to have stopped her from doing anything. When the French burkini ban came into force, my big question was: If institutions see hijabi women as oppressed under their scarves, how can ladies look as free and open-minded as Aisha seems to be? I then asked Aisha to explain what it’s like to be a hijabi when such things happen.
Hello Aisha! Since the burkini ban, I’ve been wondering, “When will the time come when women raise their voices when it comes to women’s matters?” Societies will always be picky when it comes to women. You have lived in both an Arab and a western society. Are women treated differently?
In my country, most of us have the same religion; most women wear scarves and some do not but still cover other parts of the body. It is really different from the UK. But, as any minority, girls without a scarf on their head are treated differently in (Libya) but here in the UK things aren’t like this and I’m actually surprised. I won’t lie about the fact that I felt a little different when I came here. I’d never lived in a western country before, so I did not know if I had to keep my scarf on or take it off to have a normal life, but after being around for a while I saw a lot of women wearing hijabs and doing the same things as everyone, if not more, and I realized “Oh yeah, I can do that”. Seriously, why should I be different because of something I wear? It’s just my appearance, it shouldn’t affect my personality. Whatever the truth is, it was just the feeling that happened inside me, just because society makes me feel different. If I’d taken it off, it would have been for people not to treat me differently, but I came to the conclusion: “Let me be unique. Why would I want to be anyone else, let me be myself; because everyone else is already taken ” and teach people to treat each other equally regardless of their clothes, appearance, skin colour… You shouldn’t be treated according to your appearance. I strongly believe we can change the way we feel; it will some time because it is just the way it is now.
“I am a hijabi and my scarf only makes me feel unique. In a group of people I can distinguish myself from the others”
After the burkini ban in France, what did you feel about women’s freedom to wear whatever they feel comfortable and confident in?
I was truly worried: if they fine a lady for what she’s wearing they are capable of anything. These women are not hurting anyone… sorry if they hurt your eyes! In Dubai for example, there is no law that forces Christian or non religious women to wear a burkini on beaches; no one cares if you wear a bikini! So why don’t French institutions act in the same way? There is more than one aspect to the “Hijab debate”: if you talk about it from a religious point of view, that’s what Muslim women historically have to do. But we don’t want our religion to exclude us from living our lives, going to the beach or anything else! In other ways, you cannot decide what a woman should or shouldn’t wear. Can I decide what men should wear? I cannot. We should simply respect women’s choices. In Muslim societies, if a woman is not wearing enough clothes, she will be judged; in western societies if a woman is covering herself too much, it will be the same. You cannot satisfy everyone; it is about satisfying yourself. A Libyan proverb says “Eat what you like but wear what people like” which I totally disagree with: you eat what you like and wear what you like as well!
What would you want to say to the world about your scarf?
I would say that Islamic values can be talked about in different conversations. Muslim women, moreover, can not only contribute to Western styles of fashion and beauty, but dominate in the modest fashion movement that we believe in. My hijab has never been something to block off opportunities. On the contrary, if anything my hijab has opened many doors for me and a part of that has been my experience in the UK; so many people are open-minded! Unfortunately, most of the time we tend to forget it when only the negative side gets blown out of all proportion. (Hijabi women) do things to break the rules: “Look at me – I can do everything with my scarf!” Let’s think about it –it’s just a little piece of cloth at the end of the day, the scarf is like a cap. It’s not really a heavy thing to hold on to, it’s so weird to make it such a big deal. Being a hijabi will not change someone’s personality – they will still be the same person.
“You cannot satisfy people; it’s about satisfying yourself”
So is it similar in both societies then? Is it men’s opinion that count the most when it comes to women’s appearance?
Yeah, basically men will be the ones telling women off for wearing a short skirt or anything, but I can tell even women judge. It is just common sense that we should show solidarity; we should be together and defend each other’s rights. We should work on empowering ourselves instead of judging each other on our appearance. How (a woman) looks could come from something she grew up around; she might have to wear it. Maybe that’s something she believes in. Thus no-one can choose or judge someone on the basis of what they’re wearing. If it is something they believe in, you cannot change someone’s beliefs just to please society. It’s about fighting for your faith and where you belong too.
Finally, something really important for me as I’ve always felt that I needed to be part of the mould designed for women/girls in this society that imprisons us. How do you feel about the bundle of expectations women have to be part of when it comes to beauty standards?
We all – or most of us – grew up to know, in general beauty standards which say that women should have big boobs, blond hair, blue eyes and should wear make-up. In my country, as our fashion is different from western societies’, we don’t really judge a woman on her appearance. Our features are different: we have dark eyes, darker skin and hair and therefore don’t match the known ‘beauty standards’ in western societies. But does that mean we’re ugly? No. Even if in Muslims societies women wear scarves, judging does exist in (Libyan) society, which closely follows western beauty standards. People will be more judgmental if a girl chooses to wear make-up or anything; they won’t find it beautiful because she is trying, but if she stays natural they won’t find it beautiful either! I completely disagree with both of these viewpoints and consider that if a woman wears make-up she sees herself as beautiful on the outside but also on the inside. Why not just make it easy? It is widely thought that women are society’s dolls. We are programmed to please society in the clothes we wear, the make-up we use, our behaviour and then people can just look at us and satisfy themselves. We are people and humans. Let us be free to be who we want to be, beautiful our way.