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It’s No One's Place To Tell Women What They Can And Can't Wear

On the 25th of October, early on a Friday evening, I was going out to dinner with my friends at Paragon Hotel – except, in a dramatic turn of events, I didn’t even make it inside the venue.

All because I was told to make my hijab off. Which, naturally, I refused.

By now, the story has gone viral -- with coverage all over Australia, London and even New York, I feel like I’ve told it a thousand times. Certainly, I’ve been messaged about it at least that much.

Being told to take my hijab off was, obviously, an awful experience. To be standing with a man towering over me demanding the removal of a religious garment that I’ve been wearing for over a decade now -- it was shocking and terrifying and surreal all at once.

The saddest part though, was not that moment. It was afterwards, seeing the public backlash to a clear act of discrimination that wasn’t defensible in any way. There was the typical Islamophobic backlash that most would expect in this unfortunate excuse of a progressive society -- but there was something more, for this wasn’t the terrorist narrative that is so often thrown at Muslim men.

No, instead this was more vile, more personal, and more degrading -- because I am a Muslim woman. And the funny, or rather tragic, thing about being a visibly Muslim woman is that it’s not just Islamophobes and alt-right trolls you have to deal with; misogynists come from all races, cultures, religions and backgrounds.

Yes, of course I had racist white trolls telling me to “go wear that rag in the Middle East". You can look at the comments on literally any article covering this event to see that. But there were also non-racists, many of whom shared a culture, religion or gender with me, who instead were offended by the fact that a Muslim woman would go to a restaurant pub for dinner with her friends.

Because apparently wanting to eat with your friends is slutty and makes you deserving of harassment or something.

Noor Abukaram was disqualified after running a race for wearing a hijab. (Image: Instagram)

What is it about defiant women that irks this world so much? Why is it that a woman who refuses to remain silent, who refuses to conform, who refuses to back down in the face of injustice is seen as arrogant, bitchy and an attention seeker? And what does it matter what she was wearing or where she was hanging out?

Muslim women are held to a higher standard than anyone else from both our own communities and then the wider Australian public. The visibility of our religious beliefs is so offensive to so many people, and it seems we just can’t win. Either you are hated by racist trolls for daring to be proud of your beliefs, or you are crucified by your own communities for not being “pure” enough.

There’s this strange irony where Muslims are accused of oppressing and controlling women by telling them what to wear, but in the same breath the West is doing the same thing. Western countries trying to dictate women’s dress is hardly new and entirely hypocritical.

Take a look at Noor Abukaram, who at 16 years old was disqualified from a track race in Ohio that she could have won, all because people had a problem with her hijab. Last year, another hijabi girl in Philadelphia was barred from a basketball game on similar grounds until eventually the rules were changed.

Just recently, a mother was publicly humiliated as she accompanied her son to his school field trip by French politician Julien Odoul, who told her to remove her hijab.

It also makes me wonder, where the hell are all those “religious discrimination act” advocates that have been so vocal about freedom of religion? Or were they just here to legalise discrimination against the LGBTQI community?

A protest in the Netherlands against the limited ban on 'face-covering clothing' in public buildings, including niqabs and burqas, in August, 2019. (Image: Getty)

Let’s also not forget the 'burqa ban'. So many claim that this is a move towards liberating women in the West by allowing them to be free of their apparently restrictive veils. But is it liberation if you are actively denying women the choice to express themselves however they want? Of course not. That’s actually oppression and the stifling of the right to dress how you please.

Liberating women is about giving them the ability and right to make their own decisions. It’s about letting women choose their own forms of expression -- be it in the way they dress, where they live, or the careers they pursue.

And for some reason, when a Muslim woman makes these choices they aren’t seen as valid. For some reason, when we actively want to wear something to express ourselves in some way, we are told we are upholding constructs of oppression and violence.

Tell me, what’s more problematic -- me wanting to cover my hair, or a man demanding that I don’t?