“It wasn’t a big thing putting a scarf on your head.” For Rabina Khan, almost twenty years ago, the choice was a simple one. But now, at a time when Muslim expressions of faith are regarded with caution, how do parents approach the issue of whether or not their daughters should be encouraged to wear the hijab?
Often layered with conflicting definitions—as a symbol of faith, a method of suppression, a sign of modesty, or a statement against racism—the hijab has become even more difficult to explain. Amidst this uncertainty lies the danger that parents unknowingly send conflicted messages to their children.
Khan, a writer, editor, producer, entrepreneur, and campaigner for Muslim women’s rights in Britain, is the mother of two daughters, aged 9 and 15. She has left it up to her daughters to decide whether or not they want to wear the hijab (as of now, both of them do not).
“They can wear it when they wish to. They’ve got to have the understanding of why they’ve chosen to wear the hijab and what it means to them.”
But both her daughters are expected to wear the hijab on certain occasions: religious ceremonies, funerals, recitals, and religious discussions.
Given this discrepancy between environments in which the hijab is and is not worn, how is the understanding of its significance relayed to her children?
“I think modelling is best practice. If you model in front of your children, you become their example. Even though they don’t wear the hijab, in the way they wear their clothes, they are very modest. Because they see myself, the way I dress, the way I respect other people. They understand what the hijab means in terms of modesty and respect, and they respect other women who do wear it.”
But Khan says she has never sat down to have a serious discussion just about wearing the hijab with her daughters. Is it then safe to assume they wear the hijab on certain occasions because they understand its meaning, or is it out of fear of disapproval, having seen that their mother and other family members would never go to certain places without it? If there are cultural and religious expectations that the hijab must be worn at certain times, do we not owe our children an explanation of why?
Khan, of Bangladeshi origin, moved to England in her twenties, and now lives with her family in Tower Hamlets, London. Her daughters are growing up in British society, faced with the task of understanding, respecting, and expressing two separate cultures.
Khan is open to letting her daughters express their different interests, even if it means wearing false eyelashes to emulate a pop singer. Her openness comes as a result of understanding their unique needs. And she finds comfort in her knowledge that she has given her daughters the grounding they need to be good human beings.
“The foundation years are the utmost important ones. If they have had access to love, to being praised, feeling they are wanted, and they have the security, the child will have the confidence to cope with any situation they face.”
But not all parents find their children automatically gain an appreciation of their culture and its traditions. What if your child completely rejects a tradition such as wearing the hijab? As parents how do we balance letting them make their own choices while teaching them respect for religious expressions?
“If it has to do with religion in Islam, and they don’t respect it,” Khan says, “I think one of the things I would do is ask them to look at other cultures where people do wear the hijab, or a veil, like nuns. Look at other cultures where symbols of religion are worn, for example the cross in Christianity. These are all symbols of people’s faith.”
Khan suggests that parents look at the bigger picture instead of demanding specific actions of their children.
“Forget the fact that they might have rejected the hijab. The important thing is to enable them to have respect, not only of their own religion, but to be able to respect all religions. Then you’re on the process of reaching understanding.”
In her expectations of her daughters as they grow into adults, Khan says, “I have only one expectation: that they are functionable, peaceful human beings, and that they are able to contribute to the world we live in.”
But when broaching the topic of marriage, she adds, “I would expect them properly, to marry on their own, a Muslim—doesn’t matter what race he’s from. I think more than likely that would happen because they’ve had the influence of their own culture and religion right from birth.”
As parents we want what is best for our children and sometimes falsely believe that we know what our children will become. But are these the types of mixed messages we want to be sending out to children who are already growing up in a dual society?
Khan is a firm believer that the hijab is a personal choice, a personal expression, and part of each woman’s identity, however she chooses to express it. “I wear it because I felt as though it was time and it was right for me and I really wanted to wear it. It comes through one’s own spiritual journey in life.”
And she believes in letting her daughters find this moment for themselves. “Gradually with time, they’ll go on their own journey. It’s best for them to choose it from their own heart. The only identity we should bear is our human identity.”
As parents we do always have our children’s best interests at heart. But sometimes we cloud our proclaimed acceptance with internal hesitations of our children becoming different from ourselves, our culture, our lives. It is a difficult task to balance all the signals we are sending to our children—but the first step is being aware that sometimes we send the wrong ones, or conflicting ones.
Religious respect is a noble ideal, and one many parents try to bring out in their children. But if role modelling really is best practice, isn’t it just as important that we as parents display religious acceptance to the same extent we expect it from our children? If we demand respect for our own religion from our children, how do we justify restricting their relationships with those from other religions?
Although role modelling is an effective way of teaching children, it may be necessary to accompany that with open conversation about issues that may seem simple to parents, but often come across as contradictory to children—such as wearing the hijab. At the least we should assure that our children know we are willing to talk about it should they want to discuss it with us.
Khan’s latest project, Behind the Hijab, is an anthology of essays and stories written by Muslim and non-Muslim women on the issues surrounding wearing the hijab, and includes a range of viewpoints from young girls to grandmothers.
Understanding the variety of messages and expectations surrounding our children in regards to the hijab is the first step in helping them discover the role it will play in their own lives.