I was in a room full of American journalists discussing Middle East-US affairs. When the discussion was over, a Turkish journalist, based in the US, pulled me to the side and asked, "I hope you won't think it rude of me, but I would like to ask you, do you always wear your hijab?"
In other words, was I wearing my shaylah/hijab and abaya because I chose to wear it, or was I forced to wear it, she wanted to know. I was wearing it because I chose to wear it.
Her question and her tone told me a lot about her views; she was definitely against the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey, and was clearly in favour of banning the hijab in public buildings which is currently the official practice in Turkey. This ban is not exclusive to Turkey, as it can be found in some European countries such as France and Belgium. Her question is part of a larger debate about Muslim identity in the world today, but more so about the rights of Muslim women, and how we, as Muslim women, choose to define our identity in life.
The practice of wearing a hijab in Islam is one based on religious doctrine, grounded in Islam's emphasis on modesty. While there is a difference of views amongst Muslim scholars about the level of hijab (ie only headscarf, with face veil, etc), it is clear that some kind of head covering has almost always been practised in Muslim societies since the time of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
In fact, the practice of women veiling their faces and largely living in seclusion appeared in the Near East, classical Greece, Byzantium, Persia and India centuries before the time of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Today the hijab has emerged as a powerful symbol with many connotations, so if I choose to cover my hair or my face, I am immediately identified as a Muslim.
For many Western societies there is a lack of understanding about the religion of Islam, or the roots of extremism and terrorism, so the tendency is to view all that is Islamic as a sort of threat, thus the hijab or the wearer of the hijab is also viewed as a sort of threat.
Also, often the assumption in the West is that the hijab is oppressive and that Muslim women want to remove it to dress in Western clothing. This is an arrogant assumption. For every woman that chooses to cover her hair out of true conviction this is her right, and this is no obstacle to her achieving great things in life, granted that she is given a solid education and support. So I find it trivial, ignorant, and discriminatory when I hear that the hijab has become a subject of great controversy in France, Britain and Turkey, where it has been perceived as a symbol of oppression of Muslim women and the "backwardness" of Islam.
For us the hijab is linked to our faith. Some of us choose to wear it, others don't. But the bottom line is it should be our right to choose, this is a basic freedom.
The other issue that emerges as a challenge for us as Muslims, is an internal challenge within our own societies because the hijab has emerged as a powerful symbol which defines or identifies the Muslim woman. Hence there is an automatic assumption that modesty and righteousness can be achieved just by veiling someone and this is naÃ¯ve because modesty is an attitude, it's a behaviour, it's a way of life, it is not easily attainable; it is a life-long effort to maintain, it's far deeper than the clothing we choose to wear.
I say this because I can see a generation of young girls in my society who wear what appears to be Islamic dress, but their conduct is contrary to modesty, or righteousness. Many are apathetic about the core issues that we face in the world today, or are not at all devoted to the betterment of our society.
The fear is that so much emphasis is being placed on what we choose to wear as Muslim women that in many cases it has led us to neglect the true essence of faith, which should be anchored in one's heart and mind and is illustrated through one's pursuit of knowledge, and pursuit of good deeds in life. The emphasis on human substance is being compromised because of the zealous overemphasis on the surface or on the apparel a Muslim woman chooses to wear.
Being Muslim is a way of life, it's not enough to assert your faith through what you wear, our identity as Muslims go far beyond that, because faith is defined by how we choose to live every day of our lives, how we choose to treat those around us, and how much we choose to give back to the world.
In the end we have to stand up firmly for our freedom to choose to wear what we want to wear. A woman who is educated, who has a strong sense of purpose in life will choose modesty because she has no desire to be viewed as an object, but this modesty will be on her own terms. And those who think that banning the hijab is a solution are only fuelling the flames of extremism.
Najla Faisal Al Awadhi is a member of the UAE parliament (the Federal National Council), Deputy CEO Dubai Media Incorporated, and General Manager of Dubai One TV.