World Hijab Day: ‘The hijab is a part of me, it’s my identity’
Webinar hears that Islamaphobia is a reality across Irish society
Maria Syed: “For me the hijab is a source of pride. I’m covering up because I want to.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Maria Syed was 11 years old when she started wearing the hijab. She had grown up watching all the women in her family wear the headscarf and was excited when she finally became old enough to cover her hair.
“The hijab is a part of me, it’s my identity,” says Syed, who is now 16 and lives in Sandyford in Dublin. “I don’t wear it because someone else has asked me to wear it, it’s supposed to be your own choice, it’s between you and god. For me the hijab is a source of pride. I’m covering up because I want to.”
Having attended a Muslim-run primary school, Syed started being asked questions about her headscarf when she moved into secondary school.
“The girls asked hilarious questions like do you sleep with it on or shower with it on. Once I was asked if I had hair under the hijab. But the girls were really excited to find out about me so it felt nice answering, and it helped them to understand more about the hijab.”
Syed was speaking to The Irish Times following her appearance at the online World Hijab Day event held on Monday by the Muslim Sisters of Éire (MSOE) group to mark the achievements of Muslim women in Irish society.
MSOE chairperson Lorraine O’Connor described how her decision to start wearing a headscarf in 2005 made her “an immigrant within my own country”.
“I started experiencing racial abuse, people around me accused me of forgetting where I came from. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked ‘did you marry a Muslim man, is that why you became Muslim?’ I married a Muslim in 1986 but it took me 19 years to become a Muslim myself. I became a Muslim for me, not for any man.”
Ms O’Connor, who established MSOE in 2010, said she felt heartened by the increased visibility of Muslim women in Irish society over the past 15 years, along with the Government’s proposed hate speech and hate crime legislation. However, she cautioned that Muslim women still regularly face racist abuse on the streets of Ireland.
Dr James Carr from the University of Limerick’s department of sociology, who has extensively researched the development of Islamophobia in Ireland, warned that Muslim women were almost twice as likely to experience hostility than Muslim men.
Dr Carr cited recent research which found Irish people were more likely to express support for black immigrants rather than Muslim immigrants.
He added there was also a misguided perception both in Ireland and across Europe that any person who chooses to convert to Islam must be on a pathway to radicalisation.
Dr Carr also referenced research from the 2020 Ombudsman for Children’s report into the experiences of children in direct provision, noting that “some girls were afraid to wear traditional dress such as the hijab as this exposed them as Muslim and therefore a target for hostility”.
“Islamaphobia is something that is a reality in Ireland, and it’s something we need to challenge right across society and implore members of elected office and others to stand up against and be counted against all forms of racism,” he said.
While Syed has never experienced this Islamaphobia at first hand, she has female friends who have been racially abused on public transport in Dublin.
“It’s important not to take people’s words seriously and best to ignore the situation,” says the Dublin teenager. “Usually the people using these racist words don’t know much about Islam. If they read about the hijab they’d know it’s not something we’re oppressed by, we’re liberated by it.”
For Syed, Irish people are “generally very open and very Islam-friendly”.
“Obviously in any country you’re going to have people who don’t want Muslims to be there, but you need to look past that at the majority of the people. Ireland is a good country to be a Muslim in.”
She says people should learn to respect Muslim women’s decisions to wear a scarf. “Some Muslim women don’t wear the hijab; that’s their choice and that must be respected. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me to put it on. But I love wearing the hijab, and I love my ever-growing collection of scarves.”