Muslim women in New Zealand move to clear up 'huge misunderstanding' about the hijab

A group of Muslim women in New Zealand have said they wear the hijab by choice, not because they're forced to, as they moved to clear up what they say is misunderstanding in the West of the headscarf worn by women of their faith.

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Hilary Barry hosts the chat as we near four weeks since the March 15 Christchurch terrorist attack. Source: Seven Sharp

In the wake of the March 15 terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, an image was shared around the world of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressing her compassion and support for the victims and their families by wearing a hijab.

Kirk Hargreaves took an incredible image of the Prime Minister visiting members of the Muslim community. Source: Kirk Hargreaves / Supplied

What followed was a movement of women around the country wearing headscarves to show solidarity with the Muslim community, after 50 worshippers were killed and another 50 injured in the terrorist attack.

Not everyone felt comfortable about the movement, some labelling it "tokenism" and others saying it was "counterproductive" when in some parts of the world the hijab is forced on millions of oppressed women.

In Iran, a woman who refused to wear a hijab was reportedly jailed for 20 years.

Three New Zealand Muslim women, Senior Lecturer AUT University Amira Hassouna, project coordinator Latifa Daud and Auckland University student Zainab Baba, told TVNZ1's Seven Sharp they wear the hijab by choice.

"Seeing those headlines from time to time, often people take away from that, that that's what Islam is about," Ms Baba said.

"And unfortunately they start viewing all Muslim women as being forced into wearing what they're wearing, and [saying] 'they are oppressed' and all of that. But for so many Muslim women it's actually an informed decision," she said. 

Ms Baba said the hijab has been banned in a few countries now on the grounds that it's oppression and that women are being forced into wearing it.

"But it kind of becomes the same thing when you're forcing someone to wear it, or forcing someone to take it off. So I think that's quite a parallel that people don't seem to realise - they think they're giving people freedom, but what about the millions of women who actually want to wear the hijab?

"I think that there's obviously huge misunderstanding maybe of what the hijab actually entails. And it's not just a piece of fabric that women wear on their head. It's the way they treat others, it's the way they live their lives and it's really just meant to be a representation of what Islam actually asks us all to do."

Ms Hassouna said she's against compulsion and against banning the hijab.

"So me wearing the hijab now is my free choice. I feel free to wear it."

She said: "In our religion, in our holy Qur'an there's a verse that instructs the believers to wear the hijab. And the wisdom behind that is it presents modesty, purity, chastity."

Ms Daud said wearing the hijab is "purely about freedom to be who you want to be and to express your faith in whichever way that you feel most comfortable."

Asked how they felt about New Zealand women donning the hijab in support of the Muslim community, two of the women welcomed the gesture and one had mixed feelings.

"For them in doing that, it shows how beautiful they are from inside," senior lecturer Amira Hassouna said.

University student Zainab Baba concurred.

"And I think it's more than just a symbol of solitary. For Muslims it's actually a sign of humanity. At the end of the day we are humans first and there shouldn't be such a distinction between those who choose to wear something on their head or whatever it is," she said.

Project coordinator Latifa Daud said she did have mixed feelings about the hijab-wearing response. 

"While it's great that there was that solitary, still you can put it on for one day and take it off the next," she said.

"But I would like to see some kind of ongoing conversation about how Muslim women can continue to kind of wear their show of faith wherever they are and not feel kind of attacked."    

Ms Hassouna emphasised that she has always felt safe in New Zealand.

"And I felt confident wearing my hijab. And by the way I am more confident now to wear my hijab and I figure the whole community is protecting me now," she said.