CAIRO – Soha Sheikh, a young Muslim Londoner, says no contraction between being British and wearing hijab, an obligatory dress code in Islam.
"If you removed these distinctions, it would not be Britain," said Sheikh.
"I think the headscarf is the epitome of Britishness," the 25-year-old library assistant who holds a degree in media studies told The Independent on Wednesday, January 13.
Sheikh, who has been wearing hijab since she was 12, says it embodies the multicultural essence of Britain, home to some 2 million Muslims.
"You don’t always have to conform to a certain stereotype or fashion statement," she asserts.
"If you removed these distinctions, it would not be Britain."
She recognizes that many fellow Britons do not see her hijab in the same light.
"When we talk about headscarves, the first thing that comes into a lot of people’s heads is ‘oppressed woman’. It’s hard for some people to accept that it’s a sign of liberation," she notes.
"The hijab is not a sign of separation."
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
Rajnaara Akhtar, who grew up in a family of seven sisters all wearing hijab, agrees that public views about hijab are usually not well-informed.
"With the hijab in Europe there is a big misunderstanding about what it is and what it represents," she says.
"Even though there has been work done to counter these stereotypes I think the view that women in hijab are somehow oppressed, or have been forced into some form of archaic dress, is still the most prevalent one."
Still, the 31-year-old Muslim woman insists that stereotyped views about hijab do not lead to discrimination like in many other European countries.
"In Britain I think hijab itself is not really questioned as it is accepted in society."
Journey to Hijab"I understood the arguments around modesty but when I reflected on it, it was aspiring to be a good Muslim," says Janmohamed.
For many British Muslim women, the decision to put on the hijab takes different roads.
"Muslim women wear hijab for many reasons including piety, identity and even as political statements," says Tahmina Saleem, the co-founder of Inspire, a consultancy which helps Muslim women become vocal members of their communities.
For Sheikh, the library assistant, it was the feeling of Muslim belongingness developed during a journey to her homeland Pakistan that motivated the hijab decision.
"I understood that it’s something that’s in our religion. Everyone around me was wearing it," she recalls.
"It was my own choice."
But after some time, she started to embrace her hijab more with a sense of unity with other Muslims.
"There is a certain degree of unity you feel with other women who wear the headscarf, even if you don’t know them," she contends.
"They will often smile at me in the street and say ‘salaam’."
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 34, first started wearing hijab when she was 13.
"But I wasn’t wearing it all the time," recalls the Londoner.
"I was not wearing it to school, but elsewhere, and I justified it to myself and my parents," she added.
"I also wanted to keep my school life separate to my home life. As a teenager, I didn’t know how to integrate these components."
But when she went to the university at Oxford in 1992, Janmohamed started to wear hijab all the time.
"I felt very comfortable in wearing it and people were very accepting."
Janmohamed, the author of Love in a Headscarf, says that the more she read about hijab the more she became convinced it was actually part of her identity.
"Intellectually, I understood the arguments around modesty but when I reflected on it, it was aspiring to be a good Muslim."