By Narmin Mammadova
I am a Muslim. I was born and raised in Baku, where 85% of population is Muslim. For me, the rights of Muslim women, stereotypes about Muslim women, and their place in our society was always a delicate topic. I have never faced a situation where someone would actually humiliate or showcase rude attitude to a person who is Muslim.
When I moved to UK, five years ago, I experienced a massive cultural shock. I consider those days as the worst time of my life. Despite that UK, particularly London, is a multicultural city, I would never assume that racism and discrimination still takes place there. I went to a private school for girls, so one could think what would be my problem there. When my classmates found out that I am Muslim, they just started bullying me. I was so depressed that in 2 months my parents sent me back to Baku. Ever since then, I am trying to fight for the rights of Muslim women. When I see someone showing a bad attitude to women, especially because of her religion, I am always trying to stop and explain to him or her why they are wrong. I have experienced discrimination first hand, so I know what is it feels like.
When I read the assignment, I knew for sure what my project will be about. Three years ago, I found online a website of an amazing artist, but unfortunately I forgot her name. Yesterday, I was surfing the net and rediscovered her. Her name is Homa Arkani, and she is an Iranian painter. For a long time I couldn’t decide what is the best way to express “women in Islam”, unless I read the comments on a blog, where people called the hijab an “Allah’s hat” and ridiculed it as “a bad hair day”. And after seeing all that, I decided to dedicate my artwork to the meaning of hijab to Muslim women.
What is the hijab?
To most people it is a piece of fabric; not exactly long, but big enough to be wrapped around the head, fully covering the neck. Women who wear the hijab, feel themselves comfortable and confident in it. Hijab not only covers, but also protects them. I would even like to call it as a “protective shield against the impurities of the World”. Compared to the Middle East, in Azerbaijan people have very different views and opinions about the hijab. Some people believe, that wearing hijab is way too conservative and old-fashioned. Certain liberal families even forbid their daughters to wear it, since they are concerned about their mindset. On the other hand, families that have migrated from far-away villages to the capital force their daughters to wear the hijab. Children as young as four years old, cannot leave the house without covering their heads. This, in my modest opinion is very wrong, simply because those children do not yet understand the purpose of hijab.
The majority of Azerbaijanis though are very accepting of women’s choices. No matter what choice it may be. If a lady decides to cover her head on her own accord, people are going to respect her for that, because she is covering not for somebody else’s approval but for herself and God. Those conservative families that force the hijab, most often do not realize what their daughters end up doing once they leave the house. I have witnessed such an occasion with my own very eyes.
My neighbors that lived across the road from us were very religious. They were one of the few families that would not give their daughters the right to choose. Their eldest daughter came to school one day, in 9th grade, with her head covered. Naturally, people started to congratulate her, and praise her for accepting such a difficult life style. She didn’t seem to be very happy about it, and everyone noticed. I didn’t feel the light, clean confidence radiating from her, the way I felt from older hijabi grandmas that helped at our house. Something was off about her, she seemed trapped. She wore it all throughout high school while constantly complaining that she felt less beautiful than the other girls in our school. We both graduated and I ended up studying abroad.
On my first university Spring Break I returned back home to spend time with my family. There was a BIG surprise waiting for me. I have arrived safe and sound, had a “welcome back” dinner with my family and excused myself to my room. As I was getting ready to go to bed, I looked out of my window and saw my neighbors’ daughter leaving the house. I was shocked to see that she was dressed in a niqab now. I couldn't even recognize that it was her, I was just surprised to see a niqabi in Baku. She passes her parents’ house, walks down the road and hides in a dark alley. I thought it was very weird, so I kept watching. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my old classmate emerge from the shadows WITHOUT the niqab, dressed in a tight, revealing outfit, that is by no means suitable for a Muslim woman, let alone for a lady that is going somewhere at night. She passed the block strutting in high heels and disappeared.
This is when I myself understood why religion and religious garments should never be forced, and in my opinion this is a great example of that. Faith should come from the heart, should be understood by the mind, and accepted by the soul. Nobody has the right to force you, even your family. They simply do not trust you or themselves enough and are more conserved with what other people might think. This is very hypocritical..
This being said, the artwork that I have created portraits the true purpose of hijab. A woman that covers her head should do it so that the people around her focus on her personality first hand, not outer beauty. We always say that inner beauty is much more valuable, but we never see it to be true in our society. These ladies make the emphasis for the men around her to understand that they are interested in serious relationships and are not playing around. This is very rare and precious nowadays, with the way media portrays female beauty, objectifying women. Media is largely to blame for the way both men and women act now. So in one way or another a true hijabi is a rebel, refusing to go with a flow of media, making her own rules, that is why she is made fun of and put down sometimes, because her bullies would never have the courage to stand up against the influence of other media-brainwashed people. This is what I tried to recreate in my artwork, the inner world of a hijabi. I made a picture of a girl, her hair braided, with a happy expression on her face. There is a bunch of toys surrounding her head, along with a yellow paper sun, and cotton clouds – representing her thoughts and feelings. Over all that is her hijab, made out of a cellophane bag. This work symbolizes how the hijab serves a Muslim woman, and the purpose behind wearing it. It is a way to protect your inner values, your thoughts, making the woman wearing it especially precious and confident.
There is not much known about the artist - Homa Arkani. All I could gather was that she is originally from Iran, with an Azerbaijani ancestry. She focuses on creating liberating art about Muslim women, particularly drawing inspiration from Persian culture. In Iran her art is considered “controversial” and even dangerous, as they give a true insight on what is happening in their society. The authorities are afraid of younger female population being inspired by her works and rebelling artistically, just like her. Homa has nothing to fear of, since she is now living abroad and has a European citizenship. I fell in love with her style and courage.