14 Jan 2015

'It takes courage to wear a scarf'

8:10 pm on 14 January 2015

Muslim women in New Zealand have power in the family and community and are far from oppressed, a group of Hamilton Muslims tell Andrew McRae.

Muslim women from Hamilton's Mosque: Sarah Ather, Radiya Ali, Allyn Danzeisen, Fatima Farouk.

Muslim women from Hamilton's Mosque: Sarah Ather, Radiya Ali, Allyn Danzeisen, Fatima Farouk. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Women among the 50,000-strong community are probably the most visible due to many wearing Islamic dress.

The majority of girls and women wear the hijab, which covers the body, leaving only a woman's face and hands visible. Fewer wear the niqab, where only the eyes are visible.

Read and listen to the first part of Andrew McRae's report

Allyn Danzeisen, an American who converted to Islam, is now a high school teacher in Hamilton.

She said people often think women, particularly those wearing the niqab, are forced to wear it. But the decision to wear the hijab was hers alone.

"The women I know who wear niqab in New Zealand - actually it has been an independent choice of their own and even to perhaps their husband's not initially wanting them to wear it.

"It is a religious understanding of what you think you should do, and so just because a woman is covered, don't think that it is not their own decision. Anyone who knew me well would know that nobody is making me put this on."

Hamilton's Mosque.

The call to prayer brings Muslims together for Friday prayers at Hamilton Mosque. Photo: Andrew McRae

Ms Danzeisen said within Muslim culture, a woman was in charge in the home, and women were far from oppressed.

"In Islam, we say if you raise a child you raise a nation, and that women raise the children so we are actually the centre of the community."

Any assumption that a Muslim woman did not have power in the family or in the community was completely wrong, she said.

"In the history of Islam there have been women who have been active and involved in their community working since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

"I do think for myself that if there is a man who is doing a good job leading, I would like to step back and relax a little bit.

"But if there isn't somebody who is meeting all the requirements of the family then I would step in and act as support so that is my personal opinion of the role of women."

Social work student Radiya Ali, 21, is from Yemen and has lived in Hamilton for nine years.

She said misconceptions about the role of women within Islam were perpetuated by the media.

"Just because we wear scarves on our heads, they think we are oppressed. We wear scarves because we follow our role model, which is Jesus' mother, and she used to wear the hijab ... That's modesty and that is what people like to understand nowadays."

Ms Ali said she did not feel envious of the way Western women dressed - and doubted they envied her at all.

She said growing up in New Zealand had been difficult.

"Just as an example - going to school and being different. It is quite hard and it takes courage to wear a scarf and be the only one in class and practise your religion.

"You stand out quite a lot and, being young, you don't want to stand out, you want to be the same as everyone else."

Ms Ali said people would better understand Islam, and in particular the place of women, if they just asked questions.

"People don't actually question you and come up to you, they just seem to judge you by your look."

Sarah Ather, 16, and from India, said she understood why Muslims in New Zealand were sometimes subjected to negative comments.

"Really, very few - but I would say I don't blame anyone for that, because for most of us the media is the window to the globe.

"If you are seeing ISIS and you are seeing terrorist organisations, of course you would have a negative idea of us."

She said it was the aim of Muslims living in New Zealand to prove the myth wrong and show people they were not like that.

"Every religion has its own good and bad people."

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