By Gráinne Ní Aodha
I believed there was a God, but I couldn’t find God in the Catholic religion, it didn’t make sense for me.
I wasn’t a practising Catholic but I still believed in God, and life was fine but I needed an element of purpose. I started reading the Bible, and felt like their was a total lack of clarity.
BRIGID AYLWARD, A paediatric nurse at University Hospital Waterford, grew up as a Christian, but wouldn’t have given much consideration to what that meant.
It was after she left home that she started thinking more about where she was was going and for what purpose she was here.
She decided that she would travel to a Muslim country where she would work as a nurse in the hope that in isolation, she could reconnect with God, confirming her belief.
“When I got to Saudi Arabia, I realised that I had a very western mindset, a western culture. I had so many questions: ‘What the heck is with these women who covered head; I thought it was sad to look at, and that women had no place in society.”
‘Mothers behind the veil’
Brigid says that working as a paediatric nurse in a Muslim country she got to know the “mothers behind the veil”, and disspelled myths she had about the veil.
“They don’t have to cover – it’s their choice, they prefer to. They’re human, they’re normal. I started to read about Islam purely to do my job better and to understand these women better.
It started to make sense to me – it excited to me. It wasn’t anything I thought it was before.
In November 2008 Brigid accepted Islam. There were some fears she had that were associated with it, about what her mum would say and what her family would say.
Her husband, who she met while working in hospital in Saudi helped her deal with her fears and she says her family have seen the sense of purpose the religion has given her.
“I’ve only ever had positive reactions. I knew people would be surprised at a big change. I’ve only experienced niceness, that’s the great spirit of Ireland.”
Brigid says that the news of Donald Trump’s travel ban saddened her, but that she’d be sad no matter what religion they were.
“What Trump has done is put a mark on Muslims that says ‘We’ve a reason to be afraid of these people’. This is what we’ve been working against, it’s putting fuel on a fire.”
Misconceptions about Muslims
Dr Rachel Woodlock is an Australian Muslim academic who lives in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. She’s been studying attitudes about Muslims and opinions of Muslims themselves, and says that there are many misconceptions around Islam – one of which is not all Muslims are really religious.
“In Christianity, you’re meant to fast during Lent, but not all Catholics fast, not all Catholics go to church, and it’s the same with Islam. Muslims are a lot more heterogeneous – there’s no Vatican equivalent that prescribes what you do.”
Woodlock says that a survey was done of a population in Victoria, Australia that showed rates of ‘religiousness’ was the same in the general population as it was with Muslims.
“[Some Muslims] go to mosques the same way some Christians go to church at Christmas time.
After the Lindt café siege, Woodlock said that different states reacted differently – states like New South Wales started a multicultural-crime force, while Brisbane set-up a multicultural centre.
“The thing about the attacker though, the Muslim community had been saying this guy is crazy, we’re worried about him, he doesn’t represent us. At the Quebec shooting this week, the attacker was called a ‘lone wolf’. Well Man Haron Monis was our lone wolf.”
She says that in Australia, Muslims make up 2% of the population but take up 30-40% of the media coverage, while in Ireland, about 1% of the population is Muslim and half a percent is covered in the media.
“I think the history of terrorism in the north means Ireland can contextualise a national crisis a bit better than most.”
Hijabs used as political props
In traditional Muslim cultures, both men and women covered their bodies. It later evolved so that it was reserved only for upper class women. This then eventually spread out to all families as a symbol of culture and identity in the 18th century.
“Europeans argued that the veil, of the hijab emancipated women,” Woodlock says. “But ironically, people like Lord Cromer who were arguing that these women needed to be set free, were also opposing the suffragette movement in America.”
In the Ottoman empire, women were a representation of the Muslim world; the Hijab was seen as the last barrier of defence. “So the veil took on a political current that it wouldn’t have had in previous eras.”
Even more so now – with burkini bans in France causing a debate over how to deal with the fear of terrorism and a recent ruling by a Swedish High Court that means Muslim girls must learn to swim with boys as part of their education, the issue of how to make room for tradition in a modern setting is becoming more and more tricky.
“Most Muslim women in the west chose to wear a hijab as part of their identity – it’s not a fundamentalist act,” says Woodlock.
It’s a part of the religion and there are a lot of different meanings to it, but it all gets collapsed into one symbol of religion.
“It’s the woman who wants to wear this,” says Brigid. “When you actually wear it then you realise the benefits.
“As well as fulfilling the religious requirements, for me I’ve gained more confidence when I speak, they’re not looking at me at what my hair is like, what my body is like, I have an inner confidence.”
Woodlock recalls donning a veil when she was visiting a Muslim country, and she says it gave her an deeper understanding of why women wear it.
“I really got a sense of the privacy of it – I feel I’m able to look out at the world and operate in the world without the world intruding on me.
“But I wouldn’t wear it in the West, as it can create a fear and apprehension.”
Aylward and Woodlock took part in the only registered event in Ireland to mark World Hijab Day last Wednesday at Waterford Institute of Technology. The an annual global event was set up by New Yorker Nazma Khan in 2013 in order to fight prejudice and discrimination against Muslim women.