curator's interview

A NEW EXPERIENCE: WEARING THE HEADSCARF AS A CHOICE

DAVID HARPER IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ASMA AHMED SHIKOH

 

Can you tell us a bit about your personal relationship with the headscarf and why you created this work?
I always respected the headscarf, but I didn’t actually start to wear it until a couple of years ago. Around that same time, I was starting to prepare for an upcoming show. As a Muslim woman, I had always worn modest clothing, but wearing the hijab was a big step. The work in my studio was therapeutic as it helped me strengthen my faith and integrate various aspects of my life. As the work progressed, I felt the need to include some of my close friends who inspire me by being women of great strength and spirituality. After I came to the US, these young women had become role models. They had successful careers, were integrated and modern New Yorkers, contributed to American society, and yet practiced their religion with equal zeal and dedication. Many of them wore the headscarf without any inhibitions, as a choice and as one of many acts of faith. This was new to me, although coming from Pakistan, the hijab was very familiar.

But back home the hijab was synonymous with being suppressed, backwards, and narrow-minded, following old traditions that segregated society and hampered progress. Seeing Muslim women in America who embraced Islam with knowledge and practiced their faith with better understanding, I am eternally inspired. Through this work, I am celebrating all these women, unknown to me, who mailed me headscarves from different parts of the country to show their support of my work and break the stereotypes associated with this piece of clothing.

The wearing of headscarves has become a very contentious issue in many countries – for example in France, Germany, and Turkey. Do you feel that women in headscarves are perceived differently in the US? Are there still misconceptions? How about as an artist?
I can relate to this question based on personal experience. It’s true, in the USA, women who wear a headscarf are still perceived differently. But I guess it has improved a lot from a few years back. This is mainly because of increased exposure to the Muslim world in the media. Also, many American Muslims are asserting themselves more and more, trying to be seen and heard in a positive way. American society has tremendous tolerance for diversity, and it’s easier to be different here, probably more than any other place. That’s why many Muslim women feel liberated to make a choice about whether to wear the headscarf or not.

If there is one message you would like this work to convey – what would that be?
Unfortunately, the headscarf has become such a controversial issue. It’s actually a very small part of a much bigger value system that I and many other Muslims try to embrace in our everyday lives. This value system emphasizes high moral and ethical standards in society, as prescribed by God. I guess it’s the visual aspect of the headscarf that attracts so much attention. I hope we will soon move beyond it to more important issues.