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Western Sydney poet Maryam Azam explores the modern experience of wearing the hijab

Western Sydney poet Maryam Azam explores the modern experience of wearing the hijab

Source: ABC News

For the poet Maryam Azam, the experience of wearing the hijab can mean many different things. At times the headscarf is soft and sensuous. At others, it’s a symbol of power.

The silk of my scarf
is sensual on my skin & the drapes
fall more precisely than any hairstyle.
From You Can’t Touch Me

“There’s not just one state of being associated with wearing the hijab,” she says.

“At times wearing a hijab is very much about putting on your spiritual mind-frame. So when you’re wearing it, for example, you don’t feel like doing something that’s not really the right thing to do.

“At other times wearing a hijab can feel a lot like armour. Because I know my body is covered, and the shape of my body is covered, when I have interactions with some men out on the street, if somebody’s trying to ogle at me, I feel really empowered because I know they can’t see anything.”

The Western Sydney poet was inspired to write about her own experience of wearing the hijab after exploring the representation of hijabi women in contemporary poetry for a university honours project.

“What I noticed was that women who wear the hijab or the niqab, or any kind of Islamic veiling, tended to be represented in very much orientalised terms,” she says.

“It was the typical, repressed woman, silenced, without a voice.”

The poetry was a source of frustration for Azam, who found that most people writing about the hijab had never worn one.

“Being a hijab wearer myself, I found these representations really disempowering,” she says.

“The idea that they were painting about the experiences of these hijab-wearing women was totally alien to me.”

So she decided to write some poetry of her own.

The result is The Hijab Files, a book of poems that explores a contemporary, Australian experience of wearing the headscarf.

There are lunchtime prayers amongst the disinfectant smells of a Sydney school sick bay, and scarves are hot and itchy in the Australian sun.

The book celebrates the joys and frustrations of wearing the hijab.

In A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion, Azam lists the different looks a wearer can enjoy: a laff scarf for long days at the office, a khaleeji for a hot Sydney summer, a regular scarf twist-tied behind the neck for Bali resort-chic.

The hijab is a source of empowerment, making her “as distant and inviolable as the moon”.

But there are challenges, too. A young Azam is insulted by a man in a tunnel at Blacktown station who tells her, “Go and hide behind your effing scarf”.

A friend stops wearing the hijab for fear of discrimination.

In a more humorous poem, a woman wearing a niqab has this interaction with a boy in a local shopping centre.

At Westfield Mt Druitt

a boy in a white snapback snarled

ninja under his breath

as she walked past. No-one saw

how she grinned and whispered

to herself, hi-ya!

From Ninja

The book also unpacks the modern Muslim dating experience. There are crushes, flirtations, and heartbreaks on the Muslim dating site Ishqr.

He changed his relationship status to single,

even though he said he liked me

several Whatsapp convos ago

and that, by the way, no-one else

had ever made him feel this way,

even though he took down his Ishqr profile,

saying he didn’t need it anymore.

From Facebook Relationship Status: Single

The Hijab Files took five years to write. Maryam Azam hopes it will help to break down the cliches about hijabi women, and reveal the many reasons that modern women wear the headscarf.

“It’s different things at different times, and that’s what I wanted to show in this collection,” she says.

The Hijab Files is out through Giramondo.