You see a woman walking towards you. You glance at her face, but surprisingly there is no face to be seen. A set of eyes peers out from behind a cloth veil. She smiles at you -- you can tell from the look in her eye -- and walks past you. What do you think of her? Is she warm under that full-body veil called a niqab? Was it her choice to wear that? Was she forced? Is she abused? Oppressed?
All of your thoughts about this woman stem from your cultural, social and media influences. It would be a safe bet to say that the average Canadian young adult's exposure to Muslims came after September 11, 2001 when, because of the choice of a few, the whole Muslim community was branded negatively after terrorist attacks. We equated any depictions of Islam, including the hijab and the niqab, with extremism and oppression.
(For clarification, a hijab is a headscarf, while a niqab covers the whole body with only a slit for the eyes to see.)
We saw Muslim traditions without understanding, leading many in the west to see Muslim women as oppressed because of headscarves and full-body robes. This religion was depicted so strangely it became "other" or separate from our society -- something that incited either fear or fascination.
Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab embody the unique qualities of Islam. Rather than working to understand these symbols and the "other," our society often rejects it and works to support its own beliefs and ignorance. This is how Islam and face coverings became labeled as oppressive in Western countries. The belief led to laws banning them.
France passed a bill prohibiting the full-body veil in public places in September 2010 that will be in effect next month. The French senate's reasoning was to ensure gender equality and to uphold French secular values.
Also last year, Quebec legislators proposed Bill 94, which would deny government employment services to those wearing face coverings. The bill is still under consideration in the legislative process.
These legal restrictions do little to further understanding.
For Islam Awareness Week, March 14-18, the Muslim Students' Association created understanding about hijabs by allowing all women to try them on in MacEwan Hall.
Imam Fayaz Tilly of the University of Calgary Multi-faith Chaplain's Centre explained the history of coverings.
According to Tilly, hijabs and niqabs are used to show modesty in public.
"As Muslims, we seek guidance from God and the Qur'an is the guide to which we understand God's laws and orders," he explained. "Both the niqab and the hijab are established through the Qur'an. A woman is ordained to cover her hair and if the woman also wishes to cover her face she is at liberty to do so."
"It is a representation of Islam's teachings about modesty and gender interaction."
A woman only has to wear her hijab when in public or when in the company of the opposite sex and those not related to her, Tilly continued. With family, there is "less formality because there is a comfort zone."
"In the same way we have etiquette in the public, Islam has modesty etiquette," he said. "Bathrooms are segregated, naturally, because we feel there would be privacy issues. Likewise in public, a woman wears a hijab for privacy."
Tilly explained Muslim men are also subject to a modest lifestyle.
"Men have a hijab of the eyes and of the heart," he said. "Men must lower their gaze out of respect for women."
Of course, Tilly acknowledges that some Muslim women in the west choose to not wear a hijab.
"Islam is a religion of gradual progression," he said. "If a Muslim woman does not cover her hair, we should not be judgmental. Every person is at a different stage when it comes to their spirituality and religiousity."
Despite this emphasis on religious progress, Tilly was quick to criticize the niqab bans.
He said that if non-Muslim North American and European women are allowed to wear what they want to, Muslim women should have the same aesthetic freedom.
"I think rather than thinking [the bans] will liberate women, it will oppress those Muslim women who are willingly, without any coercion or force or compulsion, wearing the niqab or hijab."
Tilly suggests the legislators should have consulted Islamic scholars.
"Don't look at it from an emotional perspective, look at the issue from an academic perspective," he said. "Is it cultural or is it religious-based?"
President of the Women's Ahmadiyya Muslim Students' Association Labiba Majeed sided with Tilly against the bans, but emphasized the importance of a line between religious and cultural connotations of coverings.
"The hijab is not cultural, it's religious," Majeed explained. "We're commanded in the Qur'an to cover ourselves. The cultural difference comes in when you look at different people all over the world and how they interpret it."
"In Canada we wear a scarf on our heads and loose clothing, but in Pakistan it's entirely different. Some of them cover their faces because there is a need there because of the culture they live in."
Majeed was more understanding towards the call for niqab restrictions, but only under specific circumstances.
"If it's a security issue, by all means Muslim women should comply," she said.
However, because the France and Quebec governments claimed they were trying to ban an oppressive symbol, Majeed was upset.
"I find it offensive when someone tells me, 'Oh, you're oppressed!' Did you look at the reasons why I'm doing this? I don't think it's fair to call someone oppressed without looking at the reasons why they're doing it."
"The reason is modesty," she explained. "Islam wants all of its followers to be modest because that helps you become whoever you want to be as a person and advance in society, in your education, in your career, without getting sidetracked."
For Majeed, wearing a hijab is about not being judged by how you look.
"Even in our Canadian culture we see women who don't wear too many clothes. We call them skanks or sluts, but they might not be that Â-- they just appear that way. We are assuming because they must dress that way, they must think that way too."
Even though she is judged because of her hijab, Majeed said she and her thoughts are not oppressed.
In fact, according to creative director of the Pakistani student society Sana Khan, religious or cultural influences don't impact some Muslim women's decision at all.
"A lot of girls wear it for the sake of fashion," Khan said. "They say it looks good and colourful and beautiful."
Khan said she wears her hijab because she felt it was part of her.
"My family and friends were very discouraging at first. They didn't want me to wear it," Khan revealed. "I didn't decide to wear it because of my religion or culture either. I wanted to be judged by my character. That's why I wear my hijab."
Khan is just one of many Muslim women who challenge the misconceptions about Islam -- something she is very proud of.
"The western media show women as forced to wear this, but no one forced me. I feel more comfortable with it on."
While Khan's testimony shows that at least western Muslim women are not forced, Majeed acknowledged that not all Muslim women have this choice. This problem lies in culture, however, not in Islam.
Vice-president of events for the Feminist Initiative Recognizing Equality and Women's Resource Centre information and resource coordination team leader Nicole Dore recognized the "othering" of Muslims stems from the west's narrow perspective. She pointed out that this is something activists have to change.
"We have this very paternalistic history of women telling other women, 'You're oppressed. You're wearing makeup, so you're obviously oppressed. If you wear a hijab you're obviously oppressed,' " said Dore.
"I can't tell somebody, 'You're oppressed, you really need to look at how your religion and culture oppresses you,' because I don't know. I'm not Muslim and I can't have that experience and understand what their hijab means to them."
For Dore, activists trying to liberate Muslim women need to lend aid instead of direct aid.
"We should be listening to what their religion means to them and listening to what they want."
Listening and understanding is the key to expand and better your perspective, said Dore.
"Activism is thought to be fighting, but it should be about analyzing your own issues and fears to understand why you have hesitance towards something," Dore argued.
Without this questioning, Dore believed western society will just have "enforced ignorance to content ourselves."
"It's part of this greater 'othering' of Islam in general that we're seeing in the world right now. We can point out all the flaws with Islam and say their women are more oppressed and it just becomes this other attacking point that we prove our own superiority from Â-- and that's ridiculous."
Muslims for Social Justice co-founders and co-presidents Mahrukh Tahir and Zain Jinnah created the club as a way for Muslims to "advocate for social justice through Islamic principles." They both agreed with Dore's theory and believed it came down to ignorance.
"We have a strong issue against the 'oppressive' label," said Jinnah.
"It's more empowering, allowing people to look past beauty," Tahir added. "It's not compulsion, it's meant to be free for choice."
Jinnah pointed to a misinterpretation of secularism as a possible reason for the ignorance surrounding Islam.
"Secular does not mean denial, but acceptance and tolerance of other faiths," he explained.
Tahir admitted, though, that the varying cultural and religious justifications did complicate Islam for western society.
"Certain sects have different interpretations, it's the same for any religion," she said.
While all sects have a "religious obligation for modesty," they achieve it differently, either through the niqab or the hijab.
"In the Ahmadiyya sect we believe you have to follow the laws of the land that you live in, that loyalty to your country is part of your faith," said Majeed.
At the same time, accommodation is necessary. To avoid security issues at airports or during elections, Jinnah suggested alternative ways of checking identification, such as fingerprints, so there would be no need for a woman to lift her veil. Khan, Majeed and Tilly suggested more female officers be present if the need arose to check a woman's face.
"If an immigration officer wishes to see a woman's face, then by all means there is no restriction in Islam from lifting her veil," Tilly said. "But due to the fact that she is not allowed to lift her veil in front of men, it would be appreciated if a woman would check."
For Tilly, the accommodations are the same as regular pat downs.
"We only allow a male to pat down a male and a female to pat down a female."
Dore, however, was steadfast in her belief that engaging with Muslim communities is key for overall societal change.
"When we interact with other pockets of reality, we inform ourselves," she said. "It acts as a springboard to interact and engage on campus."
By interacting with each other and familiarizing ourselves with other belief systems, those who fear will learn to understand. We won't need these laws that work to eliminate the "other." Instead, we'll understand and accommodate its complexities and idiosyncrasies and learn about the "other" in our society and ourselves.