If genetics makes me a woman, what makes me a Muslim woman?

It is well understood that our sex is predetermined. Before even the first beat of our hearts, our genes determine our tangible futures. We become men or women. And while we cannot control the outcome, we at least have the power to decide who we become as individuals. Each and every one of us has the fundamental right to make our own decisions because each and every one of us is capable of conscious thought. And no one can deny another that right.

It astounds me that certain politicians, like Mr. Sarkozy of France, can preach freedom of expression or equality of women on the one hand, and yet act to repress the freedom of expression of a certain group of people, thus denying them their equality. France, which is considered a civilized country, passed a law banning the Hijab (or headscarf) from schools on the basis that no one should be allowed to show any sign of their religious beliefs in order to maintain a secular academic setting. This law strongly affects Muslim women, and thus discriminates against them simply because they choose to dress modestly and differently from society’s norm. Thus secularists impose their ideals on Muslim women by arguing that those women impose their faith on others by displaying it with the Hijab. Clearly, if one has the right to wear mini-skirts to school, one should also have the right to wear more clothing if they choose to. I wasn’t aware that our academic performance is linked to how we dress.

These girls are compelled to detach themselves from the Islamic principles that encourage both a constant acquisition of knowledge and the striving for dignity as women. This forces them to make a choice between having an education but losing an integral part of their soul, or keeping that part of themselves but losing the education needed for success in life. The fact remains that Muslim women must face this dilemma, while it is a dilemma that nobody should ever have to face.

As a Muslim woman who has never had to face a dilemma such as this, I realize that we as Canadians live in a more open-minded environment. Yet even so, I find that when a person wishes to understand a Muslim woman or the way she dresses, rarely is her opinion sought. The purpose of the Hijab is not to simply display the fact that I am a Muslim, nor is it to impose my ideals on anybody else, for it is not tolerated in Islam to impose anything on anyone. While I realize my choices may not apply to all others, I at least can speak for myself when I say that I choose Islam because it gives me freedom. I follow a God, Allah, who is neither male nor female, and who judges me based on my character and not on the fact that I am a woman. As a university student who dons the Hijab, I feel empowered, knowing that there is not a soul who can judge me on a scale of attractiveness.

Unfortunately, contemporary society has, in all its facets, advertised the human body as a tool — a tool to attract, to gain audiences and to be judged. Wherever we go, be it the movies or the grocery market, we are assaulted with images of what it is to be a beautiful woman. We are taught growing up that we must be ourselves, but that ourselves must match up to a standard of acceptability. That being said, is it really surprising that so many girls struggle with their body images growing up? Thin is in, blonde vs. brunette and low-rise jeans with bared midriffs progress into anti-wrinkle creams and botox injections, dyeing those sparse gray hairs, liposuction or extreme dieting. We have to realize that this obsession with our images only degrades us as human beings and allows others to make money off our lack of self-esteem.

I choose, as a woman, not to allow my body to be a mere tool for commercialization, not to allow it to be judged based on my physical appearance. My body is simply the vehicle for my soul, my spirituality, my personality and my character, and it would be a great injustice if I were to allow these things to be judged based on a body whose beauty will not be approved by all of society, whose beauty will not be eternal.

The only things that are predetermined are our genetics. We become who we choose to be by reconciling with ourselves, developing who we are as individuals without the influence of societal ideals. I am choosing to distance myself from superficiality and to embrace the potential of my character. There is no harm in that and there is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is nothing wrong with going about it a different way. Each person has the right to make their own decisions in life, but my sole request is that we remain open-minded, non-judgmental, and respectful of individual freedom without condition. I am a woman by happening. I am a Muslim woman by choice.