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Opinion| How dressed in full hijab, I felt more freedom of expression

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In 2019, I was cast as an extra on Kenneth Branagh’s re-make of Death on The Nile.

I was very excited about wearing something beaded, jewelled or gold for my screen debut but, alas, my inner Cleopatra was put back into storage when I was presented with a floor length abaya and flowing chador.

“It’s not going to be a pretty one,” a member of the costume department said, as she pinned my hair back to be covered.

Death on the Nile 2019 (55026796)
Death on the Nile 2019 (55026796)

A few of the other supporting actors were also dismayed at the choice of clothing. As Egypt is so often associated with glamour and belly dancing, we forget many regular Egyptians in the 20’s would have been wearing hijab.

In a homogeneous sea of black, we billowed out to the ‘Nile’ which was actually in the Cotswolds.

After three days of filming I, and many other female members of the cast started to appreciate the comfort the abaya afforded and no longer saw it as a cumbersome symbol of oppression.

We discussed the freedom it gave us from comparison, as modern women are so often trained to look at the female form as men do - judging it on a socially determined scale of beauty that twists and turns as frequently as a river.

The head covering was a breath of fresh air, for three days I was removed from worry about my hair, something I’ve spent half my life ironing and bleaching into submission.

The viewpoint that wearing hijab yields to a modest male ideal is just as true for micro skirts or tiny bikinis yielding to a male dominated, sexualised version of woman.

It’s how you deal with the choice -no woman should willingly submit to any ideal except her own.

We found ourselves at the mercy of our own prejudice upon being presented with the costume, something as modern women, we should never do - whether it’s a burqua or bikini.

I always thought that my rights as a Western woman represented the absolute in female freedom, that an intrinsic need to objectify oneself to demonstrate feminism was as natural as breathing. Decoration of the female form is a tale as old as time, and it's beauty should be celebrated. But I found myself wondering if a particular breed of female chauvanism was tied to contemporary feminine attire, particularly that portrayed in mainstream media.

Are Little Mix, Ariana Grande et al any less subjugated to a male stereotype than the women in hijab?

To cover is to hide, and a woman should never hide - she should be bold and colourful.

Yet what was interesting, when painted in black, I (and others attested to this too) felt more bold than ever. I no longer had the weight of beauty resting on my shoulders and found I could be my authentic self.

Beauty, and the pressures of the £603bn beauty industry is a weight that for so many women has become the difference between their confidence and expression in public.

Let’s be clear I’m purely talking about clothing here not wider discussion on women’s rights- nor am I advocating the use of Islamic hijab without actually practising the faith,but it struck me that, like the Costwolds posing as the Nile - perception is everything.

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