LILONGWE – Long treated with ridicule and scorn in the southern African country, hijab is now becoming a common sight in Malawi streets, a shift attributed to the political empowerment of the Muslim community in the predominantly Christian state.
“We have gone through a painful and dehumanizing experiencing,” Mwalone Jangiya, one of the only two Muslim women legislators in Malawi’s National Assembly, told OnIslam.net.
“Hijab was at one time a “crime” to some people, but now, we are very free to put on it.
“Even while I’m in here in parliament, I put on my hijab, without any person raising eye blows. We are now part of the society,” said Jangiya.
“Islam in Malawi has taken on a path that will never be detoured or reversed.”
Hijab, an obligatory code of dress in Islam, was rarely seen in Malawi streets before the 1990s as Muslims wearing the outfit often encountered scorn and ridicule.
But today, the Muslim headscarf has become a common sight with many Muslim women proudly donning the outfit.
Walking around the streets, market places, schools, colleges and other public places, it is very easy today to recognize a Muslim woman or a girl from distance.
Looking at the state of affairs, a person visiting Malawi for the first time would wrongly conclude that this has been the case all along.
“We are now free people in a free society,” Khadija Hamdan, an executive member of the Muslim Women organization in Malawi, told OnIslam.net.
“We are free to worship Allah the manner we want. We are proud Muslims.
“Today, hijab has become a symbol of liberation among Muslim women in Malawi. You can find a woman in hijab almost everywhere. You walk into an office, schools, you can easily identify a Muslim woman.”
Islam is the second largest religion in the southern African country after Christianity.
Official statistics suggest Muslims constitute 12 percent of the country’s 14 million people, but the umbrella Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) puts the rate at 36.
Scholars cite political empowerment of Muslims for the public shift on hijab in Malawi.
“In the past, a hijab was a source of public ridicule and a recipe for embarrassment,” Sheikh Dinala Chabulika, national coordinator of the Islamic Information Bureau (IIB), told OnIslam.net.
“Women in hijab were considered very primitive and backward. This was a time our society was getting increasingly intolerant towards Islam and Muslims.
“This affected Muslim women both emotionally and physically. They were robbed of self-esteem,” he recalled.
But the political empowerment of Muslims in the past two decades has helped change the public view about the headscarf.
“For the past few years, we have been able to empower our women for them to understand that just like their Christian counterparts; they too have their own place in the Malawi society,” he said.
“We have fully empowered them to value their identity as Muslims.”
Chabulika opines that because of this level of empowerment, Muslim women can today stand up and walk tall without fear of victimization.
“They now realize their rights, and nobody can victimize them, either verbally or physically.”
The ascendancy to the presidency of Malawi’s first Muslim President, Bakili Muluzi, in 1994, until 2004 when he constitutionally retired is seen as a milestone in changing views about Muslims in Malawi.
“The fact that he was a Muslim President changed people’s mindset towards Islam and Muslims. For the first time, Muslims started having a sense of pride,” said Chabulika.
He recalled that it was during Muluzi’s time that Muslims were able to be recognized as people who could equally contribute towards the country’s development.
“Ever since that time, we have been able alongside our Christian brothers and sisters to co-exist and participate in matters of national building, without being discriminated against on the basis of religion.”
“We have reached a point of no return.”
Dr. Imran Shareef Mahomed, one of Malawi’s revered Muslim scholars, agrees.
“It was during this time that Muslims and non-Muslims realized that Islam was not a barrier to any form of progress, even in a society, where you are in a minority,” he told OnIslam.net.“As Muslims, we will remain eternally grateful to his leadership in this regard.”
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