What it's like to be a Muslim woman in Ireland

Ahead of World Hijab Day on February 1, Brigid Aylward reveals what life is like for a Muslim in Ireland and the reaction to wearing the traditional veil

Brigid Aylward, paediatric nurse at University Hospital Waterford. She converted to Islam while working in Saudi Arabia.

My name is Brigid. I was raised Catholic in Mullinavat, a small village in south Kilkenny.

I left home when I was 18 to study general nursing in London, which I completed in 2002, and then completed my paediatric nursing in 2004.

I travelled to Saudi Arabia to work from 2007-2008 and when I was there I converted to Islam and married a Muslim man from Egypt. We moved back to Ireland in 2008 and since then I have been working in the paediatric ward in University Hospital Waterford.

I have recently been awarded my master’s degree in nursing from Waterford Institute of Technology. I am married with four children.

With being a practising Muslim woman comes the mandatory condition from God to wear the hijab. I was in Saudi Arabia when I converted. Wearing a hijab is normal in Saudi so it was easy for me to wear it on the streets but wearing it in my workplace for the first time was really difficult.

The workforce was predominantly Christian and it felt a bit isolating walking in wearing the hijab for the first time but once people knew that I had accepted Islam they were supportive.

At that stage, I didn’t have much thought about family and friends back in Ireland because they were so far away. I did think of my mam and wondered how she was going to feel but it wasn’t something that was going to impact on my family immediately because no one was able to see me at that time.

When we came to live in Ireland in 2008 I did not have the courage to wear the hijab so I removed it because I was not ready to face people I knew. My husband was understanding of my decision to remove my hijab and never forced me to wear it.

If I was forced to wear it, I would hate it. Therefore, even though I knew I was going against a command from God, I continued to be a practising Muslim woman, but without hijab.

Without my hijab, I never felt true to myself. When I met other Muslim women I had to verbally tell them I was Muslim and this disappointed me. I wanted to be recognised as Muslim on the outside so as to mirror how I felt on the inside.

Therefore, after a few months and with the feeling of wearing hijab getting stronger, an experience occurred in my life. I was admitted to hospital with a problem.

I prayed to God to allow the problem to be rectified and if it was, I promised God I would wear the hijab leaving hospital. The problem was rectified; I had to wear hijab leaving the hospital.

The feelings I had leaving the hospital with the hijab will never leave me. I tried to remain strong but I was so conscious of what people looking at me were thinking. However, I repeatedly told myself I am doing this for God.

The first day I wore it I had felt a conviction in my heart — “OK, I have to do this”. I woke up in the hospital because I was a patient and I got the go-ahead to go home.

I came in without the hijab and I knew I was going to leave with it on me. There were feelings of fear, apprehension, nervousness and embarrassment because I knew people would know me.

I had a blue scarf which I had around my neck coming into the hospital so I put that on my head and walked out of the ward. I knew how to put on the hijab because I had done it in Saudi and I had practiced it at home to see how I looked with it.

I was leaving the room on my way to meet my mam and I could see the looks from people. I knew it was something different for them and I knew I just had to maintain my composure and keep going even though I was feeling very nervous. Nobody said anything about my hijab.

I went to meet my mam and she saw me in the hijab for the first time. She just asked me “Oh Brigid, do you have to wear that?” and I said “I have to wear it if I want to be true to myself”, and she accepted that and left it at that. She was OK with it herself but I think she was worried about how other people would react to me.

After that day, I was OK wearing the hijab but if I met someone I knew I used to worry about their reaction and about what they would think of me.

I used to be a non-Muslim girl doing regular things and now I was Muslim and wearing the hijab.

I thought they would laugh at me. I felt very self-conscious. But I never did get any negative reactions — not to my face anyway. Sometimes I used to break the ice by explaining to them that I was a Muslim now. I was always open to answering any questions anyone had.

Reaction at work

As I am a nurse in a busy regional hospital, I meet a lot of people. As a hijab-wearing Irish Muslim woman, I have never had any negative comments.

A common misconception people will ask me is; am I wearing the hijab because of my husband? I am here to say I wear my hijab because I am Muslim and I believe I am commanded by God to wear it.

I love wearing it because people now know I am Muslim and therefore, Islam can gain a positive image through me. Wearing my hijab at work was a new concept for my managers as I was the first nurse to wear hijab in the hospital.

When I started to wear it to work for the first time, I felt I should ask management if it was OK to wear it. They were very supportive. We agreed that my scarf would adhere to the same guidelines as my uniform in terms of infection control so that means you wash it at a certain temperature and wear a different scarf in work than outside of work.

I have two scarves I call my work scarves. Both are blue but one is blue with mauve running through it. For me, it’s about wearing a scarf at work to blend in with my uniform.

After work, I have to make sure it is washed after each shift. I change into a different hijab before leaving the hospital and bring my work-scarf home for washing.

I am six years wearing the hijab now and I am very content with life and at peace with myself.

I have about 20 scarves. I made a scarf hanger so I have that hanging in my wardrobe with all the scarves on it. I like to wear a scarf that blends with my clothes so I choose one that matches my clothes and what I’m doing.

If I’m going into town or coffee with friends I’ll have my casual-wear scarf. I also have a formal interview-scarf that’s black to match my suit. There’s also my work scarves and if I have a wedding or a special occasion I’ll sometimes buy one with nice material.

The nicest material for me is a kind of satin which I think is classy looking. But every Muslim woman has her own style and taste. Every woman will decide how she wants to wear her scarf and that’s her choice.

There are different styles and these depend on cultural influences too. I’m very low maintenance and I don’t like fuss so I don’t like wearing pins to keep the scarf in place so that means the material is important as I like a scarf that will sit on my head and won’t fall off. You change scarves often because you wear them all the time it’s a bit like handbags really — you keep the ones that are classic and change the ones that are not.

Scarves can be bought anywhere. They don’t have to be blessed or anything. There aren’t special scarves for hijab. The goal is to cover your hair so any scarf will do but I wouldn’t wear a scarf if it’s too bright and I tend to wear neutral colours to blend with the other clothes I am wearing.

I usually buy mine in high-street shops like Penney’s or Next. I don’t buy one every month or anything. For my graduation, I bought one in TK Maxx. It was a Roberto Cavalli scarf and it was €40.

That’s probably the most I’ve ever spent on a scarf. It was plain navy but it suited my gown and the photo and the graduation hat which I wore over the scarf. I was the only person wearing the hijab in the room that day.

I leave the hijab off when I’m at home in front of my husband, brother, sons, dad, or any women but if any other man comes into the house I have to cover. If the doorbell rings I go and grab my scarf so I can cover my head and then answer the door. My boys come to me with the scarf when they see a man at the door.

I also had to change my dress style when I became Muslim because you can’t wear clothes that reveal your body shape so I tend to wear long tunics over a loose pants or else I wear a long maxi dress.

I do get my hair done but I go to a girl who works from home so it’s just me and the girl so there isn’t any man there. She knows I’m a Muslim woman. I do try to keep my hairstyle nice for myself first and also for the eyes of my husband because he’s the man who is married to me.

Now I’m six years wearing the hijab so I’m completely comfortable wearing it. I love it. It has given me the confidence to not care about what people are thinking of me.

Thankfully I have never had any negative reactions. I would sometimes see people looking at me and I have to remember that I do look different so I don’t blame them, I do understand. I just continue on about my job and the hijab doesn’t give me a second thought.

People at work sometimes ask me if I find it hot wearing the hijab but I don’t find it hot because I’m used to it. In Ireland, my level is built up to what hot is. Patients have asked me about it and sometimes I have been asked if I wear it because of my husband but I say no, I wear it because I’m Muslim and I’m a practising Muslim.

I say I’m a practising Muslim because some people call themselves Muslim and commit crimes against humanity that we aren’t allowed to do but a practising Muslim would never hurt anyone.

Being a Muslim and wearing the scarf gives me direction and gives me confidence to achieve things I never thought possible.



Lifestyle

Making Cents: Prepare financially now for mortgage hunting in 2019

Girls of tomorrow: iWish conference inspires young women to pursue STEM careers

Theatre review: Aladdin panto - Cork Opera House

Irish sci-fi blasts off: Tramp Press launches anthology of science fiction stories

More From The Irish Examiner