Leila El-Kassaby never has bad hair days. The hair tucked under her rose-petaled headscarf, she says, is gray, but the average onlooker wouldn’t be able to tell. And frankly, that’s the way the 48-year-old mother of two likes it.

“I would personally prefer to be judged on my intellect, on my personality, rather than my physical appearance.”

Hijab — the Islamic practice for women to cover their bodies with loose clothing, excepting only their face and hands — is only one aspect of a wider mandate that both sexes dress and behave with modesty.

For El-Kassaby, who emigrated to Victoria from Egypt 25 years ago, dressing hijab is a choice that she is proud of.

But she senses much of the Western world doesn’t understand. She has put herself on a media diet, too angry over the prototypical Muslim woman in the news — a polar opposite of all Muslim women she knows.

“She has no rights. She’s kept like an animal in her home, her husband has other wives, and he beats her every day and she’s not educated. And nothing could be further from the truth…”

In Victoria, where only about 550 Muslim women live among a majority of 55,595 secular women (2001 Census), the hijab stands to be a misunderstood symbol.

Yet El-Kassaby says she has received almost universal kindness and understanding here.

“I got more smiles after 9/11 than I ever did,” she said. Concerned neighbors even laid flowers at the doorstep of her mosque..


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