Bohra ladies wearing the traditional rida

I am a 24 year-old Canadian woman. I am a daughter, a wife, a friend. I am an educator, a learner, an evolver. I am a laugher, a crier, a talker and a listener. I am me and I am also you, except for a minor difference.

As a teacher, I have listened to my students’ misconceptions reaching from space exploration, math algorithms and even to the English language. It is essential for these discussions to take place – not only to hear my students’ opinions, but to also give them the correct tools to remove any previous biases, while directing them to evidence-based research. Interestingly enough, the most in-depth and meaningful conversations I have had with my students were not about a particular school subject, but they were about human beings. We talked about race, culture and religion and soon realized that talking about it was the first step to learning, and learning meant understanding. Once understood, the mind becomes open to the possibility that other opinions, different opinions, can be great.

Now to revert to my initial point, the minor difference.

I am a practicing Muslim. My sect of Islam originates from the Shia branch and is called Dawoodi Bohra, led by our spiritual leader, Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. I am not going to dive into the similarities and differences between the different sects of Islam; however, the Dawoodi Bohras maintain a distinct form of clothing. Men wear a three-piece white tunic, overcoat and pant called saya kurta, accompanied with a white and gold cap, topi. Women wear a two-piece dress, in a variety of colours and materials, termed rida. The two-pieces of the rida are a long skirt from the waist to the ankle and a top that covers the woman’s head and chest with an opening for her face. The rida is essentially an Islamic modesty garment akin to hijab that Bohra women are required to wear once they take an oath to adulthood, misaq.

I have grappled with the idea of wearing rida ever since I took the oath 10 years ago. I wish I could say that I did not have to think twice about it, but I did. I postponed the idea for a few months, which turned into years. My biggest hesitation was what others would think of me. Would my friends still view me as the same person? How would strangers perceive me? Spoiler alert: friends were as supportive (and awesome) as ever; strangers stared, but after a while I stopped noticing.

Recently, I traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin performed sermons to commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Husein Ibn Ali. In these sermons, he was not only my spiritual leader but also my teacher. He lectured on different topics that linked our faith to the world at large. He also discussed misconceptions about the rida. As I listened, I began to learn, and once I learned, I understood. I finally understood the rida to be liberating. It strips away materialism and encourages people to look at the person for who they are, not what they are wearing. It represents my little, loving community. It allows me to focus on my mind and personality. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to wear it everywhere, not just at my masjid during religious occasions.

I am constantly witnessing diversity in Canada, so I asked myself, “Why am I not embracing the rida? Why am I not proving to myself, while showing others, that it is okay to be dressed differently?” Too often, we are quick to make judgments about those around us; and most times, we are usually incorrect about our initial prejudice. For instance, your friends invite you for dinner at a restaurant that you have never been to, catering a cuisine you have never tried. You enter the restaurant, examine the menu, inhale the foreign flavours and then make a snap judgment that you will not enjoy the food. When the dishes arrive, you are surprised by their appearance as they are laced with different colours and textures. Your friends encourage you to try at least one mouthful and as you bite into the unknown, you are pleasantly surprised with the new flavours you experience. Your friends tell you about the origin of the dish, the different herbs and spices used, benefits of the meal and so on, until the conversation has overtaken your initial bias. We, as human beings, place judgments on unfamiliar things. Whether that be unfamiliar cuisines, school subjects, or – in this particular case – clothing. The reason I am sharing my lifestyle change with you is to show the transparency of this process, so that something that initially was perhaps a misconception, or all together unfamiliar, will now become well known to you.

I have always believed in the motto, “Live and let live.” Focus on your life and let others live theirs, which is something I still adhere to. Dressing differently does not change that, and ultimately does not change me as an individual. I hope you will support me as I embark on this sort-of-the-same, sort-of-different journey.

Zahra Abdulhusein
Education Professional (MA, OCT, RECE)