CHRISTINE CHISHA, Lusaka
THE wearing of niqabs, a veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes, is an emotive and controversial subject in some countries, particularly in Europe where it was even banned, at least in public.
Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy even called it: “a sign of enslavement.”
Whatever the case, Muslim women who decided to wear the niqab or burqa, from which women peer out through a screen, do so out of religious convictions.
But the hijabs — headscarves worn by Muslim women that come in many styles and colours and usually cover the head and neck but leaves the face clear – seem to be in vogue among some women asking for alms in Lusaka’s Kamwala area, particularly on Friday around 13:00 hours.
“I was not a Muslim until recently when I joined the Kamwala Mosque,” says Lisa Bwembya, who the Sunday Mail found in Lusaka’s Kamwala dressed in a hijab and in the company of her two children.
“I am yet to [fully] learn Islam, I don’t even know the meaning of covering my head with a cloth, what I know that it is for easy identification for the Islamic community.”
But there is something drawing her close to the Islamic faith, and she is not shy to say it; it is the spirit of sharing among the Muslims.
“These people are kind and share with anyone regardless of their religion, their spirit of generosity has made me to join them,” she says.
“I raise about K25 every Friday, my two children raise about K60 and we use the money to buy food for our house. The money keeps us going.”
There are certainly benefits. And take note of the names.
Aanisha Jessy Mwewa says belonging to the Muslim community has been beneficial to her in meeting life’s challenges that she faced like feeding and taking her children to school.
“I used to be Catholic while living in Jack Kawinga township. I was selling roasted groundnuts on the streets and a friend of mine introduced me to the Muslim community. Since then, my life has changed because of the help I get from there,” Aanisha says.
“Through the help I receive, I’ve been able to buy food for my children. My children have access to free education, free school requirements, free food and this has eased my pressure. I do not regret being part of the Muslim community. They help the poor [a lot].”
Aanisha, who has been a Muslim for two years now, says she has even relocated from Jack township and now leaves in Makeni East, where she works as a packer at a certain company.
But it is not just about the women in hijabs; children are also involved in going round Indian shops asking for alms.
Amina Chansa, a 12-year-old girl from Lusaka’s Msisi township says together with her parents, they congregate at Ghousia Mosque in Kamwala.
“My mother told me that she decided to join the Islamic faith because they help us with school requirements such as books, pens and they pay for our schools,” Amina says.
Every Friday, Amina with her older sister who is aged 15 and a nine-year-old younger brother, go round the shops asking for alms.
“These Muslims are good people, we joke with them and they do not question us when we are asking for money, we make about K50 every Friday,” she says.
“We used to come with mum but she stopped since she opened a make-shift stall where she sells tomatoes and vegetables, we take the money we collect, which she uses to buy us food and boost her business.”
There are more, and each with a different story.
Fairness Sakala had no knowledge of Islam but has come to understand it, and every Friday, she wears a hijab so that she could ask for money from the Muslims trading in Kamwala.
“I am Catholic, I don’t even know what they call God in Islam, I’ve no idea of the religion. My wearing of the scarf on my head is just to make it easy to ask for money which I use to buy food rations which I carry to school,” Fairness says.
“When I collect as much as K60, I buy biscuits, sweets and juice which sees me through for a week. Friday is a special day for most of us children from Msisi and Chawama townships.”
Amani Abdullah, a Muslim and shop owner in Kamwala, says it is not a matter of wearing a hijab that compels Muslims to help the needy or poor in society. It is not even identification. Rather, to a Muslim, giving is a form of worship and service to Allah.
“We believe the upper hand should give the lower hands, we also believe that some of us who have shops and are able to make a living should be able to share with those who do not have,” Amani says.
“We do not give because we have much, but we count ourselves lucky to be blessed to have some money, the reason we share because we are guaranteed of Gods blessings and paradise.”
He says Friday is a special day for Muslims and is the day they most give out to the needy. “This is the main day of weekly religious service in Islam,” he explained. “Mosques are usually filled to capacity with worshippers on this day”.
Worship service which consists of sermon and congregational prayer is held around noon time. In most Muslim countries, Friday is also a weekly holiday. Government offices and schools are closed on this day.
Amani says Muslims respect Friday because, according to Islamic tradition, it was the first day of creation when God created the heavens and earth. It is also believed to be the day when the resurrection will take place, and so, it will be the day of judgment.
Muslims believe that Friday has a special cosmic significance and it is a very blessed day of the week.
“The needy should be honest enough and genuinely ask for help,” he says. “They do not need to wear a hijab to receive help, giving is part of a Muslims service to mankind.”
Evans Mwewa, a street vendor in Kamwala, says for the past three years that he has been operating in the area, he has witnessed a number of women wearing the hijab and men putting on the prayer cap and a jalabiyyah [white long robe] every Friday.
“[I think] These men and women are not even Muslims, it’s just lack of food that forces them to wear Islamic outfits though others have ended up converting to Islamic,” Evans says.
He says it is evident that people have also taken time to mark the Islamic special days.
“Even us who are not Muslims, we utilise their special days to get mealie meal and some chunks of meat,” Evans says.
There are two official holidays in Islam: Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan (a month of fasting during daylight hours), and Muslims usually give zakat (charity) on the occasion.
Dr Elias Tembo, a Muslim, agrees with Amani that giving is a service to mankind in the Islamic faith.
‘I’m a surgeon by profession, I was born in a Christian home but later converted to Islam, I have come to learn that each mosque has money set aside to help the needy, I have witnessed some individual Muslims pay for medical bills for people regardless of their religion,” Dr Tembo shares.
“One does not need to wear a hijab to receive help. I am urging people to freely ask from the principal at the mosque for help when in need.
“Some women wear the hijab because they believe that God has instructed women to wear it as a means of fulfilling His commandment for modesty. For these women, wearing hijab is a personal choice that is made after puberty and is intended to reflect one’s personal devotion to God.”