When Seema Uddin decided to don the hijab for her last year of high school, she noticed her classmates didn't know how to respond.
"Right away I got the impression they weren't sure how to talk to me," explains the University of Manitoba psychology student, now 23. "They were uncomfortable. It was like a little barrier."
Although some Muslim women choose to cover their heads with a hijab, the religion is about much more than clothing or any other external symbol, says Shahina Siddiqui of the Islamic Social Services Association.
"My biggest beef is that this piece of cloth is the definition of a Muslim woman and it's not," says the Pakistan-born Siddiqui, who started wearing the hijab after she moved to Canada 35 years ago.
"We seem to be singled out and that's not fair to begin with and that's not accurate. How can you build relationships when you don't have accurate information, when you don't fully understand?"
Those misconceptions are the reason for an all-woman forum on Islam and women, 6:30 p.m., Monday, June 6 at Millennium Library, 251 Donald St., sponsored jointly by ISSA and the Winnipeg Public Library.
Intended for women from any faith tradition or background, the free forum includes a panel discussion with seven Muslim women representing a wide range of perspectives, and time to talk in small groups.
"What's I'm hoping by frankly talking about our experiences, both within and outside the community, the sisterhood will develop," she says.
Winnipeg's Muslim community of about 10,000 includes people from 54 countries.
About 1.6 billion people worldwide are Muslim, with women making up 55 per cent of that population.
Siddiqui says Muslim women in Canada have to battle stereotypes that their faith is oppressive and forces them to cover up, as well as field questions about how some Muslim countries stone women as a form of capital punishment. Those instances of stoning are rare and are far removed from the lives of Canadian Muslims, she insists.
The Qur'an, the holy scripture for Muslims, supports the rights of women to be independent, to keep their own names, to inherit property and to practise their faith without coercion, says Siddiqui. The Qur'an also says that men and women are created from a single soul.
"That means there is absolutely no qualms that we are the same and that in our creation we are equal," says Siddiqui.
"People need to know that Muslim women need education themselves about their own position in Islam, their role in Islam, their rights in Islam."
One issue likely to come up at the upcoming forum is about Muslim immigrants seeking balance as they fit into Canadian culture and raising their children within their faith, says a woman who has faced this in her own home.
"Part of it is keeping your values you came with and having peer pressure at school to fit in," explains Yasmin Ali, who was born in Trinidad and raised her children in Winnipeg.
"I say you're not allowed to drink and they want to go to parties and (then there's) the boyfriend issue."
Muslims don't drink alcohol and traditionally do not date before marriage.
Not a Muslim herself, ISSA office manager Irene McConachy says she's realized there are more similarities than differences between herself and Muslim women, especially when it comes to raising children.
"As parents, as women, our value systems are very similar," she says.
That's the message Uddin learned after she began to wear the hijab. She explained to her friends how Muslim women are required to cover up and be modest, and they supported her decision to wear it.
"We're like everyone else. Wearing the hijab shouldn't be a barrier in terms of community with people," she says.
"One of the things we have in common is we believe in God. That's a starting point," adds Ali. "Being Muslim doesn't set us apart. As women, we have so much in common. We can learn from each other."