Islam prescribes Hijab (Arabic ‘to cover’) for the body, mind and senses for both men and women. However, in a cross-cultural context – especially where modesty and downcast gazes are outmoded – the discussion staggers at the headscarf. As the readily-visible symbol of religion in societies that are struggling to free themselves of the last vestiges of creed – the Hijab has become a thorny centerpiece of growing interfaith interactions.
I grew up watching my Nani and Dadi don the full-face Niqab and Burqa when they went out. My mother and aunts covered their hair and bodies. My siblings and cousins retained the latter tradition, at least during times of the Adhaan, religious festivals and funerals. There was always gentle reasoning and persuasion from older generations, but I never saw coercion. I’d always assumed by the time I grew up – the tradition would vanish. But then, I recently spotted the new ‘Hijab Shop’ in Dhaka and wondered if the Hijab wasn’t experiencing a resurgence.
The Hijab, popularly equated to women’s headscarf or face-veil, is hardly a new or unique concept. Starting from the Apostolnik of the Orthodox to the bonnet of the Amish, from the Mitpachat of the Jewish to the Chunni of the Sikhs, from the Čãdor of Zoroastrians to our traditional Ghungat / Ghumta – veils have appeared in many shapes and forms in history.
They all serve religious, social and practical purposes. Today, while some remain divinely-ordained, others like the Ghungat, have blended into local culture. Purdah, in Iran and Burqa in Arabia also had cultural roots. But what stirs the modern debate over the Hijab, its necessity and its regulation – is not its cultural roots, but its political implications.
In the post-9/11 era, the Hijab has become intrinsically political. There are now fundamental questions about what it means and what authority gets to regulate it. More than anything else, the Hijab has now become a religio-political statement in the West. In the East, it has been revisited and in some cases, has experienced resurgence among young, educated Muslims. But the frontline in the struggle over the Hijab is taking place far beyond the traditional boundaries of the Islamic bloc. It lies deep inside the heartland of modern, secular democracies where the Hijab has found new meaning as – either an expression of extremism or a symbol of religious and cultural identities, depending on who you ask.
France’s 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools, which affected 12 million mostly-Muslim children, was widely touted as an attempt to integrate Muslims to the French way of life. The message seemed clear: the ‘Hijab’ is a mark of the ‘other’ and will not be tolerated on our lands. A vast majority of the population supported the move – which would lead to the 2011 ban on full-face veils in public. Violations now result in fines and mandatory ‘citizenship training’ – the latter being reminiscent of 18th century attempts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society.
France’s Muslim population have been protesting the bans: if security was the issue, they demanded to know why Western face-covering items such as baseball caps, sunglasses and hoodies weren’t banned too. Many Muslims felt they were being deliberately targeted. But that isn’t necessarily true since French public schools also banned crucifixes, turbans and yarmulkes to ensure there were no religious undertones left in schools. In reply, Muslim activists pointed out that unlike Eid or Yom Kippur, Christian holidays were observed throughout the school system – and that was no less of a religious statement. Many dubbed state bans on headscarves as pandering to anti-Islamic sentiments among non-Muslim voters.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2004 report, declared: “The French government’s promotion of its understanding of the principle of secularism should not result in violations of the internationally recognized individual right to freedom of religion or belief.” Human Rights Watch stated, “The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, it is about religious obligation.”
President Obama also defended Muslim women’s right to wear the headscarf in 2009 speech in Cairo. Many countries have since banned the headscarf in public institutions and it has given rise to much confusion. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany – a court ruled that the ban on headscarves must apply to Christian nuns too. But the author of the ban legislation argued that nuns’ habit including head-covering constituted a ‘professional uniform’ – and was therefore admissible. Then a Muslim woman went to court after being rejected from a teaching job, argued ‘religious freedom’ and was finally allowed to wear her Hijab.
In 2007, FIFA, world football’s governing body, banned players from wearing the Islamic headscarf, claiming it was ‘unsafe’. But then Sarah Attar got a standing ovation when she completed the 800m heat in the 2012 Olympics. In 2011, a Berlin dentist asked Fereshta Ludin, to remove her Hijab to get the job of an assistant. When she refused, the dentist also refused her the job on those grounds. Fereshta filed a case on grounds of discrimination. At the hearing, the dentist acknowledged the woman was qualified but argued that his refusal to employ her stemmed from the right to religious neutrality. The court ordered the dentist to pay 1,500 euros in damages. Today, the practice and politics of the Hijab is truly at a crossroads.
Whether one sees the Hijab as the symbol of oppression depends largely on his/her own orientation. As historian Caroline Ford shows, Western perception of the Hijab is influenced by its similarity to the nun’s habit. Therefore, the act of wearing it is often supposed to result in a loss of ‘civil personality’ and forced claustration – as suffered by 19th century nuns. Also, much of what the Hijab represents to Western societies is derived from images of diminutive women in turquoise-burqas herded around by the Taliban. Or from black-clad Saudi women who are forced to wear the Hijab and kept from driving.
Naturally, it is seen as a garb of shame, oppression and patriarchy. This is why Sarkozy called veiled women ‘prisoners behind netting’. And that adherents should have to suffer discrimination in society and the workplace – is often retrospectively rationalized and passively accepted in these societies. Those who do not, embark upon mighty rescue-missions. So, Femen activists think it imperative, even charitable, to bare their breasts and demonstrate to save Muslim women whose heads and bodies have been taken over by this shroud of subjugation.
But contrary to perception, many Muslim women in the West are choosing to wear head-scarves and veils. It is, to them, an act of worship and a vital component of their identity. Thus, while the symbol – the Hijab – remains the same, the motivation behind it is evolving: coerced modesty is being replaced with religiosity and community-adhesion. There seems to be little understanding or acknowledgement of the fact that modern, educated women can choose to hold on to their faiths and their symbols. The Hijab has become the singular locus for judging the Muslimah. Her God, family, work, virtue, fun, entertainment or favourite YouTube channel – have been reduced to nothing. The veil is all everyone wants to save her from – not the Economy, not shouts of ‘sister of Bin Laden’, not hoodlums, not antidepressants and not abusive relationships. Only veils! Given the very limited interfaith dialogue, the Hijab is often taken to represent strong political, instead of religious, standpoints. All this makes Lauren Shields’ ‘modesty experiment’ fascinating.
Shields, an Atlanta-based author, went nine months in a headscarf, lose garments and without makeup to experience modesty and protest the Western beauty ideal. She says while it made her invisible to many in the workplace – she also discovered the pride in wanting to be noticed for things other than her hair. Of the Hijab, she wrote, “Women who make this choice are declining to endorse Western Imperialism and the sexualization of their bodies. It’s a way of expressing modesty and resisting the pressure to be scrutinized against Western standards of beauty.”
It’s true that Shields has been accused of ‘Hijab-tourism’ – a white non-Muslim trying to understand the condition and motivations of Muslim women by dressing up as one. But it may yet open more minds to the modesty aspect of the Hijab, which has been missing from media reporting and general narrative.
The Hijab, often discussed in the light of women’s right or right to religious freedom, fronts a darker side of xenophobia. In 2008, Alex Wiens, a stock controller, got into an altercation with a veiled Marwa el-Sherbini in a Dresden playground. He verbally abused Sherbini over several minutes, shouting ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Islamist Whore’ at the Egyptian woman. Wiens was eventually taken to court. In court, he suggested that that “people like her” were not really human beings and therefore incapable of being insulted. Note that he knew nothing more of Sherbini apart from the fact that she wore a Hijab.
After a guilty sentence, Wiens strode across the courtroom and attacked Sherbini with a kitchen-knife, stabbing her at least 16 times. As her 3-year-old son, also present at the courtroom, was being moved out – her husband tried to stop Wiens and was stabbed, shot by a policeman and ended up in a coma. Marwa el-Sherbini died in the courtroom. She was pregnant with her second child.
While Sherbini was dubbed ‘Hijab Martyr’ in Egypt, where she became a potent symbol of Islamophobia and persecution – the incident received lukewarm attention in international media. It would be wrong to take the grievous incident to be representative of broad anti-Islamic sentiments. But it illustrates, among other things, how the veil is perceived, not as a symbol of modesty, but as one of Muslim-ness.
September 4th was declared “World Hijab Day” in 2004, “a day meant to celebrate a woman’s right to wear hijab”. First created back in 2004 in response to the start of Sarkozy’s war on headscarves, it has become a day to make a statement against bans on veiling. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party has been trying to use the occasion to further their demands that the hijab be made compulsory. The power-struggle over the Hijab spans across ultra-secular states to ultra-conservative radicals and clerics. Both parties forget that Muslim women, like everyone else, can – and do everyday – reason and choose where the Hijab belongs – on the head, in headlines or in the history-books.