The Many Meanings of Hijab

Aug 11, 2011 Written by 

First, when it comes to women and clothing, let’s get one misconception out of the way: “Islam oppresses women.” That is the default statement that even when not stated outright is assumed by non-Muslim westerners, while their minds dance with this image of Muslim women waddling down the road covered in black cloth from head to toe.

Down through the ages and all over the world, women have been made to feel shame for their sexuality and so have been expected to cover in one way or another in public. So they have veiled: lace head coverings for Mass, Indian saris, the black shawls worn by Egyptian peasants, both Muslim and Christian, various nuns’ paraphernalia, and even the headscarves worn by most American women in early twentieth century rural America.

In this area, the Qur’an and the Bible teach the same thing: women should dress modestly. That’s how specific it gets – well, almost. Here is the Qur’an’s only clear statement on the issue of dress:

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; they they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; and that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands . . .” (Q. 24:31).

Just two verses before “lowering one’s gaze and guarding one’s modesty” had first been enjoined on men in that passage. The rest was specific to women.

The Apostle Peter has similar counsel for members of the early house churches:

“Wives, submit to your husbands . . . Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:1, 3-4).

The only use for the word “hijab” in the Qur’an is for the curtain that separated the men from the women when people visited the Prophet Muhammad’s house (Q. 33:53). The cloth covering women’s hair, now so very common among Muslim women, is a recent invention. In 1955 the great historian of the Middle East, Albert Hourani, could write that the traditional head coverings for women were “vanishing” in that part of the world. Now, some 56 years later, Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed just published a book trying to explain the dramatic revival of the female headscarf, now called “hijab.”

What happened after the 1950s? This is what Ahmed explores in her new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press).

Ahmed grew up in 1940s Egypt, where fewer and fewer women were wearing the veil, but for reasons mostly unrelated to religion. Society was changing in a more European direction. After all, the West had produced a scientific revolution and had become the undeniable leaders in political and military innovation.

At the same time, the weight of colonial shaming and derision would not be forgotten. Egypt’s former consul general, Lord Cromer, wrote in his 1908 book, Modern Egypt, that Islam “degraded” women – a clear sign of its inferiority to Christianity. Meanwhile, for all his wholehearted agreement with this general chorus of colonial elites smugly mocking the backwardness of “Arab culture,” he seemed to have missed the irony of his own presidency of the British Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Jesus did talk about removing the log from one’s own eye first, didn’t he?

Islam-bashing for its treatment of women has certainly made a comeback these days, before and after 9/11. France was the first to ban the wearing of a full-face veil, the niqab or burqa (see my own take on this in Christianity Today), because of “its debasement of women.” As I wrote in a previous blog, there is plenty to criticize in many Muslim contexts on this issue, and no place with more justification than in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Yet we might fault Laura Bush’s radio address shortly after the American invasion of that country in 2001 as politically expedient. Decrying “brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan” seemed a bit too convenient as a backdrop to a military operation ostensibly designed to punish the terror network behind the 9/11 attacks. This might help us understand why many Muslims feel that US military interventions in Muslim countries are simply new versions of old colonial style imperialism.

Now back to our query. I agree with Leila Ahmed: the 1967 Arab military defeat in the “Six Day War” was the watershed experience that only amplified the ongoing demise of pan-Arab socialism (championed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser) and the rise of Islamism (meaning, the will to bring Islam into the sociopolitical sphere). The resulting shame only highlighted the failure of the secular policies in place. People were getting a lot more religious, as they repeated the mantra, “we’ve been defeated, because we’ve abandoned God; turn back to him, and he will lift us up again.”

Much more could be said about the rise of Islamism in the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that it was a revolution from the bottom up. In Egypt, for instance, where political opposition to Mubarak’s iron rule came mainly from the religious sector, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers captured all the key posts of civil society: trade unions, professional syndicates (from doctors to lawyers to teachers and engineers), and student organizations.

Already when we lived in Egypt from 1989 to 1992, it had become a rare sight to see young women without the hijab (hair covering, plus modest dress of one sort or another), except for the Christian girls. My wife always went out with a scarf on her head, if only to show that she was not a “loose western woman,” as depicted in the American soap operas Egyptians loved to watch. Even today, when you look at the young women who actively joined the protests in Tahrir Square this spring, most of them were covered.

By far the most fascinating part of Ahmed’s book, The Quiet Revolution, is the result of her two or three years of attending Muslim American conferences, regional meetings, and a few mosques. Her conclusion is that, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, women’s veiling has become a discourse of protest against traditional male patriarchy and organizational politics as usual. Yet even the female voices are far from united. In fact, she describes lively debates between conservatives and liberals (many of whom wear the hijab), between young and old, men and women. These are all committed Muslim individuals, proudly American for the most part, and highly educated.

I show my classes a film interview with a veiled Malaysian gynecologist who in an articulate and winsome way explains that this is an expression of her faith and her culture. “We Muslim women are not put down by our religion. We simply understand modesty differently than many women in the West.” Another scene shows her in a home she started for girls pregnant out of wedlock. They are cared for, along with their babies, and given the necessary training to go on with their lives. That too, she says, is part of her religion.

Indeed, the hijab carries many meanings, depending on the woman and her context. So among other possible meanings you will find the hijab . . .

  • a sign of youthful protest against a hated regime (certainly Egypt’s case)
  • worn by a school girl identifying with friends who wear it with pride, ready to stand up to her mother’s disapproval
  • donned by university students in Turkey who risk not finishing their degree, because it’s forbidden
  • adopted by American twenty-somethings who after 9/11 suddenly became proud of a religion they were losing
  • a strategy of “winning the right to be heard” used by educated women in conservative circles seeking to change old patriarchal practices and rules
  • not nearly modest enough for women in US Salafi circles, who would not even leave their houses without a full black covering, gloves on their hands, peering through a gauze-like veil, satisfied that they are fully obeying the teachings of the Prophet . . .

The more you read good sources about actual Muslims going about their lives in their own surroundings – and the more Muslims you befriend, the more stereotypes will fade into the background. One great article (with video clip included) amazed me, and I’m sure it will amaze you as well (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/12/lebanon-women-clear-cluster-bombs?INTCMP=SRCH). It’s about an all-female team of highly trained (hijab-clad) women in South Lebanon employed by a Norwegian NGO and working to find and explode residual cluster bombs scattered by the Israelis in the 2006 war with Hizbullah.

When it comes to Islam and human rights, then, let me just point out that women should have the right to vote, to be educated and to work any job for which they are qualified, including head of state; but they also should have the right to dress as they choose. Admittedly, this topic requires a delicate balance for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Leila Ahmed in a recent article (I highly recommend: http://en.qantara.de/Treacherous-Sympathy-with-Muslim-Women/16963c17398i1p9/index.html), writes this,

“In saying that it’s time to set aside the old imperial rhetoric of the oppression of women in Islam, I am certainly not arguing, I should make clear, that I believe that particular interpretations of Islam do not include attitudes and laws that are indeed appallingly unjust to women. On the contrary I believe that there are all too many such examples.

But the way forward is not through the wholesale denigration of everything Islamic or through grand assaults on “the oppression of women in Islam”, but rather through directly confronting and challenging unjust and cruel laws, customs and behaviors one by one and specifically, wherever they occur.”

So our challenge, as we think about Muslim women, is to admit that the hijab opens up complex issues that won’t fit into catchy media sound bites. Each of these women, who for the most part have chosen to wear the head covering and dress modestly, is a unique individual with her own set of issues. In the end, it’s our common humanity that will help us break down stereotypes and develop a better understanding of one another.

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