Why Hijab Controversy?
( Faiz-ur-Rahman is a Columnist of Pak
Tribune) Monday May 21, 2007 (1500 PST)
Hijab tradition among the Muslim women, which has been accepted by Islam, has again become a subject of controversy these days. The hijab controversy that came out from the statement of former foreign minister of Britain, Jack Straw, hasn't yet lost the ground when the government of Netherlands decided to make a law that bans the hijab tradition there. It is not important what is on a woman's head – a scarf, a hijab, hat, burqah, veil, purdah, or simply hair; the most important point is what is in her mind while following this type of practice. Millions of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christian women of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and some other countries cover their heads. Therefore it should not be criticized when Muslim women wear hijab or in other words scarves.
In every thought and expression, culture cannot be split off from religion. Even in many European countries like France, Britain and Germany, people might say that they are living in a secular society and only culture matters, but they live in the shadow of a Christian-culture. The connection is always there. You only have to look at the wearing of scarfs at funerals to see the connection between the religion and cultural upbringing and the awareness that modesty is a respectful norm. The practice of hijab or head scarf among Muslim women is one based on religious doctrine, although the Qur'an does not make it mandatory. Instead, it comes from the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari. The version of this text is generally regarded as the standard one, although numerous versions exist. A variety of head dresses worn by Muslim women in accordance with hijab are sometimes referred to as headscarves. Many of these garments cover the hair, ears and throat. It is asserted that the wearing of a headscarf is purely cultural with no basis in religion. However, the covering of the head is being made obligatory in the Old Testament and was practiced by pious Jewish women. It is also being made mandatory for Christian women in the New Testament and there are traditional Christian women who continue to practice this belief as a part of their spiritual obligation, not because of their culture like Amish, Mennonite, Mormon and Orthodox, etc. Muslims believe that the covering of a woman’s head is indeed based on religious values and morals first and foremost. The proponents of wearing hijab point out that it is very sad that in the modern world, most Christian and Jewish women have decided that the obligation to dress modestly and to cover their heads is no longer necessary. In some cultures, and in the older generations, such modesty is still present as an expectation or at least a norm which they continue to accept and therefore many Christian women in Eastern Europe continue to cover their heads “culturally”. This is also why one can still find many old women in Spain and Latin America who cover their heads as a habit from a different time period and culture that they have retained. In many cases, the original religious or spiritual requirement of that dress code has been forgotten and it is only being practiced as a part of the culture. But this does not negate the fact that it originated in religious traditions.
Supporters of hijab believe that the head scarf is a way to secure personal liberty in a world that devastates the image of women. Several women who have advocated hijab have argued that hijab allows them freedom of movement and control of their bodies. Understood in such terms, hijab protects women from the male gaze and allows them to become autonomous subjects. On the other hand, opponents have argued that the hijab only provides the illusion of protection and serves to absolve men of the responsibility for controlling their behavior. In the Christian tradition, St Paul ordered women to cover their heads and, until the nineteen sixties, no woman would be seen in an English church without a hat and gloves. Many English women wore hats out in the street or headscarves tied under their chin. Hindu and Sikh women are still expected to cover their heads loosely for their honour and Orthodox Jewish women have traditionally worn wigs over their real hair to conceal it from men who are not their husbands. Yet, among all these cultural groups, only Muslim women seem to have been described as weak or oppressed on account of their hijab and head covering.
Critics of hijab might argue that a Muslim woman covers herself because she is a private possession of her husband. In fact, she preserves her dignity and refuses to be possessed by strangers. Perhaps hijab is so misunderstood because it is prescribed by a religion that makes it very clear that women are precious creatures who have the right to be valued for who they are, and not for what they can juggle. Islam tells us that every woman is a jewel and she has the right to respects herself enough to preserve her beauty for herself and her loved ones. Muslims are accused of being over-sensitive about the human body, but the degree of sexual harassment which occurs these days justifies wearing a modest dress. Just as a short skirt can send the signal that the wearer is available to men, so the hijab signals, loud and clear: I am forbidden to you.
Hijab is not about militancy or oppression as it has been argued in the western world. Rather it is about love for God, personal piety and a focus on spiritual self-development. In addition, while the hijab is often coupled with a life that is more sheltered, it should be remembered that today’s women who are using head scarves are not the only women who choose this. In Catholicism, a number of nuns continue to live a confined lifestyle in order to better devote themselves to God. Islamic dress is one of many rights granted to Muslim women. Modest clothing is worn in obedience to God and has nothing to do with submissiveness to men. Muslim men and women have similar rights and obligations and both submit to God.
Some people, especially in the west, would tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education, civilized behavior, and self restraint. I would say, fine, but not enough because if 'civilization' is enough protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not to walk alone in a dark street or even across an empty parking lot? If education is the solution, then why is it that a respected university has a 'walk home service' for female students on campus? If self restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace in the news media every day?
While the hijab has become a symbol of Muslim women’s subordination in the eyes of the western people, Muslim women see it as something that shields them from being just considered as sexual object, and it is considered to be a symbol of femininity. Women who wear the hijab in America face discrimination nearly everywhere, from markets to workplaces, because Americans see the hijab as a symbol of inferiority. It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn by Catholic Nuns, is loathed as a sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women.
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A culture of modesty is badly needed; modesty in dress, in speech, and in the manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day and unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price. I respect Muslim women with head scarves and I support those who want to wear it. This is their choice, which is a part of their civil right. In fact, I would prefer the image of women with head scarves piloting NASA's satellite into the space, working as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of multinational companies, reporting on Cable News Network (CNN) from the White House and Pentagon, and developing a new medicine for AIDS control. We should inspire our daughters and women to be heroes and not the examples of victims. When Islam is presented with the example of excellence, it is the best and the most suitable presentation of our faith and issues.
Ahmed, A. S. (2003). Islam under siege: Living dangerously in a post-honor world. Cambridge: Blackwell.
Ali, A. Y. (1989). The meaning of the Holy Qur’an. (new ed.). Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications.
Guindi, F. E. (1999). Veil: Modesty, privacy and resistance. Oxford: Berg