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Weekend Edition
February 14 / 15, 2004

A Complicated Question

To Wear the Hijab or Not


The government of France approved last week by a vote of 494 to 36 a ban on religious emblems in state schools. France's Commission of Reflection on the Principle of Secularity and Jacque Chirac, in his December 17, 2003 speech, made it clear that the measure, which would ban the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls, Jewish skull caps and crucifixes in public school was well on its way to being implemented.

I can't speak authoritatively about the internal politics motivating the French political establishment into taking this step, nor am I able to assess comprehensively all the implications the head scarf and this ban have on the ground in French society. At a recent conference called the U.S. Islamic World Forum co-sponsored by the Brookings Institute and the state of Qatar that I had the pleasure of attending in that country, I had the opportunity to meet incredible European activists who forced me to reassess and fine tune my previously idealized notions of secularism. These activists and intellectuals were actively challenging the exclusionary and ultimately internally inconsistent and illogical way European secularism is often enforced, usually on the Arab and/or Muslim "other". One attendee described the enforced secularism of his country, Belgium, as 'neutrality, our way'; 'our', meaning, plainly and simply, white and Christian.

I oppose the French ban on the head scarf, but not only for the obvious reason that in principle, the ban trumps the laudable ideal of individual freedoms and liberty. The ban on the head scarf, or hijab, also ironically strengthens, rather than weakens fundamentalists. By problemitizing and forbidding hijab, a favorite fetish of Muslim fundamentalists and the Western press alike, the French government has forced a reaction from those forces that includes sworn proclamations that the head scarf is a mandatory religious duty for women, and that banning the scarf is tantamount to interfering with the fundamental practice of Islam itself.

Putting aside the case that can be made that France is interfering in religious freedom, the not-oft repeated truth is that many Muslim scholars do not think the head scarf is mandatory in the first place. Sticking strictly to the Qur'anic text and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammed), the Qur'anic verse most frequently pointed to tells women to pull a covering over their bosom, since women in 7th century Arabia were known to have worn outfits that exposed their chests. The second doctrine most frequently used to justify hijab is a saying in which the Prophet Muhammed is said to have said that women were to cover all parts of their bodies except for their faces and hands. The isnad, however, or chain of transmission by which most hadith is evaluated ( a methodology for analyzing hadith that is itself man made) is in fact weak for this hadtih, meaning that this saying can not be traced directly back to the mouth of the Prophet. A third justification for mandatory hijab argues that the preponderance of scholars have come to the conclusion that hijab is fard, or required. However, what is radical about Islam, and what makes a certain notion of Islam a truly revolutionary one is precisely the fact that there is no authoritative clergy structure built into the faith. Translation: no man, (and I use the word 'man' pointedly), is to stand in the way of a worshipper and her creator. Moreover, the majority of traditional scholars were men who lived in worked in a traditional, patriarchal milieu, and who were bound to incorporate the norms of their society and culture into their decision making.

All of this is to say that the case for mandatory hijab is by no means closed, and that's what makes the reaction to the French headscarf ban so interesting and a little suspicious. At a meeting I recently attended in Washington D.C., an active, intelligent Muslim woman I know who is politically active and who wears hijab took me aside after the meeting we both attended. She confided in me that the pro-hijab protests that had been held in Washington had been almost totally organized by men, and that she herself had been forced onstage to demand that she be allowed the wear the scarf at all times. Ironically, this woman, an African-American Muslim, is in the habit of wearing the scarf or taking it off according to the context she is in and according to her "spiritual meter" for the day: when she feels like being spiritual, she wears the scarf, for the scarf has that effect on her when she wears it of her own free will. When she is not in the mood, or when the scarf ceases to have that effect on her, she simply doesn't wear it. Now that's choice.

Many Muslim women, even those who don't wear the scarf, assume that it is mandatory and that they are "bad" Muslims or "weak" for not yet donning the scarf. Unfortunately, this repressive mentality is reinforced by many of our mosques and religious organizations. The other evening I met an active, professional woman at a restaurant in New York to discuss, among other topics, politics and religion. This high-powered, confident, extremely intelligent and articulate Muslim woman does not wear the scarf and does not partake in Islamic rituals on a regular basis, but supports fundamentalists (almost always men), who claim the scarf is mandatory because she had never heard otherwise. Because of her professional orientation as an American of Arab descent working in politics, her perspective was more focused, understandably, on attacks directed at Arabs and Muslims by others as opposed to from within. My dinner partner's view was that those who called hijab mandatory and fought against the French ban tooth and nail were upholding Islam and defending it against the undeniably dangerous and neo-conservative, right wing Zionist and radical Christian fundamentalist forces that systematically attack Islam.

I would argue that this logical leap, however is in fact illogical and dangerous. As our discussion about whether groups had the right to call hijab mandatory started to turn into a debate, I started to wonder how this woman would react if those forces that were calling hijab mandatory were ever to really come into power and directly effect her life. What would happen when the wearing of the scarf was no longer a theoretical right but a mandatory duty punishable by law, when my colleague's stylish clothes were to be deemed by a council of men as "lewd", when her elegant lipstick was called too sultry red and her beautiful jewelry too sparkling? Is it only then that when the question of authority over these matters becomes relevant? When it's too late?

Another point must be made here. If the hijab is usually a choice made completely by women, than why are so many men up in arms about France? The fact is that the enforcement of the headscarf is often times carried out by men, including fathers, husbands, brothers and others that for many reasons, some benign, some oppressive, are concerned about containing the sexuality of the female in question, in order, perhaps, to protect their "honor", or, perhaps, to protect themselves and their honor. Many women chose to contain their sexuality themselves, but is this really a choice? In other words, in a social/imaginative world in which the public space is a male space, in which the expression of sexuality is a male right, in which the fact of sexuality itself is sometimes understood to be exclusively male, and often threatening at that, can the requirement that women hide their beauty really be celebrated? Well meaning and honorable Muslim men I know have pointed out to me that the hijab protects women against the carnivorous gaze of men; but, aside from the obvious objection to this conception of reality why don't men just control themselves? -- isn't this insulting to the majority of Muslim men who would never consider assaulting a woman? Isn't this explanation of hijab therefore a tragic one -- shouldn't the scarf in this context be a sad, drooping, gray and depressing commentary on the hopelessly animalistic nature of man? I, for one, reject this notion of men, and I suspect that most men do as well.

Furthermore, is the notion of "choice" really so uncomplicated? Egyptian doctor, activist and intellectual Nawaal El-Saadawi, in voicing her opposition to the opposition to the ban, has raised the very important question of false consciousness, whereby she argues that at least a percentage of the women on the street demanding to wear hijab are in a complicated way the architects of their own oppression, the unwitting enforcers of a patriarchal worldview. Most Muslims would dismiss such a theory as inherently imperialistic, the "white man" or woman, as the case may be, telling the oppressed other they don't know how to think. The problem is that El-Saadawi and others like her are Muslim women from the Muslim world, and it strikes me that they're perspective is as valid as any other.

I fear that unless Muslim women stand up for the right to make their own decisions about what they are going to wear and what they aren't while they still have the chance, the fundamentalists will have completely succeeded in convincing yet more women that the simple act of wearing what makes them comfortable and adjusted is somehow shameful, traitorous, or haram.

Some will call this concern about hijab petty, or missing the point. There are many other problems facing Muslim women, they will argue, including a illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. While these concerns are of the utmost importance and are certainly qualitatively more important than the freedom to wear or not wear a scarf or red lipstick, as the case may be, I worry that that a slippery slope may be in effect. If we let religious "authorities", which, as we have established, have no real authority, tell women what to wear one day, what is to stop them from telling them where to go and not go the next day? More to the point perhaps, will Muslim women themselves cease to remember that they have a choice in these matters, that their lives should be their own, and that they are under no religious obligation anyway to listen to "decrees" from on high that limit their personal freedom? And if those other issues are more important, than why do we even talk about hijab, and why do oppose France so stridently? Presumably, the literacy rate for women in France is high and health care is by and large adequate. Lastly, what's wrong with defending one's right to be comfortable and make decisions that make them happy and mentally healthy? Especially when we are lucky enough to live in a society that allows for such nuance?

Do I applaud the actions of the French government? No. I think it's a silly and exaggerated overreaction that will only strengthen the forces France is trying to weaken. Do I oppose hijab? No. But I do not believe the practice is mandatory and I am uncomfortable with some of the stated reasons I hear for wearing it, namely reasons that revolve around "preserving honor" and protecting one's self from the male, sexualized gaze -- as if this gaze is only male, a male gaze is always sexual and as if a woman always needs protection from sexuality in the first place.

Sarah Eltantawi is an activist and writer in New York.

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