The hijab (headscarf worn by Muslim women) has been getting a great deal of attention lately. A father in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada killed his teenage daughter for allegedly refusing to wear the scarf. Halfway across the world, fifteen students at an all-female school in Saudi Arabia burned to death in a fire after the country’s religious police did not let them leave the building because their heads were uncovered. However, the hijab has its proponents. A Muslim-American (female) writer wonders why many Americans see the veil as a sign of oppression when their own countrywomen are starving their bodies for the sake of “looking good.” One Western woman who converted to Islam and started covering her hair enjoyed the fact that construction workers no longer catcalled at her. So is the hijab a tool of women’s oppression or an instrument of their liberation? The answer, in my view, is more complicated than both the veil’s defenders and opponents are willing to admit.
What some Muslim women claim the hijab makes them feel free – free from sexual harassment, free from pressure to be “beautiful” in the eyes of others, free, in a sense, from being objectified as women by society in general and by men in particular. For example, a former “all-American girl” who converted to Islam wrote some years ago in the now-defunct Sassy Magazine that the veil led people to see her as a full human being rather than a sexual plaything. And most of these women emphasize that the hijab is a choice. One such woman is Faten Hijazi, a computer engineering student and former president of the Muslim Student Association at San Jose State University. She explains that the veil cannot be forced on an individual and that Islam prescribes modesty for both men and women. In her opinion, the hijab also protects women from obsessing over their appearance to the point of, in some cases, falling victim to eating disorders.
The stories in the first paragraph of this essay have forced me to look at the issue of the hijab from the perspective of a non-Muslim woman. On one hand, as a fairly modest dresser myself I identify to some extent with the above-mentioned women. At present my active wardrobe consists of several pairs of long loose pants and a few calf-length skirts. My even remotely sexy dresses, which in any event come down just to the knee, have been collecting dust at the back of my closet because wearing them would make it awkward for me to breastfeed my eight-month-old daughter. And forget Britney Spears-type outfits, which would be a little unseemly due to my visible caesarean scar. I also understand the wish to avoid catcalls from men. I remember agonizing almost weekly as an eleven-year-old undergoing early puberty when the boys in my class teased me about posing for Playboy. While looking back now my primary school travails seem almost humorous, I have to wonder whether the boys would have subjected me to their needling had I been wearing a veil.
Nonetheless, I have a few problems with some of the arguments put forth by hijab defenders. I think first of the woman who said once she started covering her hair men stopped whistling at her. In my view a woman who dresses like Madonna shouldn’t be too shocked if men catcall at and/or make suggestive comments to her (though of course no actual touching should be tolerated). But is it necessary to wear the hijab, or in some cases the niqab (a veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered) or full-body burqa, to prevent harassment? Some men will catcall at women no matter how the latter dress. It furthermore seems somewhat disconcerting to imply that women should expect to be sexually harassed if they don’t conform to Islamic standards of modesty. One Arab website, for instance, suggests that one reason for the rape of Filipina domestics in the Gulf States is the women’s attire. On the site is a picture of two Filipinas in short-sleeved blouses and skirts cut just below the knee. These women struck me as no more immodestly dressed than most out-of-habit Catholic nuns and as much more modestly attired than the average Western woman today. In addition, one has to wonder, judging by that particular website, whether the concern for women’s welfare Muslim commentators frequently attribute to Islam applies to all women or just to those deemed “virtuous” enough.
I now want to address the hijab from the perspective of a practising Christian. Christianity, at least in its mainstream version, does not possess any dress codes for women, or men for that matter. Of course most people would agree that going into a church in a microskirt is both socially inappropriate and disrespectful to the religion itself. However, I have to question the concept that one, particularly a woman, has to dress in a certain manner in order to be considered a faithful member of a religion (note: some Muslims say that the Koran does not specifically require women to veil themselves; I don’t know enough about Islam to provide an expert opinion on this). I tend to see faith as more of an internal than external matter. I’m not saying that women who do wear the hijab are trying to broadcast to the world “Look at what a good Muslim I am!” But as one Muslim woman – actually, Sara Balabagan, the Filipina domestic worker who was acquitted of murdering her employer after he tried to rape her – put it, what use is it to wear a veil if one does not follow Islam’s teachings.
The biggest problem I have with hijab defenders is their implication that to veil or not to veil is always a free decision on the part of the woman in question. For women in some Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia, it is not: they are required to cover their heads when out in public. One might argue that the students burned at the above-mentioned school in that country died from a lack of choice.
This brings me to another matter: should Muslim girls be allowed to wear the hijab in public secular schools? The issue became the subject of an intense debate in France. The authorities there answered the question in the negative. While this decision was applauded by French conservatives and endorsed by some Canadian conservatives, like National Post columnist Barbara Kay, the left’s reaction was more ambiguous. The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt spoke of an acquaintance of hers, a forward-thinking (female) academic who at first supported the French Muslim girls’ “right” to wear the veil to class as an expression of their religion and culture. Pollitt’s friend changed her mind, however, upon hearing some of the girls themselves say they appreciated the French authorities’ ban on the hijab because otherwise their parents would have forced them to wear it. I on one hand don’t necessarily share Barbara Kay’s view that a similar ban in Canadian schools would have saved the life of Aqsa Parvez, the Mississauga girl killed by her father for supposedly refusing to put on the veil. On the other hand, Kay is right to state that the hijab can’t be equated to a Christian cross worn by a female high school student (I also suspect some schoolgirls wear a cross not to show their faith but to emulate their idol Madonna, who uses the crucifix in her stage acts).
The hijab is a complex issue, for which there are no easy answers. But to regard it as a sure sign of either women’s oppression or liberation appears somewhat extreme in both cases.
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