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The politics of hijab: A bit of black cloth




The hijab has come out of the closet to become the branding logo for a whole new generation and a diverse range of conflicts, cultural and economic, religious and secular.


By Karen Estes, September 27, 2008 


 A mural in San Francisco


The hijab (headscarf) has burst into the passionate and often confused discussion of current events and has become a highly charged battle standard on both sides of the veil. It has become an object of rage and indignation for many non-Muslims who see the practice as a backward custom, but one which is defiantly elbowing its way into the popular culture with increasing demands to be respected along with the identifying dress of other world religions. The phenomenon which most interests me, is the western woman convert to Islam with no experience of veiling growing up in the West who embraces hijab. It is however a phenomenon with what appears to be a remarkably short and identifiable history.


It was in 1975, in San Francisco, that I embraced Islam. I was the manager of a printing shop with a customer base that included a large number of Palestinians. These people delighted in discovering a Muslim convert and undertook to broaden my education in Islam. A large number of these people were women. Without exception they were strong and intelligent, and fiercely committed to their faith and to the salvation of their homeland, and none of them wore hijab of any kind. But this was the mid 1970s, Afghanistan and the Americans was decades away, Afghanistan and the Russians had not yet happened, and the political writings of ideologues like Dr. Ali Shari’ati and Jalal Al-i Ahmad and others that would help change the face of Islam and arguably the world forever, were just going to press.


The other side of my Islamic family was the mosque I attended and which had a large number of Iranian immigrants. This was a very different crew. Here was the Chanel suit crowd, the Mercedes, the Rolex watches, the poetry and the ney in place of the angry handbill and the never discrete collection envelope. And although we women did cover our heads during salat (prayer) in the mosque, none of these Iranian women ever wore any sort of hijab on the streets.


But this was the 1970’s in San Francisco, a confused experimental explosion of cults and religions and every possible and shameless cultural rip-off. The commonplace of turbans and harem pants, of saris and of a wealth of African plunder and Chinese imperial garb trailing in splendid layers off blue-eyed white bodies on the streets and in the cafes of San Francisco only increased the stark contrast of the Palestinians in their blue jeans and inexpensive brown business suits, and the Persians in their Chanel and Armani. And everyone drooled over the pages of National Geographic and the award winning photographs of veiled women jingled down under a wealth of jewelry and we each thought something very different, my two Islamic families and I.


Of course all us whiteys thought the veils were beautiful and exotic, we thought they were cool in our neo-Romantic ignorance of world culture. And all my Palestinian and Persian women friends hated the veil as an outdated symbol of former oppression, old fashioned and something their mothers did. And that’s where it stayed for a while, in the West, like a secret pregnancy, or a hidden virus, depending on how you chose to see it.


But there were widespread changes reshaping the world long before the events of September 11, 2001, changes which had their dark and tangled roots in Iran and the Middle East and in the imperialistic activities of three Western nations, Great Britain, the US, and Russia/USSR, and in events of the earliest decades of the 20th century and beyond which shaped future global conflicts. Then came the arrival of several waves of immigrants from places in the world referred to loosely as the “Middle East” but which included many countries not truly located in that geographic region at all.


Afghans fleeing the Russians came first - some of them wore hijab, and some did not - then came Iranians fleeing the Ayatollah - mostly not veiled - and, of course, more and more Palestinians fleeing everybody. Later still came the arrival of large numbers of people from Africa fleeing famine, war, corrupt and oppressive governments, drought, and AIDS. And this piece of cloth, hijab - a woman’s head covering which can be as simple as a scarf - has come out of the closet to become the branding logo for a whole new generation and a diverse range of conflicts, cultural and economic, religious and secular. These and similar issues, impossible to solve without the elixir of time, have now been distilled down to this little piece of black cloth.


Like the burning bra of the ‘60s, the hijab is on fire in the opening decade of the 21st century. But perhaps one of the saddest forums in which this controversy is raging is among Muslim women themselves. The dialogue among Western convert women at times has taken a peculiar turn. Several times I have encountered hijab-wearing convert women on the streets of Manhattan, their angry faces starring defiantly at me, seemingly very aware that they have adopted a mode of dress that singles them out and which affords them a strange and usually painless sort of martyrdom.


The purpose of hijab, as stated in the Qur’an, is modesty  and its purest goal is to remind one of their submission to Allah. Yet the reasons many convert women have cited to me for wearing hijab seldom include remembrance of God, but refer ironically to the great pride they feel when they wear hijab in public. With the growing number of mosques in the United States and the greater immigrant population, western converts to Islam increasingly find themselves unwelcome in mosques that frequently serve one ethnic or national group or another, and these converts will often adopt the national dress of the people whose mosque they attend in order to fit in.


This, too, is a change from decades in the past. Today, convert women are often not welcome at all if they happen to show up alone on the doorsteps of a mosque. Some convert women have told me that one cannot be a Muslim at all without adhering to not only hijab but an entire mode of Middle Eastern dress. But I tell these women to be honest and admit to yourselves, if to no one else, the real reason you don that foreign garb - it’s cool, it’s beautiful, and you like it, and the human creature always delights to drink deeply at the well of novelty. And there will always be those who secretly thrill to the kiss of hubris by feeling that they have shouldered a heavy and visible burden for the sake of religion.


But does it really bring one closer to Allah? Which century, which country, which social class, tribe, or religious sect within Islam is considered the correct mode of dress to adopt? I am not proposing that as was the policy during the reign of Reza Shah in the 1920s, the hijab be forcibly ripped from women’s heads on the street. Nor do I discourage any woman from wearing hijab. I defend a woman’s right to wear hijab if it is her desire to do so, and if she understands the act she is engaging in. But neither do I wish to be told by a furious recent convert who has no understanding of the cultural and political history of hijab, that the contents of my heart are invalid as long as I am not wearing a piece of fabric on my head.


What I am always most intrigued to discover is this lack of historic understanding of that piece of cloth, the role that hijab as little more than a symbol is playing in some very troubling global movements within Islam, and the ease with which some western women have embraced and championed various elements within Islam that are clearly under historic and heated internal debate and which are being used to polarize various camps in a global conflict.


And I wonder if people who convert to a new religion cling to the visible signs of a cultural faith. Do such people become addicted to these symbols and their antinomian place within American culture, and become so enamored with these surface symbols that they never penetrate to the real treasures they might discover within their new faith. Do I wear hijab on the streets of Manhattan? No. Do I dress modestly? Of course.


But it is the meaning that hijab holds in the minds of others that I disdain. Can I and have I worn hijab in a mosque? Of course. Could I wear hijab in any place where it is the custom and appropriately respectful of my fellow Muslims? Gladly and with great pleasure. Could I wear hijab in a place where it has come to mean a thousand and one things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Allah and everything to do with the all too mundane agendas of humanity? Never.


(Photo: Faraz Shah via flickr under a Creative Commons license)


Karen Estes works in the children’s book publishing industry and is a freelance writer with a focus on a variety of historic academic Islamic topics. She is currently preparing a book of essays on Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and a novel chronicling one seeker’s spiritual journey.



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