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The Hijab: Is it Religiously mandated?


By Farzana Hassan and Tarek Fatah




"The hijab has nothing to do with moral values. A woman's moral values are reflected in her eyes, in the way she talks, and in the way she walks. They put on a hijab and go dancing, wearing high heels and lipstick. They wear tight jeans that show their bellies. They do this in Egypt."


The words of 75-year old Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, Egypt's leading feminist on Al-Arabiya TV on March 3, 2007, reflected her bitterness at how the covering of a women's head has been misrepresented as an act of piety and the most defining symbol of Islam.


All Canadian women have at some time in their lives, chosen to wear a head cover. In blinding snow storms or in freezing rain, the covering of the head, irrespective of what religion one practices, is crucial to one's survival in a harsh winter. Halfway across the world, in the deserts of Arabia, whether one was a Muslim or a pagan, the covering of one's head and face was at times an absolute necessity, not just when facing a blistering sandstorm, but anytime one stepped out of the home in the searing sun


What was essentially attire necessary for a particular climate and weather, has today been turned into a symbol of defiance and at best a show of piety by Islamists and orthodox Muslims.


There is not a single reference in the Quran that obliges Muslim women to cover their hair or their face. In fact the only verse that comes close to such a dress code is (33: 59 ) which asks women to "cover their bosoms".


Yet, Islamists and orthodox Muslims have in the last few decades made the covering of a women's head the corner stone of Muslim identity. Not only has the head cover been pushed as a symbol of piety, only the Egyptian and Saudi version of the head cover--the Hijab-- is considered worthy of respect while any head cover that originates in the Indian subcontinent, the sari or the dupatta, has been relegated as a less authentic cover in Islam.


There is no denying that through history, Muslim women have chosen to wear the hijab for reasons of modesty. Today, some wear it for just the opposite reason--to look attractive. In the Middle East and Canada, it is not uncommon to see young women wear designer hijabs to partake in the latest fashion trends, belying any attempt at modesty or anonymity.


Other than fashion, in recent times this supposed symbol of modesty has assumed a decidedly political and religious tenor, dominating the debate on civil liberties and religious freedoms in the West. Opposition whatsoever to the Hijab is viewed as a manifestation of "rampant" Islamophobia.


Allegations that Muslim culture, religion and practice are coming under constant scrutiny and censure are made anytime the issue of Hijab is discussed. This was the oft-repeated argument when young Asmahan Mansour was barred from a Soccer league in Quebec, as she refused to remove her hijab while playing the sport. Recently the Quebec government also moved to disallow fully veiled Muslim women from voting, as they would not be able to identify themselves adequately.


The Hijab controversy is unfortunately being presented as a worldwide conspiracy against Islam, triggering an even more hardened reaction. Muslims begin to ask why the kippah for example, is never a subject of controversy, or the Sikh turban or the nun's habit? What is it about the hijab that so promptly raises eyebrows?


The piece of cloth becomes a subject of controversy also because those who favour its use are governed by the view that it is religiously mandated. They also regard its use as their democratic right. To dispense with the garment while playing a sport would amount to committing a sacrilege. Not so with the kippah, as there is no comparable stringency attached to its observance. Therefore, if participation in a soccer team required the removal of a kippah or a turban, the players would probably comply without much ado. In case of the Muslim girl however, who believes the apparel is obligatory, it becomes a matter of defiance to Allah's laws. But is it?


A dispassionate inquiry into historical precedent may very well lead to the conclusion that the Quran does not mandate the hijab. The khimar for example, the predecessor of the hijab was worn by Arab women before the Quran's stipulations on modesty of dress and demeanor. Verse, 33:59 did not introduce the garment , rather it modified its use when it said that Muslim women must "cast their outer garments over their bosoms", as previously they were left bare, though decked with jewelry and ornaments. The intent of the verse was obviously to exhort believing women to cover their nakedness rather than their hair, which was left partially uncovered even though the khimar was a head dress. Moreover, the khimar, which the Muslims inherited from pre-Islamic times, was never rooted in religious precept. It was rooted rather in custom. Later modifications for its use were introduced into Islamic practice when the religion spread into Byzantine and Persian territories, where once again the head dress was prevalent as a social custom.


The khimar was also a symbol of class and distinction rather than a religious precept in pre-Islamic and early Islamic history evidenced by verse 33:32 of the Quran which states: "O consorts of the Prophet! you are not like other women". Indeed there existed a hierarchy of sorts where slave women were actually barred from veiling. A peep into Islam's formative years also reveals the precedent set by Omar Bin Khattab, the second caliph of Islam in meting out harsh treatment to slave women who donned the veil. It is quite obvious therefore, that the veil was not based on religious precept. Why else would it be enforced so selectively?


Therefore, to turn the hijab or khimar into a religious and political issue belies its original intent. Muslim women who so vociferously defend its use may hence be well -advised to undertake an objective study of its history to determine if they must decide to wear it or not.


Farzana Hassan is the President of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today. Tarek Fatah is the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic State or a State of Islam, to be published next year.



[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]

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