The H Word: A Piece of Cloth Loaded with More Than It Can Bear?

I have to admit that hijab narratives in media turn me off. Whether because it is exhaustively discussed or because most of these narratives rely heavily on clichés and fallacies, hijab is a subject that seems to me overloaded with notions that are not related in any way to what I see as the core of its true essence. However, being surrounded with multitudes of articles and reports on the topic, and being a Muslim woman living in a Muslim country that witnesses a shift in the way people perceive hijab makes the whole subject food for my mental engine and hence makes discussing it inevitable.

What amazes me the most about hijab is the different lenses through which a single religious practice is inspected and interpreted. Among the reasons behind this variance is the fact that Muslims are widespread across the globe, belonging to different ethnicities; some of them live as minorities, while Muslims are the majority in almost 50 countries. Here I will explore some of the different interpretations of hijab.

A sign of social conformity? Hijab revisited in the Muslim midlands

In a debate on atheism that took place in Cairo earlier this year, a remark on twitter by the journalist who documented the event has struck me: “It was interesting to see today girls wearing hijab for strictly social/familial reasons but being atheist/agnostic.” For these girls, a symbol that has been regarded as a symbol of religiosity is serving as something quite different.

For the last 15 years or so, the phenomenon of abandoning hijab in Egypt and the Arab world existed, but in small numbers and was mostly among those who belong to the liberal social circles. Things have changed since the revolutionary wave took over. Speaking about my social circle, I’ve witnessed at least one monthly announcement or incident of someone taking off Hijab among my friends, acquaintances or colleagues since the beginning of 2012.

Four months ago an Egyptian girl, Ghadeer, shared her story on Facebook after a year of “dejabbing” in which she mentioned that one of the main reasons for her decision is that “the veil started to be a social obligation rather than a religious practice.” She goes on and tells how she confronted her parents with her decision and how she replied to her father’s attempts to dissuade her: “Allah will not be pleased with me doing something that I feel forced to do [only for social reasons].”

Ghadeer’s story is neither the first nor the last. Last October, a Syrian woman named Dana Bakdounis shared her photo unveiled on a Facebook page supporting women’s rights in the Arab world. In the photo Dana was holding her passport with a photo of her veiled self along with the message: “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because, for 20 years, I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and my body.” Back then, the photo stirred controversy and debate on social media outlets and the drama intensified after Facebook’s ban of the photo and suspension of the accounts of the page admins for a couple of days.

It’s not anymore the choice only of those who come from liberal backgrounds; increasing number of girls and women who were raised in conservative backgrounds have started to challenge this religious practice. And this makes the community try to figure out the reasons. A religious authority in Lebanon blames the parents for the lack of well-rooted religious education for their kids over the years. A professor of educational sociology and social psychology at the Lebanese University puts the blame on the media and sees that it has huge role in encouraging abandonment of hijab by portraying it as a way of restricting women’s freedom.

Or maybe it’s more complicated than what any one report can encompass.  As one blogger has written,

“Everyone is trying to save the Muslim woman; Western society must save her from Islam and Islamic society must save her from Western influence.

No one – NO ONE – assumes that the Muslim woman can make up her own mind about what is best for her.”

In Ghadeer’s story, her father gave her a hard time when she confronted him with her decision, while her sister was supportive and understanding. A year after her decision she feels grateful to those who stood by her side, especially her friends. Now Ghadeer feels “Free in every sense of the word”.

A symbol of the Muslim identity? Dilemmas of Muslim minorities in the West

The excellent report “Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives” examines the experiences of 50 British women who converted to Islam. One of the aspects explored of this report is the way the participants chose to appear as a Muslim. In this regard, one of the participants mentioned that “she had taken a strong stand to wear hijab, to declare who I was to other people through her dress code.” Personally, as a Muslim by birth who has been wearing hijab for more than 20 years now, this was novel to me: hijab as a visible Muslim identity. In my mental attempts to understand this position, I related this statement to a practice I’m familiar with, in which I find so much similarity: the tattoos of the cross over the wrists of some of Egypt’s (minority) Christians. You can hardly, if at all, find this particular tattoo among Christian Americans or Europeans, where Christianity is the dominant religion. Minorities always find formulas to stand out in their communities in order not to fade away in the process of fitting in.

But sometimes these formulas become obstacles to fit into the majority society; as the report explains, “For a white female British convert, wearing a headscarf in an Islamic style may be seen as an aberrant rejection of British cultural values, and evidence that there is something awry, such as eccentricity or weirdness, in the personality of the wearer.” Or as stated in another paragraph in the report: “The white convert is transformed from ‘us’ to ‘them.’” In their attempts not become alienated in their communities, some female converts try to come up with new forms of hijab that abide by the Islamic guidelines for modesty and suit the culture of the society as well: a hat, bandana or a scarf tied in style.

Different styles of hijab reflect the influence of different ethnicities. [Source].

Once I asked a Muslim scholar about the way the wives of the prophet Muhammad –peace be upon him – dressed, thinking that dressing exactly like them would me more pious. His answer amazed me: I don’t need to follow their way of dressing, and whatever a Muslim woman wears that meets the guidelines of modesty in Islam isan Islamic dress. I understand his remarks in this light: a certain way of wearing hijab as a form of Muslim identity is not itself needed, but rather, the way that you wear hijab can reflect your own identity and background: African, Arab, Indian, Western etc.

For someone who never stepped out of the Muslim world, living in places where hijab is the norm, and raised in a relatively conservative family – a hijab-friendly surrounding – and moreover has chosen to wear it for spiritual reason, hijab for me is simply a sign of submission to God manifested in a tangible form. But I wonder, what would have been my choice if I was in the shoes of one of the women mentioned above? What would hijab have resembled for me?

Well, maybe my turquoise scarf is more complex than I thought.

  • Aaron Vlek

    I am a woman who converted to Islam in 1975 in San Francisco. At that time, none of the Muslim women I knew wore any kind of hijab on the streets and it was never even referred to or spoken of. I never saw pictures of hijab except in National Geographic or other depictions of tribal or cultural dress in various places. So there was no question of wearing it for me. I didn’t need it to fit in and it never crossed my mind. This is a discussion that is indeed relatively new in the west even among Muslims of the old school immigrant and second generation variety. I also never felt it necessary to make a public statement about my religion or wear any signifying emblem of uniform. It just wasn’t part of it at the time and place, for anyone. Yes we covered our heads in mosques as do Catholic women. And because I had this experience in Islam during my formative years, the recent discussions and controversy have not drawn me in as they have with others. Younger others particularly. I guess it just doesn’t have any meaning in my life as a Muslim based on where and when I began. But I do find myself scratching my head when young women tell me angrily that I will burn in hell forever because I don’t wear hijab. Isn’t that between me and my Allah? Just some thoughts from another place.

  • SLuna

    First, thank you for writing this. I converted and recently, I have found myself defending my right to not wear a scarf to cover my hair. I often wear a scarf around my neck, but I’ve been told it’s not enough because no one will know that I’m Muslim. My thought is this: I would rather people discover I am Muslim after seeing my deeds and talking with me than simply being satisfied that they know who I am because I wear a head scarf. We need more of this dialogue. Sadly, many from both majority Muslim countries and non forget all the political, social, and tribal implications associated with the scarf. We have lost our way when we strive more to look like Muhammad’s (pbh) wives than act like them.


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