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What does it mean to wear the hijab?

What does it mean to wear the hijab? December 18, 2015

Here’s the deal:

You’ve likely heard about Larycia Hawkins, who declared in a Facebook post that she was going to wear a headscarf during Advent in solidarity with Muslim women being harassed for wearing a hijab, and subsequently was suspended from Wheaton College, an evangelical college with strict requirements that all faculty conform to the college’s statement of faith.  The college later said she wasn’t suspended for the headscarf-wearing but for her statement that Christians and Muslims have the “same God.”

Here’s further background:  the Washington Post, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? College suspends professor who said yes.”  And the professor’s facebook page, with her statements on the matter.  The “same God” question I’ll address in a second post; here I want to talk about the hijab.

Why, after all, do Muslim women wear the hijab?  I’m reading through The Muslim Next Door, by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, and what she says on the matter fits with other things I’ve read in terms of a, let’s say, non-oppressive set of reasons:  the hijab, and modest clothing as well, ensure that a woman is treated respectfully and her opinions valued, rather than as a sex object or arm candy; it takes away the pressure and worry about one’s appearance; and, it provides more freedom of movement, in societies where a woman would be harassed otherwise — and she claims that the increase in hijab-wearing women in Egypt is a good sign, that this is a marker of more women entering the workforce (actually, from what I’ve read on multiple occasions, in the 50s, women didn’t hesitate, in cities at least, to go out in public uncovered, but that’s another story).

The oppressive reasons?  Well, you can fill in the blanks, simply by observation and common sense, in considering the practical effects of the extreme versions of covering — the burqa and the niqab (face veil).  Books and articles I’ve read describe feeling suffocated, half-blinded, having difficulty feeling secure even just while walking.  A book I read a while back, a memoir written by an American Muslim woman living for a time in Saudi Arabia, described the difficulties in being out in public that she experienced trying to eat with her face covered.  Even when face-covering isn’t required, a demand that women keep their hair and ears fully covered, as well as requirements that women wear abayas or abaya-like coverings (as in this picture from our September visit to Detroit) prevent women from fully preventing in a public and active life.

Oh, and a bit of data:  according to Pew, 74% of Saudi survey respondents say that women should wear a burqa or niqab in public; across 7 middle-eastern countries, the majority favor a hijab that fully covers hair and ears.

But if you look at the “good” reasons given for wearing a hijab, they may make a case for wearing modest clothing generically, but aren’t especially persuasive as reasons to completely cover one’s ears and hair.  And the notion that hijab-wearing is a matter of pushing back against demands that women primp and worry about their appearance all the time?  I don’t buy it.  If you don’t want to fuss about your appearance, then don’t.  I know professional women who fuss about their hair and wear make-up, and professional women who don’t.  It’s building up a false choice to say that women need to cover their hair as the only way to avoid being valued solely for their appearance — and all the more so when the requirement is interpreted not just as a loose head-covering (like the pharmacy tech at my local grocery store) but as a complete covering, as the schools I cited yesterday require — and for girls, no less!

Here’s the bottom line:  wearing hijab is a religious act.

Here’s a writer at whyislam.org:

The answer is very simple – Muslim women observe hijab because Allah has told them to do so:

.O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed…. (Qur.an 33:59).

Muslims believe that their sole purpose in life is the worship of God alone, according to His instructions, as revealed in the Holy Quran, and through the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). As such, wearing the hijab is an act of obedience to God and, hence, forms the primary basis for wearing it.

Now, Ali-Karamali and other authors I’ve read dispute that hijab-wearing has been commanded by God, but that’s neither here nor there.  Those women do wear it do so because they believe it has been.  They may have come to that conclusion because of their own study, or because their religious leaders or family have told them that the long chain of interpretation tells them so, or they may have come to that conviction through prayer.

What’s more, here are some more voices from this article:

For me, the lead up to the decision to wear hijab was more difficult than actually wearing it. I found that, al hamdulillah (praise be to God), although I did receive negative comments from people, I appreciated the feeling of modesty wearing the hijab gave me, and ironically, the negative attention made me feel more proud to be identified as a Muslim, remarked Katherine Bullock, a Canadian convert to Islam.

To me hijab is a gift from Allah. It gives me the opportunity to become closer to Allah. Also quite importantly, (it provides me) the chance to stand and be recognized as a Muslim,. Fariha Khan of Rockville, Maryland, said.

In other words, hijab-wearing is, in America, a  form of religious identification, a way to show the outside world that you are Muslim.  It’s a way to take on a religious practice, to commit yourself to greater devotion even at a cost — in which the actual practice doesn’t matter so much as the intention that, in doing so, one commits oneself to God more fully.

And it should go without saying that no one who wears a head-covering or any similar garment for religious reasons should be harassed.  That applies to Muslim women, and to Sikh men, Jewish men and women, Mennonite women, or even that sort of conservative Christian woman who covers her hair not just even at church but on a day-to-day basis.  (Yes, that does exist — see here, for instance, though you have to scroll down a bit, and there was a family in high school who were said to be Lutheran, but a different kind of Lutheran, who wore a bandana-like head-covering all the time, as well as home-made skirts — Wikipedia says they were Laestadian Lutherans.)

But the bottom line is this:  given what hijab is fundamentally about, is it appropriate for a Christian to wear it?  Hawkins, in her facebook post, talks about consulting with CAIR to find out if they would view it as offensive for a non-Muslim to do so, and getting the go-ahead, but there’s a further issue that CAIR doesn’t much care about (no pun intended): is hijab-wearing implicitly a profession of faith that Christians should avoid, even if with good intentions?

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