[Michelle Obama, wife of former US President Barack Obama with Muslim students in a file photo.]
One of the Islamic symbols that has been engaging so much attention of the western world is the veil - the hijab (a scarf wrapped tightly around a woman's head to conceal every wisp of hair). Veiling has become, perhaps more than any other single issue, the defining "women's question".
The hijab has now become the most powerful symbol of Muslim women's rejection of western notions of feminism. These empowered and educated women are using the hijab to articulate a new response to modernity.
The hijab also expresses a translational form of Islamic feminism that has been marked by the entry of women into all public spheres of Islamic life including formal religious learning. Some women choose to wear the hijab because it is a national tradition of their country of origin, or because it is the norm in their local area, city or country. Others wear it to demonstrate their commitment to dressing modestly and for religious reasons.
The western discourse has consistently argued that the hijab is not a symbol of freedom, but one of oppression. It believes that that women in Islam are second class citizens and that this status is encoded in both sacred text and tradition, enforced by culture and law.
If you browse the western media's news stories or polls and studies, they constantly strip the activity of a Muslim woman down to her hijab or attire. Have we forgotten that less than 100 years ago American women were denied the freedoms and access that we now take for granted and promote as universal human rights?
But research suggests that contrary to western notions, Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as a way of showing self-control, power and agency. Many well-educated women working in hospitals and libraries, for example, wear it.
In fact, they wear it not as a symbol of control by a man, but rather to promote their own feminist ideals. For many Muslim women, wearing a hijab offers a way for them to take control of their bodies and challenge the ways in which women are marginalised by men. They justify wearing the hijab, as a public statement of their own spiritual quest.
Veiling was once the armour for the poorer classes. Today it is the mascot of the most enlightened Muslim girls who are pursuing prestigious courses in top class universities. Attempts to force Muslim women to stop wearing the veil might, therefore, be counterproductive by depriving them of the choice and opportunity to integrate: if women cannot signal their piety through wearing a veil, they might choose or be forced to stay at home.
Prophet Muhammad said, "Every religion has a chief characteristic and the chief characteristic of Islam is modesty."
In Islam, modesty is a virtue for both men and women. In fact, the Prophet himself was described as being the epitome of modesty in his behaviour with people. When the Quran tells believers to lower their lustful gazes and guard their chastity - important aspects of the modesty tradition - it begins by commanding this to men before women (Q 24:30-31).
A woman's attire has never been about perception, it is solely a matter of interpretation. What gets lost in the midst of such interpretive crossfire is the core message that women should not be objectified. Historically, modesty in dress has been defined by local customs that sometimes even predate Islam.
The Arabic word for modesty is hayaa. The interesting thing about this word is that it is linguistically related to the Arabic word for life (hayat).Muslim scholars and sages have taken from this that there is an intimate connection between the two terms. Modesty, it is said, is the virtue that gives spiritual life to the soul.
This connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because the virtue is not just about outward appearances; rather, it is tolerance first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God - meaning an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety within oneself and in one's most private moments.
Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one's own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behaviour. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God. The outward is a reminder of the inward, and the inward is essential to the outward.
The Quranic view of the ideal society is that the social and moral values have to be upheld by both Muslim men and women and there is justice for all that is between man and man and between man and woman.
The Quran asks the women that they behave with dignity and decorum befitting a secure, self-respecting and self-aware human being rather than an insecure female who feels that her survival depends on her ability to attract or cajole those men who are interested not in her personality but only in her sexuality.
For women who observe hijab, it is not merely a piece of cloth, nor a symbol of defiance. Rather, it is a path that aids in self-purification and bringing them nearer to their creator. It is a means to inculcate modesty.
A veil is seen as a genuine expression of a woman's religiosity. It’s a badge of their womanhood, representative of their resilience as females in a world determined to control every aspect of their being.
Paradoxically, it is the women who are engaging with the modern world who appear to rely on the veil to signal to others that they this is their way of l expressing their freedom.
The unrelenting discourse that focuses only on the veil worn by Muslim women gives an oversimplified version of Islam's teachings. A woman can wear a hijab in the West as a sign of modesty, yet embrace all of the rights and opportunities enjoyed by western women.
We can't cast the choices of the hundreds of millions of women who have worn the headscarf as somehow invalid, irrational, wrong, or backwards. Just as women should be free and empowered to choose not to wear the hijab, they must also be free and empowered to wear it, if that's what they want. To insist otherwise is to deny the agency, autonomy, and choice of these Muslim women.
Women who wear the hijab, may appear conservative on the outside. But anyone who actually engages in a conversation with them quickly learns that underneath their veils, one often finds assertive individuals engaged in personal, social, economic, political and spiritual advancement.
In a liberal democratic society discussions about veiling are welcome but ultimately the public ought to uphold and acknowledge women’s rights and protect her freedom to choose not only her own form of a dress but also to articulate its meanings – whatever they may be.
The most sobering words come from Michelle Obama when she addressed hijab wearing students as the first lady of United States:
“Maybe you read the news and hear what folks are saying about your religion, And you wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be. But here’s the thing -- you all have everything, everything, you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfill every last one of your dreams."
Types of headscarves
- The hijab is one name for a variety of similar headscarves. It is the most popular veil worn in the West. These veils consist of one or two scarves that cover the head and neck. Outside the West, this traditional veil is worn by many Muslim women in the Arab world and beyond.
- The niqab covers the entire body, head and face; however, an opening is left for the eyes. The two main styles of niqab are the half-niqab that consists of a headscarf and facial veil that leaves the eyes and part of the forehead visible and the full, or Gulf, niqab that leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes. Although these veils are popular across the Muslim world, they are most common in the Gulf States. The niqab is responsible for creating much debate within Europe. Some politicians have argued for its ban, while others feel that it interferes with communication or creates security concerns.
- The chador is a full-body-length shawl held closed at the neck by hand or pin. It covers the head and the body but leaves the face completely visible. Chadors are most often black and are most common in the Middle East, specifically in Iran.
- The burqa is a full-body veil. The wearer’s entire face and body are covered, and one sees through a mesh screen over the eyes. It is most commonly worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996–2001), its use was mandated by law.
[Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]