Saturday 26 January 2013

Reasoning the Hijab

The course of this article will form an enquiry to determine qualifications, if any, of the relational basis between cultural nurturing and male chauvinism with their relevance of wearing of the Chador or the Hijab.  It will not argue from a religious perspective but will use religion as a quarry to extract some important influences which undoubtedly gravitated the pull towards veiling.  It will also examine the socio and political importance in today’s liberalised autonomous Islamic women preferences for head covering as opposed to those who do not.    This increasing visibility of the Islamic dress code, an Islamic ethnic-religious and socio-cultural symbol, among young liberalised Muslim women, highlights the sociological, religious and cultural rationales. This article will also examine its compatibility with dominant Western culture and values whether it symbolises a provocative rejection of these values and the return to fundamental Islamic traditions.

At the time of the prophet all ladies faces on the left are clearly shown uncovered
As early as the 1930’s Turkey under Kamal Ataturk and Persia under the Shah Reza Pahlavi step taken to ban the veil. Until recently there was a general tendency here in the west for some to view the Hijab as a mark of separation with a growing inertia of Hijabofobia. This mindset spilt over to some moderate secular Muslim countries with European colonial tendencies seeing the veil as a symbol of backwardness.    Hence as early as 1950’s soon after the second world war a concerted move in the Middle East to ‘liberalisation’ of women dress and discriminate against the veil.  “Police were instructed to prosecute all those who did not desist from wearing the veil and to tear off the veil from their heads” Dr Abdul Kabir Hussain Solihu.  This outlook was to change in early 1960’s with Jackie Kennedy, the Hollywood set and the much-admired Queen Soraya of Persia made wearing the scarf a fashion statement.  With the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran of 1979, however, laws were enacted for exactly the opposite.  It was the Imam and Ayatollah Khomeini immediately after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which incorporated it into a religious law to wear the veil. Religion once more set the scene, as some women saw it, a gradual subjugation of women’s rights; from the latest couture collection of Christian Dior to chains of subserviency.

“A man should not wear anything on his head when worshiping, for man is made in God's image and reflects God's glory. And woman reflects man's glory” 1 Corinthians 11:7.  An incredible statement to make but apparently the New Testament is full of such laws. 

From a historical perspective; “A woman is the glory of the man. It is the woman that the man finds his delight […] Woman is the delight of man”.  By authenticating a custom through the authority of religion, the apostle Paul is segregating the woman from the man. Intimacy between a man and a woman is something discreet and private; the veil is the symbol of that divide.  It marks something protected; something marked out for a single individual's use. Thus, the veil is not a mark of subjection, as many of the commentators say of this passage, it is a mark of intimacy, of privacy, voluntarily assumed by the woman. She is not forced to give herself to the man; she deliberately chooses to do so, but from then on she is marked out as belonging to him” R.C. Stedman

As with the daughters of Israel, it was irreligious to go out without a head covering, running the risk of having her head shaved.  We can also borrow from John Berger who observes that:
"Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." This observation determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object–most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

 Commenting on this, Bullock; a Canadian Muslim convert, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil adds “not only does the woman internalise the male gaze and judge herself with the eyes of his desires, but also women then turn to one another and judge one another with those male eyes”.

All the above provide a backdrop to the cultural interpretation of historical synopsis that as well as a sexual antenna wearing the hijab signifies ownership.   Firmly entrenches the seeds of cultural subjugation disguised under the beautiful rubrics of dignity, modesty, sexual attraction, self-esteem, worthiness, respect and maintenance of so-called female purity.  A culture derived from male-oriented interpretation of the scriptures that so epitomises Islamic understanding yet runs contrary to true Koranic text relating to covering.   They formulated laws that enshrine male dominance inevitably restrict and discriminate against women.  Misadventure in Islamic hermeneutics has thus made it possible over the years for cultural exploitation and marginalisation of women.

Whether through a women’s religious affiliation, an imagined ethics of a static culture or in accordance to one of the rubrics above all three provide the background of coercion and subjugation.  As a consequence her ‘free’ decision to veil is deformed by patriarchy; lacking the autonomy of rational thought.  The veiled female is making a deformed statement of commitment innocently sourced in consideration to male slanted scriptural interpretation that governs a male designed a way of life as its primary objective.  This same belief is increasingly being transferred to girls as young as 10 or well before the age of puberty as religiously instructed. This message can in some countries be interpreted to be more than life itself.  A horrific incidence where Saudi Arabia's religious police accused of stopping schoolgirls leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing Islamic dress:

More often than not the decision to veil is shrouded in confusing instructions with added ambiguity in understanding religious belief and its laws.  As a consequence the subjective decision to veil is thought of as moral motivation to a moral action; semblance to a show of piety in keeping true to one’s faith.  The question creeps in “am I being sinful if I don’t veil?” A psychology of guilt that at times can be overpowering; falsely leading to the satisfaction of women's deformed desires, contributing to their oppression and resulting in gross gender inegalitarianism.

"You have to wear a hijab," my husband told me shortly after we got married. "Don't argue with me over this issue."  With those words, he started imposing his will. It was the first tax I had to pay for getting married”. This story is from a well to do and well-travelled Baghdadi women.

“After 2003, wearing the hijab became a means of protection. Many women opted to wear the veil to protect themselves from dogmatic militiamen who kidnapped and murdered people they deemed secular. Being beautiful or flashy made a woman particularly vulnerable to kidnappings and other forms of assaults and attacks”.  This quote is from a Basra woman of high-income background.  In both stories, it was a case of evaluating Dolce and Gabbana to Sodom and Gomorrah and from Chanel to chains and domination.
From Carvella to sexually driven and back Gucci

Why embrace a symbol of oppression if that is what it is?  The twentieth century marked the apex of Muslim women’s intellectual engagement with their religion, first to denounce it and to disengage from its gender-specific prescriptions, and then to return to the texts and reclaim their Islamic rights. Faced with this sudden volte face has led to severe confusion about their beliefs and the situation in which women have found themselves.  Some have denied their rights to attain their full potential as human beings in an otherwise egalitarian society but in contradictory terms, others see veiling as a tool of freedom and liberation rather than subjugation and submission.
Modesty prevails. Liberal, educated and self assured

One of the alarming manifestations of the twenty-first century is that it has imposed a political as well as a fashionable dimension on the veil.  Moreover, it is no longer enough as a logo of religious belief or ‘ I am owned’ but an item of anti-western ideology.  It symbolises a rejection of western values and their anachronistic perceptions on the one hand to ingenuity in efforts of looking beautiful even if ‘you cannot see my hair’ on the other.  Wearing a veil no longer requires conforming to western ideals of modernity instead in many ways it has also become a symbol of class erosion and identification.  It has also become a consoling influence.  Whatever symbol it carries it has become a near phenomenon that woman of the highest rational, Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates no less, would veil out of choice.  Perhaps we go back to the interpretation I quoted earlier: for some the veil is a mark of privacy, femininity, and sometimes even comfort voluntarily assumed by women. For others, from all the evidence I have seen, I am convinced it is an act of false religious piety compounded by an act of ignorance.

Bearing in mind a oppressive custom, a static cultural background, husband and a likely intensive peer pressure I would say in conclusion like to leave you to ponder on this: Is it a Muslim woman’s right to wear the Hijab but it is not her right not wear it?

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