This is a topic that I observe very closely. Hijab has become an indicator of present path of a society and the future turns it might take. Let it be in a Islamic society, in a Muslim majority society or a multicultural society. I’ll try to give my observations for all three kinds of societies and what the present and future is. Past is just a trend setter, you should not dwell in it more than five minutes in a twenty minute conversation. What you should do is find how that past is transforming in present and where the present will take us. I’m sure there’ll be many heated comments, be assured the idea is not to condemn anyone personally, it’s the overall effect of Hijab.
What is Hijab? When I look at it, it’s nothing but a scurf that covers your head. I’ve seen rock stars wear scarves, Marilyn Monroe wore them too, I’m sure not because she found religion. Then what’s the fuss that countries had to ban it from publicly wearing. The issue is not with scarves, it’s the idea and reasoning behind it and who’s wearing it. When a Muslim woman wears it in public or private, she wears it as a sign of religious practice rather than just fashion statement or to keep their hairstyle intact in wind. The way they wear it and the different kinds create more of an obvious identity of that particular woman. I’ve said this on numerous occasions- Islamic History and Arab History is not interchangeable. The later has a long and deep route and influence on the previous one. Just like the custom of salaam as a greeting, prayer beads or (Tazbih), fasting as a form of prayer; covering head is seen in many other religions that evolved in the Middle East. In the Middle Eastern societies Hijab didn’t come as a Muslim custom. But the form of adaptation for the mass population is seen mostly in Muslims-especially for women. May be 1400 years ago it was necessary to distinguish women as a person with personality rather then just a property. The cover was an “off limit” sign. That custom is incorporated in many ways across Middle East and later in other parts of the Muslim world. Now let’s take the same women wearing a Hijab or just covering hair and one wearing a Niqab or Burka in different societal scenarios.
If the woman wearing a Hijab is in Egypt or Iran- she might be a mother of two before reaching twenty or a protestor on Tahrir Square or Driving a car to school as a teacher. But in Saudi Arabia, they might be fighting for the right to travel by driving themselves!!! In terms of customary covering styles besides Saudi Arabia, you won’t see the obsessive culture of Neqab. In other parts you can see women wearing either the Hijab or Hijab with a long gown, I think it’s called Abaya. Doesn’t seem to me the women in any other parts are as oppressed as Saudi Arabia in general. Surprising in Iran- even though they are under Islamic regime allows women more freedom and in Egypt-where we have the ‘only’ Islamic scholarly university doesn’t objects Egyptian women driving or taking part in politics. But that doesn’t mean women in Middle East are as Independent as other parts in the world. In Egypt after the Mubarak regimes dethroning many women are on the street with the demand of equality and rights. We all saw the horrific pictures when a group of soldiers stripped a girl in public on Tahrir Square and women who were arrested were checked for virginity by male doctors with the excuse that ‘these are not daughters and sisters like average Egyptian families; they spent so many nights on the square with men’. Only after a General of Army brass’s condemnation did this horrific oppression technique stopped. All to sweep the female protestors off the streets. The authority or the patriarch society of this Arab country knows, their women will feel more vulnerable without their customary covering- so the very first thing they attacked was their covering. The feeling of vulnerability was an imposed feeling for their customary clothing, not because they were weak.
Now if the same girls wear Hijab or Niqab in a Muslim majority country but not a Middle Eastern country she might be in a different situation. Muslim majority countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sudan all have their own ethnic heritage and customs by which you can identify and distinguish them. The religious culture and customs are incorporated, not ethnically evolved. The interpretation of covering might be totally different in those countries. The traditional dresses in Malayan culture are full sleeve for women. That has nothing to do with any religion, let alone Islam. In Bangladesh or India (which holds the largest Muslim population in the region) women wear sarees but covering head in front of unknown people- especially men is a local custom. I don’t know how you can explain it better then “Ghumta”. So the whole idea of covering to show self containment and self respect is not alien to any part of the world. But if all of a sudden the customary dresses of Middle Eastern trends like Niqab are injected in the name of religious practice; should it be accepted with open arms or with raised eyebrows? I’m with the second group. If someone accepts it- they stand out as a what- practicing Muslim woman or a conservative Muslim woman?
Now if the same women wear Hijab or Niqab in a multi cultural society like the United States or European countries, it’s obvious they’ll stand out as a member of a religious minority first, ethnic minority second. The freedom of practicing religion is obviously lot more in the West than any Islamic countries. Conservative Islamic advocated do take the protection of this right in Western countries for defending Hijab, but interestingly don’t advocate the same principles in their native countries. Hmm!!! Now let’s back track from this scenario and go back to the other ones. Why wear a Hijab or Niqab in a diverse society? If you came from countries where you are already used to Hijab, I can understand. It’s impossible to change habits, let alone feel barren all of a sudden. But by advocating this among young girls and women, aren’t we putting them in a stereo typical box right away? In a post 9/11 world, when Islamophobia is high does that help them to incorporate more easily or make their life tougher? If a woman comes in Niqab for an interview, how do we expect the interviewer, who might have only seen this on CNN, stay objective; and can you blame him? On many Islamic websites I observe advocates of Hijabs are proudly saying Muslim women are taking it in their daily lives more than ever! Is this because all of a sudden the pride of being a Muslim is making them overwhelmed or are they trying to fit in at least one society because they are feeling more vulnerable and fearful? I heard a story where a girl in school got bullied so many times because of her race that she took the obvious route and started covering. If someone takes a sadistic step like this, you really want me to believe she became religious? No, she’s just finding refuge on anything that’ll help at that point. Some also take drugs, so are we going to hail that too? Minorities don’t choose to live in “ghettoes” as many think; they just feel out of place in an alien environment and tend to stick together for socio-economic comfort. Some look for help from spiritual sources too. Expressing satisfaction by isolating these women is not a success of a religion, they should have given them the strength and tools to go forward in the mainstream. In these minority families if a girl is forced by parents or by her community to wear Hijab and accept it as a fact, I’m sorry she’s not doing it for the right reasons. Hijab is not a “Bloods and Creeps” scarf. It’s a symbol of a religion and wearing it means to some extent you are practicing it seriously than others. Is this helping them incorporated in the mainstream is something I’d like to know from my female readers. I know most in West don’t bother but majority notice and some react, like France. What France did was racist. You can’t ban someone from wearing a Hijab. That’s the exact thing what the Talibans do but in 180 degree opposite. Actually in schools if children are exposed to different cultural norms at an early age, may be they’ll become more open to other cultures and the minorities won’t feel uncomfortable at the first place. I’m sure US will never follow that path, but that’s the law. How do the women incorporate themselves in the society?
In Bangladesh the case is different in my opinion. The explosion of young women wearing Hijab is not because they are coming from different cultures. These girls and women are adopting a religious element in a mostly mono ethnic society. So why the sudden increase of Hijab? Is it because all of a sudden the newer generation is becoming more religious then our mothers or grandmothers? I asked someone in Dhaka, and she whimsically answered “It’s a trend now, you know!” Actually I don’t, and I’m kinda confused too. In my opinion if a cultural element is not evolved then it’s injected. And I think the Hijab ‘trend’, is a trend injected in Bangladesh. The problem is not Hijab to be honest, it’s who is injecting it and why? Instead of singling out the one girl who is covering and make them feel more defensive, we should seat and ask why they are doing it. What is the motivation and who are the motivators. I said it before, 1400 years ago women used to do it probably to show “off limit” signs. Can we say, our school and college going girls are also taking it as a defensive mechanism? The words “eve teasing” made me more fearful of my cousins and relatives going school, I can imagine what might be going through their heads. In that case, Hijab is not the cause-it’s a symptom of a social security failure. If a girl don’t feel free by expressing her face and emotions and if society condemn them then might as well not do it at all. In my opinion hiding behind curtains will not help them in the long run. The sense of vulnerability will hold them back at some stage. Either in professional or personal life. Where did the secular society of Bangladesh failed that we see so many of them taking a religious trend? In a lighter and off topic observation, it didn’t seem to me all of them are practicing a more conservative life though, neither their entire dress up is ‘ non provocative’. Then why take veil, why the obvious hypocrisy?? I can understand, they’ll say well we haven’t stopped to do anything. That’s because the Bangladeshi society is more open than many developed world in terms of women enpowerment. Trust me- been there, done that, seen it!!! Will Hijab protect them from perverts? Ask any Afghan or Pakistani woman who were gang raped. Covering your body might protect you from dust and over exposure, but not from sick minds.
I was glad at least some one from our opinion leader hemisphere showed the guts to ask this question. When Dr. Zafar Iqbal asked this many attacked him and his family. The funny thing is, I still haven’t read a protest against his observation who was a woman. None came and said this is why I wear it, take it or leave it. The obvious protest group made me kinda skeptical of the inception to be honest. When the Middle Eastern women are fighting to get where our women are, I honestly hope none are trying to push us to the level of Middle Eastern structures. No offenses to any Middle Eastern culture, but their women do need more freedom and I’m proud that out women provide more money for our economy then any hypocritical men’s group combined. They work in garments, work in office, civil system, defense-you name it!! They didn’t have to hide behind any religious identity then and I’m sure in the 21st century they won’t have to. So please, if you are reading this and you are a guy- let the women talk. I’m just curious to know why this obvious transformation. Is it the same in India or Pakistan?? We celebrate women’s day once a year and they celebrate humanity every day. Coming out of a womb is the first form of freedom that nature teaches you. This curiosity is to protect something that liberated me..why would I want to see it hide behind a curtain? 🙂