That Hijab Thing

Veiled threats, behind the veil, women who veil, unveiling the Middle East. Today we’re going to talk about veils, known colloquially as a hijab. How much political hubris a piece of fabric holds, how many assumptions, both cultural and religious, can be built into a loose cotton weave and just why are people so intrigued by the whole thing? Can it ever be just a scarf or does it always carry with it some broader social implications? I’m going to do what I can to answer all of this for you. So turn your lanterns down low, stick Fairuz on repeat, and come with me as I take you on an exotic journey full of cultural assumptions:

All Middle Eastern Women Must Veil/ Forced Veiling is the Worst!

And women in America are coerced into to wear miniskirts and thongs! What? No? This is not the case, you say?  How strange, it almost seems like widespread stereotypes are often wrong. Look, some women in the Middle East are forced to veil. In Iran the hijab is obligatory. In Saudi Arabia it is technically not obligatory but because of the very heavy hand of the Mutaween (the police of vice and virtue), most women are forced to wear it and often opt to go a step further to the niqab (face veil).

Is this awful and invasive? Of course it is. But it is equally as wrong to assume that some chiffon can keep these women powerless. Doing this takes away from the numerous accomplishments made by Saudi and Iranian women, including revolutionaries, pilots, and playwrights. It’s also equally foolish to assume that two out of 30+ countries in the wider Middle East are somehow representative of an incredibly diverse group of people.

Furthermore, if you ask an Iranian or Saudi Arabian woman if she’d rather lose the hijab or have a representative democracy the vast majority would prefer to oust their dictators first. I’m not at all suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive or that we should ignore forced veiling. What I am saying, rather, is that these women have much bigger problems then what they wear on their heads. They are being tortured, jailed, denied freedom of expression, and sometimes put to death for relatively minor offenses. When the West chooses to focus only on the Very Scary Hijab not only does it show an exasperating level of ignorant privilege to everyday hardships, but it also does a giant disservice to much more terrifying injustices suffered by these women. Let’s stop forcing women what to wear, but let’s also stop acting like clothes are the biggest problem these women face.

Why Would a Woman Ever Choose To Wear It?

It is crucial to understand that the hijab is not just a symbol of religion, but one of culture. Asking why some women wear a hijab is like asking a basketball fan why they wear their favorite jersey: because they are proud of their team and its players. Well, plenty of Middle Eastern women are proud of their roots too. There are a lot of strong, amazing women in Islam and some women like to emulate the Prophet’s wives (who veiled) by veiling themselves.

Others think of the hijab as just another accessory. The multitude of colors and fabrics that they slide over their hair every morning is just another beautiful decoration. That their green and gold silk scarf goes well with their dusty brown leather jacket.

Then there are women who wear it for religious reasons. The Qur’anic verse that advocates modesty is … ambiguous at best. It states that women should cover their chests, act humbly and basically all the same stuff you’d read in your local Bible. It is the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet as retold by those around him) that states more specifically that women should only show their hands or their face.

There is debate and differing interpretations over just how accurate this retelling of the Prophet’s words were. However, plenty of women feel confident that this is what their religion requires of them and so they happily veil. I always find it interesting that the way women choose to express their spirituality in the West is almost always met with praise. If a nun is in her habit we call her sister, if a Hasidic Jewish woman is in a veil we assume she makes a mean knish, but the second a Muslim woman proudly shows her spiritual faith on the outside we assume she’s somehow coerced. In Tehran that assumption would be understandable, but in Brooklyn it is incredibly infantilizing.

But There is Cultural Coercion, Don’t Pretend That Doesn’t Exist!

Of course cultural coercion exists. Once a woman reaches a certain age in the Middle East (or gets married) there is often pressure from numerous sources to veil. In some of the more conservative Gulf States, these demands can come with brutal intensity. But how is that any different than the demands that are put on Western women’s bodies? If you compare the two you actually find a striking number of similarities.

In both cases outside forces are telling a woman what she should look like to be considered “worthy” or “proper.” If a woman balks or speaks out against that she is considered uppity or a rabble-rouser. Some women, of course, will give into this pressure. This can be demoralizing, dangerous, and even lead to extreme cases where we hear of girls dying over it.

However when Western women speak about media images we often hear empowering messages. “Rise above it” or “Screw the ideal perfect woman!” Yet when these same women confront coerced veiling they often forget empowerment. Anger at her oppressors and condemn Islam as a whole or Muslim men in bulk take the place of reasonable discourse. This sets up Muslim women, who still love Islam and most likely their brothers, to distrust the help of Western women. After all, if one isn’t listening to or helping the women involved, it’s silly to pretend one’s primary concern is women.

There is no doubt that certain attitudes need to change, but female activists are already on the move. One Yemeni activist named Tawakkol Karman publicly removed her veil, defiantly shrugged, and now has a bevy of male and female supporters who follow her lead. What this argument seems to come down to, really, is one of support. Are you supporting female activists in the region or are you simply demoralizing and infantilizing them using language like, “all women there … “? It’s an important distinction to make, because as it turns out, Middle Eastern women don’t actually need anybody else talking down to them.

It’s also worth pointing out that much of the Middle East has a fairly large number of women who go much of their life feeling very little pressure to veil. In cities like Damascus, some women walk around in niqab whereas others spend their lives in sundresses. In Beirut or Tunis there is more social pressure not to veil then to sport a hijab. Even in Morocco, considered much more conservative than the Eastern Mediterranean, it’s normal to see local women wearing T-shirts in the cities.

It’s a Way to Destroy Their Individuality!

Like Hollister or American Eagle? Hijab styles are actually incredibly diverse. They come in different shapes, some in squares, some long, some wide. They come in every conceivable color or a multitude of iridescent shades. Let’s also not forget to decide on embellishments such as rhinestones or decorative stitching. Of course if you’re feeling rich you can always go designer. Pick Hermes, Chanel, or Fendi. Then pick a fabric. Chiffon, cotton, pashmina, raw or refined silk, georgette, lace, gunee, lycra, or polyester. After that there’s a folding style. Yep. She can have it cascading down the side, loosely wrapped, with a high bun, with a low bun, tucked close to her chin in Dubai style, or fold a modified Egyptian headwrap that shoes off her earrings. If she wants to play some futbol there are sport hijabs and should she feel like taking a dip, there are swimsuits that also cover.

Even the customary black abayas (robes) and hijabs prevalent in the Gulf are varied with intensity. One Abaya has jeweled stitching; one with flaps cut so when the wind picks it up butterfly wings flap behind her. It’s fairly common to have custom abaya and hijab made for many wealthy Gulf residents, because off the rack just isn’t going to give them that extra oomph. These wardrobes cost into the tens of thousands of dollars, and if you are intent and only looking at the surface, then sure, an all black wardrobe might make you smirk. But if you’ve ever touched the delicate stitching, interwoven silken layers or seen the level of craftsmanship that goes into such pieces, you quickly realize how much more attention these women actually give their clothes.

I find it very interesting that amongst many Middle Eastern women, veiling is considered a personal, relatively indifferent subject. Most conversations I’ve overheard and participated in consists of shrugs with an ultimate conclusion being “meh” and “you do what you want.”

Of course there are some women who do feel very passionately about the importance of it, but the vast majority of these women will keep their opinions to themselves. Those who don’t can be easily likened to busybodies in the US who harp on young women to “stop wearing all that makeup, because you look like a tramp.” Seriously, just Google Tyler Momsen and look at the comments and you’ll see that judging a stranger’s appearance is hardly an Islamic trait.

Middle Eastern women have made leaps and bounds in the last decade. Today more are graduating, gaining careers, marrying for love, and using birth control than ever before. Yet, the amount of women wearing hijab isn’t exactly dwindling. That’s because, and I’m only going to say this once: the hijab is not magic. It can neither protect nor harm a woman. It is an indifferent cloth, like your jacket, like your shawl, like your bra. It will not oppress or liberate, educate or delegitimize, create virgin or whore. There are full and autonomous human beings, and it’s about time we started treating them as such.

So ask what can be done to help, rather than explaining what needs to be done. Listen to their stories and believe them when they tell you that they feel naked without it. It is equally as important for Arab women to not let themselves be pitted against each other by forces berating fellow sisters for not “integrating” quickly enough. But it is imperative above all that we let this issue go. It is, after all, just a scarf. Let’s fight to end forced veiling, fight to end forced unveiling, let’s slip on our favorite garb and then we’ll all go out for tea. My treat.

Image Credit from WikiMediaCommons

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

13 replies on “That Hijab Thing”

I know this is an anecdote, but I grew up knowing very few Muslim people. This particular experience completely changed how I view veils.

I worked in a fabric store, and three veiled women came in (a mother and her 20-something daughters, I think it was.) They found some fabric to make veils, but didn’t know how much they needed.

The mother asked for a measuring tape, which I gave her. She held it up but still couldn’t decide on how much fabric she needed, so she took her veil off.

Her daughters gasped. “Mom, what are you doing?” one of them said.

The mother looked at her daughters and said something like “Look. I’m old. No-one’s looking at me that way. You two are young and pretty, so it’s different for you.”

Obviously I’m paraphrasing, and this was years ago, but… it definitely changed how I viewed veiling.

It was a fairly slow night, but there probably were men in the store.

It was mostly how the daughters reacted like their mother was taking her shirt off, and the mother reacted like “Eh, no-one’s going to be looking at this old thing.”

I was pretty young at the time, but it hadn’t occurred to me to think of a veil like a shirt: just something one wears because it’s what’s appropriate.

Thank you for this.

I normally clench my teeth at Western folk attempting to make sense of the hijab or any other Muslim covering, but this was very nicely done.

My next door neighbor is American from a long line of Americans, but she wears hijab. Many of my students are also Americans from long lines of Americans, but the women in their families wear hijab. But these women and students are far from subservient – they’re very strong women who intend to be taken for their inner merits.

Of course, things are different in the Middle East. But, we also have to contrast that experience with women here (in the United States) who grow up with the Quiverfull movement or the Stay at Home Daughters movement. Those women aren’t covered, but how different is it, really?

I wonder if we focus on the hijab because it’s an issue we can understand. Most of us haven’t experienced much in the way of oppression, but we’ve all been told “You’re not going out of the house looking like that” at some point in our lives.

In a way it reminds me of going to a Catholic elementary school (to a much lesser degree). When I was in public high school people would exclaim “I can’t believe they made you wear uniforms!” as if that were the most horrifying thing they could imagine. My response was something along the line of “Meh, uniforms aren’t all that bad, I can’t believe my music teacher told us that Kiss were satan worshippers and the principal was allowed to beat kids with a stick.”

Anyway, I love your piece and I am, right now this very second, going to tell everyone I know to read it.

Every woman I know who wears a veil wears it because she chooses to. I certainly support that, and have repeatedly defended women’s choice to veil themselves (specifically Muslim women). However, I think we should all pause and consider any notion of modesty or religion or whatever that requires a woman to cover herself — why can’t men control their urges? That’s a rather simplistic summary, but what else can you expect from a godless heathen like me

I don’t think faith is the problem here, but rather shady dudes who feel they have the right to comment on women’s appearances whenever they want. Covering hardly protects women from the leering of men. A Muslim friend of mine said she was in Pakistan, in a full abaya, and some sleazy characters on a corner street started making comments about her body when she walked by. “You couldn’t even see anything!” she said later, enraged.
None of us can escape their nonsense.

This is a great article. I’m writing a paper right now about Muslim women living in France, where there have been efforts to ban the veil and the burka. Some of the arguments supporting the ban include faux-concern for these poor, oppressed women who must veil because their evil husbands make them, which is so obviously simplistic and Islamaphobic. While going over a draft of my paper today with my French teacher, she told me that she doesn’t support women wearing the veil because of what it represents. I had a really nice discussion with her trying to explain that there are a million different reasons why women might wear the veil, and although she seemed skeptical, she admitted that she might need to read about these issues more. I really like your point that women don’t need our condescension or pity. Thanks for giving me more to think about as I write this paper.

One thing you may want to look into is the cultural history of women’s headscarves in France. I wish I had the paper I wrote last year on headscarves in France so that I could send you a link to this really great article, but the gist of it is that one of the reasons there’s such a huge negative reaction to Muslim headscarves in France is that in the past the only French women who didn’t wear headscarves were prostitutes, and the headscarf thus became a symbol of the patriarchy to French feminists. Thus, French feminists are assuming that the Muslim headscarf has the same connotation as the French headscarf and acting upon that assumption without actually asking Muslim women if that’s the case.

Thank you for this article! It’s such an interesting topic, not least because westerners find it so interesting. I went to a huge, diverse northeastern state university, and had many classmates who wore headscarves — most with designer logo prints. A friend who lived with a woman who covered her head said her roommate asked her to compare it with her feelings on covering her breasts in public — it’s just what she was used to when it came to what part of her body she was prepared to show to the rest of the world.

The French ban is all kinds of crazy. How does a supposedly liberal society order people to dress a certain way?
I read an interesting article about this by a Muslim woman who doesn’t cover, but who argued that banning the veil means forcing a lot of women who normally veil to stay indoors; keeping them out of shops, schools and the workplace, because they either don’t feel comfortable leaving the house uncovered, or their male family members wouldn’t allow it, or perhaps a bit of both.
So in trying to “liberate” these women and force them to “integrate” into French society, the government actually oppresses them further and keeps them out of society at the same time. Nice job, guys.

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