The Hijab: Constraint or Liberation
“O believers, enter not the dwelling of the Prophet, unless invited…And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind a hijab. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.”
The hijab is a garment worn by Muslin women which covers the entire body with the exception of the upper face and hands. In Arabic, the word hijab literally translates to screen, partition, curtain, or veil, and which also may refer to amulets carried by someone for protection against any type harm (Guindi 157).
This specific form of bodily coverage was originally introduced as a stratification marker to distinguish between the upper nobles and lower class, the elites and the commoners. The Western translation of hijab to veil relays a completely different connotation. The term veil in modern language signals a harsh notion of seclusion and politically enforced inferiority of women in Muslim society. Something as seemingly simple as an article of clothing has caused immense divides between Islamic traditionalist views and Western feministic ideologies. Although the two sides may appear to be on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, it is only through the understanding of both worlds and their foundations that the true issues behind the hijab may be uncovered and addressed.
The veil as a physical barrier has caused much debate as it acts as a literal visibility shield for those who cloak themselves beneath it. Julia Lustick, a graduate student in Philadelphia, commented in her article on the female veiling in Iran that, “[t]he veil cloaks women in a shroud of darkness, leaving them literally and metaphorically invisible to society.” The physical covering of the women in this society is acting as a silencing mechanism created by men, where, by making the women unseen, they are then unable to be heard and their opinions are not taken into any sort of consideration. This literal concealment of women makes another underlining assumption that the limiting physical restriction of the hijab adds to the idea that men in this society are far more competent, stronger, and have greater access to the world around them (Lustick).
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However, the Muslim women see their limited visibility as a gateway to their own mobility through their environment. In an article published in the book Readings for Sociology, Elizabeth and Robert Fernea explain that while beneath the veil, “women can go about a city unrecognized and uncriticized.” The Hijab is used by these women as a type of disguise that allows them to navigate their way in public spaces without the constant judgment of men and of each other based of physical appearance.
The hijab is most commonly affiliated in Muslim discourse with a means of protection for women outside of their homes. The term hijab also derives from another Arabic word which means “eyebrow” or “protector of the eye” (Guindi 157).
Women wear the hijabs in public in order to protect their bodies from being subjected to scrutiny and indecent or immoral thoughts through the eyes of unfamiliar men. Also, because they are constantly being covered, it can be said that Muslim women do not have to deal with the same types of body image issues that women in Western society have become obsessed with. The idea of not having to worry about being constantly judged by men sounds appealing, but the underlining issue is that wearing the hijab reinstates a culture where it is unsafe for women to walk freely in the streets without having their bodies be concealed. “Women need to veil because men have created a society that is inherently hostile towards them…Therefore, the veil propagates a society that does not have to be safe for women” (Lustick).
Also, if the garment is providing a protection from male harassment, it seems highly unjust to have to force women to alter themselves for men’s incapability to control their sexual yearnings.
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Western ideals again bring up the problematic absence of equality in Muslim culture between men and women as the veil literally puts women under continual surveillance, relentlessly reminding them of their moral obligations to their faith. “This status becomes problematic if men are allowed to evade such standards, acting unjustly while being accepted as righteous Muslims. Forcing women to ascribe to unequal standards is another form of gender oppression produced by the veil” (Lustick).
However, the Islamic community views the hijab as a constant physical token to both men as well as women of their religious vows made towards moral obedience. When a woman is walking down the street wearing a hijab, she is an automatic symbol of the principled chastity of Muslim faith, signaling men to stay away. If he doesn’t, the honor of both families is what is at stake (Fernea 193).
In Islamic culture, the family name is the foundation for which pride and admiration is based, and bringing shame to one’s family is seen as one of the highest forms of disrespect. The presence of the hijab is a strong icon aiding to maintain a family’s religious oath and honor.
The notion of pride in the Western world is less centered on the family unit and more so on the dignity of the individual and liberty to freely express oneself through unique character traits, hobbies, and styles of dress. Satisfaction is found in being “unlike anyone else” and there is an apparent fixation with constantly discovering the latest and greatest trends. The wearing of the hijab seems to threaten this generally firm consensus of individuality by having all the women conform to the same style of dress. Variety is then eliminated, along with the beloved concept of self-expression. However, the women who participate in veiling and wearing of the hijab believe that their self-identity is most expressed while enveloped in their cultural garment. Muslim women have articulated that, “the hijab provides them with an identity. They don’t have to tell people they are Muslim. It shows” (Hussein).
These women attribute their cultural distinctiveness with wearing the hijab. Veiling as a physical symbol and its practice automatically sets the women apart and allow them a way to directly participate in their unique culture. A proponent for this uniform style of dress would also advocate that instead of being judged by a shallow outward appearance or beauty, the women are being accredited for their character and inner beauty. This seems to counter the Western obsession with physical heath and body image constantly being portrayed in the media, which then is being translated to everyday life.
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The final argument for the Western feminists against the display of the hijab is that its presence enforces the automatic process of gender assignment and the notion that there is no such concept of sex ambiguity. “[Islamic] society leaves no space for people who don’t ascribe to a traditional gender or are in a state of questioning. The strict appearance requirements insist that people definitively proclaim themselves as either male or female, suggesting that there is no opportunity for the psychological formation of a gender identity” (Lustick).
From birth, the Muslim culture requires that each individual is raised by a certain set of guidelines base on a culturally established definition of gender. Feminists, especially in the United States, hold stead fast to the conviction that child-rearing should be gender-neutral, giving the individual plenty of room for their own identity to form, not swayed by any preconceived gender classification markers. By making obligatory the distinction between men and women through the style of dress, one is reinforcing the construction of categories and eradicating any opportunity to question the reproduced societal norms.
Each side for advocating and opposing the practice of wearing the hijab has been argued over for a many years, with little progress in coming to a consensual agreement about what should be done. Recently, France, home to one third of Europe’s Muslim population, passed legislation to ban veiling in all public locations. This has been justified, ‘on the grounds that…veils are a symbol of the oppression of women, an expression of radicalism and, most important, an offense to France’s rigidly secular state” (Ed. Jones).
In this contemporary age, there has been growing public concern about whether Muslim women should wear hijab in the Western world. Naheed Mustafa, who wrote "My Body is My Own Business", asserts that wearing the hijab offers her freedom. On the other hand, Catherine Meckes, the author of "Wearing a Uniform of Oppression", objects that wearing the hijab is like "[be] an animal in a cage "(Catherine ...
But this is surely not the way to settle the debate. Instead of trying to create an understanding, France has taken a completely ethnocentric stance by forming an even more deep-seated divide than ever before.
As stated by Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, “The veil is the outward sign of a complex reality.” What is meant by this statement is that even if all Muslim women in the world were to unveil, that would still have no effect on the roles these women play in their societies. They would not have the option of doing whatever they please and their responsibilities to their religion and the maintenance of their family’s reputation and honor will still dominate their lives. What should be demanded is not a termination of the veil or hijab, “but an end to the old principles, which the veil symbolizes, that govern patrilineal society” (197).
Both ends of the debate desire the empowerment of women. Instead of calling for the removal the hijab, which is only a symbol for something much larger and complicated, reformers should be advocating for equal divorce rights, child custody laws, education opportunities, and employment position, as well as marriage-age regulations and female circumcision abolishment. By taking a cultural-relativistic perspective from both sides and understanding the multifaceted concerns of each party may progress begin to be made and steps be taken to creating a more accepting and peaceful world.
ElGuindi, Fadwa. Veil Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford [u.a.: Berg, 2003. Print.
Fernea, Elizabeth W., and Robert A. Fernea. “Cross (Cultural) Dressing, A Look Behind the Veil.” Readings for Sociology. By Garth Massey. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 191-99. Print.
Hussein, Suayyah. “”Why Do Muslim Women Wear the Hijab?”” Islam For Today. Web. 11 June 2010. <http://www.islamfortoday.com/hijabcanada4.htm>.
Lustick, Julia. “Female Veiling in Iran: A Western Feminist’s Perspective.” Serendip’s Exchange. 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 11 June 2010. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/3324>.
“Our View on Religious Attire: Europe’s Moves to Ban Veils Hand Ammo to Extremists – USATODAY.com.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. Ed. Brent Jones. 26 May 2010. Web. 11 June 2010. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2010-05-27-editorial27_ST_N.htm>.
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