Famed Saudi writer Manal Al-Sharif has a thoughtful look into hijab. She says that a recent survey shows that the Muslim headscarf is considered as a social rather than religious symbol.A recent survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) found that most people prefer a woman to completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face.
While public opinion in many of the surveyed countries expresses a clear preference for women to dress conservatively, many also state that women should be able to decide what to wear for themselves as long as they adhere to a conservative dress code.
Overall, most respondents agree that the most appropriate way for a woman to present herself in public is with her hair and ears completely covered by a white hijab.
This opinion is shared by 57% of survey respondents in Tunisia, 52% in Egypt, 46% in Turkey and 44% in Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, 74% say the burqaa or niqaab, which cover the woman’s face fully, are the most appropriate forms of public attire.
The figures above illustrate two important points. The first is that Muslim societies still consider the hijab a social symbol of conservative practice and chastity, regardless of the fact that its appearance, colour and way of being worn differs from one society to the next.
The second is that even in the most secular Muslim countries, such as Turkey and Tunisia, the hijab has retained its importance, indicating that it has become more of a societal imposition than a religious one.
This might represent a return to the true origins of the hijab in Muslim societies, where it was imposed on women by societal pressure and expectations. It is worth mentioning that in the absence of this important study, many outside the Muslim world believed that the hijab is imposed by political and religious authorities only, just as it is in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, where are all women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – are obligated to wear one.
In telling the story of how the hijab came to be imposed, the history books and the Prophet’s Biography describe how hypocrites in Medina harassed women in the street if they believed them to be among the women slaves.
The wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) complained about this, and the verse of the jalabib was revealed: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their jalabib (loose-fitting garments) over their persons: that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested (Al-Ahzab 59).
Through their dress, it was now possible to differentiate the free women from the slave women when they walked in the streets. The biography books describe how Umar, the second Caliph in Islam, forbade the slave women if they copied the free women’s way of dressing.
As the judge and intellectual Mohamed Said Al Ashmawy explained in his book “The Truth about the Hijab and the Evidence of Hadith”, this reason for wearing jalabib – for distinguishing between slaves and free women – might be rendered obsolete by the non-existence of female slaves in the modern era.
According to the fundamental principles of Fikh (Islamic jurisprudence), the existence of the rule is intrinsically linked with the existence of the reason; if the rule exists, the reason must exist too.
Regarding the famous “verse of the hijab”, which is quoted by Quranic interpreters to justify the imposition of a religious veil, those who oppose this view point out that it was revealed with regard to the Mothers of the Believers (Wives of the Prophet) in particular, and that it does not refer to non-revealing clothes but rather to the non-revealing divide between the Prophet’s Wives and whoever talks to them.
The new generation of Muslim women is a questioning generation, influenced by science, technology and the Information Age. I recall the time a girlfriend from an American Muslim family asked me why women cover their faces in Saudi Arabia. I told her what I remembered from books and what we had been taught about it in the madrasa (religious school): that it is sinful (a3ura) for a woman to show her face. “What is a3ura?” she asked me. When I tried to translate the word literally, I became aware for the first time that in using this word, we compare a woman’s face to her genitals.
“Are you really telling me that God creates my face, places four of my five senses there, and then instructs me to conceal it because it compares with my genitals?” she said.
I didn’t have an answer at the time, but our discussion formed the beginning of a long search to find the origin of the hadith I had told her about. I found that no such hadith exists, and that it was merely a fabrication being used to subjugate woman to cover their faces, an imposition which is contrary to human nature.
Other justifications that we hear for the imposition of the hijab pertain to women’s allure to men and the fact that without the veil, she is exposing herself to the risk of harassment.
But despite wearing of the hijab being a widespread practice in Egypt, it has the highest rates of sexual harassment of all the Arab countries. And this raises questions about why we continue to punish the female victims and impose restrictions on them, instead of enacting a law which would deter the men from harassing in the first place.
But perhaps the biggest blow dealt to advocates of the hijab in the Muslim world came at the hands of a prominent religious institution in September 2013, when Al Azhar University awarded a doctorate with distinction to Sheikh Mustafa Mohammed Rashid for a thesis in which he argues that the hijab is not an Islamic requirement.
When the oldest institution and religious authority in the Islam world acknowledges that the veil is usually a social obligation, we can consider that a new precedent has been set.
As long as the hijab continues to be spread by political, social or religious forces, or women are held accountable for its appearance or colour; as long as laws are enacted that deny or impose its being worn, the hijab will remain a highly controversial topic.
It is a subject that is used to make condemning decisions about women, and that differentiates women from those around them in a world where differences and distinctions are being broken down on a daily basis.
Published on Islamist Gate February 9th, 2014