My interest in the “Hijab” has never been a religious one. I don’t argue that a headscarf should be worn or should not be worn. It is not my concern what others do. I have always been more interested in finding out the history and development of hijab.
More than two years ago there was some good quality discussion on Muslimah Media Watch regarding “why the scarf gets talked about to the extent that it does”. Krista refers to Faisal al Yafai’s article on Guardian’s Comment that argues that by focusing on the veil we miss out on the bigger picture. Krista also proposes that there is
a resistance to admit that the victories of women’s movements in the west, although significant, remain incomplete; many of today’s feminists often seem to prefer to identify oppression elsewhere, rather than to admit that their own society still constrains them in so many ways. The headscarf ends up fitting well into this framework, since it is seen largely as affecting “other” women in “other” places, leaving western women to continue to see themselves as emancipated.
You can read the other comments and go to al-Yafai’s article from MMW here; I will only share with you my opinion here:
Hijab as a headcovering or even as a face veil has always been there in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. When one looks at hijab: which may be 1) a headscarf for some, 2) a face veil for a few, 3) or simply a loose, long dress for yet others, from this historical perspective then things change. Just like not-so-well-off Jewish women were culturally and socially not allowed to cover their faces, in early Islam slave women were not allowed to wear clothes that resembled their masters’. They were also not allowed to cover their heads in prayer even if they were Muslim. While today we may think that women who wear it are oppressed, in ancient Arabia it was women who were not allowed to wear it that were oppressed.
This is not saying that a headcovering has nothing to do with Islam. I personally think that hijab is a social requirement in Islam directly linked not to piety but to social arrangement of a given society. For example, I must wear a headscarf in societies where I will stick out like a sore thumb if my head is uncovered or where a social arrangement can turn awkward or dangerous for me if my head is uncovered. But one thing is certain to me that in Islam no matter which country a woman is in she has to cover her skin completely with loose garments so as not to seek attention. That is very sensible and safe.
There are many women who wear a headcovering on their own but I believe that hijab is not a personal choice. It is a religious choice. When a woman decides (through her own personal study) that it is required by God then there is no question of personal choice left for her. She must cover her head (or even her face if she thinks niqaab is compulsory) just like she must pray five times a day.
When Yafi thinks that Western feminists are obsessed by the veil, he may be right. And when Rawi says that we are using the agent as the oppressor, he may be right too. But this “visible fabric” has always been used to differentiate between women from different social, cultural and religious classes. Hijab has always been an issue with women. In the past it was an issue for slave women or women from poor families. It was used by early Muslims to differentiate between free and slave women. Clothes have always been known to carry that indicative significance. In ancient Greek and Roman societies women from prominent families wore very elaborate gowns and those who held religious offices wore expensive fabric. The fabric has that semantic strength.
What do you think?